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These Chefs Bring Global Flavors to Group Dining Experiences in Florida

Ocean Hai at Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach

These Florida chefs use hometown ingredients to infuse hotel restaurant and banquet menus with pizzazz. Learn how you can elevate the dining experience for groups through their creative ideas.

Osnel Felicien
Osnel Felicien

Executive Chef Osnel Felicien, Trump International Beach Resort, Sunny Isles Beach

Executive Chef Osnel Felicien says he’s seeing Haitian food trending in South Florida. And that’s a good thing for the Haitian-born chef, an accomplished culinary professional with over three decades of experience in the hospitality industry.  

As the executive chef at Trump International Beach Resort, Felicien oversees all culinary operations, focusing on profitability, menu innovation and team development across the hotel’s myriad dining outlets. With culinary certification from the Culinary Institute of America and extensive hands-on experience in high-volume environments, he brings this wealth of expertise to kitchen management, menu development and team leadership, underscoring his commitment to delivering exceptional culinary experiences while adhering to the highest standards of quality and service.

A Florida resident for 44 years and a veteran of Trump International for 20, he likes to dazzle groups with his joumou, a Haitian pumpkin soup made with calabaza squash, onion, fennel, carrots, saffron, white wine, thyme, cabbage and beef sirloin. But this innovative culinarian plans to add an extra dash to his menu items with djondjon, a small, dried mushroom from Haiti that adds a unique flavor to rice dishes.  

Nana Darkwah
Nana Darkwah

Executive Sous Chef Nana Darkwah, Ocean Hai, Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach

Born and raised in Accra, Ghana, Executive Sous Chef Nana Darkwah began his culinary journey after moving to the United States 12 years ago. While toiling as a dishwasher in Pennsylvania, he quickly discovered his passion for cooking while working the proverbial line. Hungry to learn more, he put on an apron at an Italian restaurant and quickly advanced to lead line cooking skills, thereby introducing him to fine dining while improving his hands-on skills at the cutting board.  

In 2012, after accepting a position as cook at a AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, Darkwah relocated to Florida. He trained under an experienced sushi chef respectfully called “itamae,” meaning “in front of the cutting board” in Japan, and soon earned the same title. Slicing and serving at the sushi bar enabled him to expand his customers’ palettes by introducing new flavors and ideas, and this direct customer engagement fueled his passion for creating one-of-a-kind experiences through food.  

Most recently, he brought his considerable talents to Ocean Hai, Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach’s AAA Four-Diamond restaurant. Starting out as lead line cook, he quickly moved up the ranks to sous chef, restaurant chef and now, executive sous chef. Bringing new flavors and culinary expression to Clearwater Beach, Darkwah’s signature dishes include yucca fries, okra stew and goat soup—all inspired dishes, yes—but his plans include tweaking the ingredients to create unforgettable menu items to serve at the hotel.  

“I will use current ingredients to make the same dishes, without changing the flavors,” he said.  

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Senior Sous Chef Ai Nakamura, Orlando World Center Marriott

Although born in Japan, Chef Ai Nakamura came to the U.S. with her family at age 11 and has remained in Florida for most of that time. With both her parents working throughout her childhood, her two sisters took care of cleaning and tending the pets while she cooked the family’s meals, developing an early passion for meal preparation. While working for Starbucks, her mother suggested she join her at Marriott for her very first kitchen job, and, 22 years later, she is the senior sous chef at the largest Marriott in the world!  

(Yes, moms often do know best.)

Ai Nakamura
Ai Nakamura

This chef’s appreciation for her culture is clear as she prepares a wide range of delectable Asian cuisine for the hotel’s many F&B outlets as well as in-house catering. Nakamura loves anything Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Korean, but her first love is Japanese, so sushi is served at Mikado Japanese Steakhouse. Groups will watch with delight as their meal is prepared over an open fire in front of their own eyes, teppanyaki style.  

One of her specialties? Thailand’s larb, a chicken, pork and rice dish, always popular at group banquets.  

“It’s hearty, yet refreshing, and so flavorful because of all the spices and aromatics that go into making the dressing,” she said. “Guests enjoy it because it’s not your typical banquet station and not the most familiar Asian dish, like pad Thai or sushi. It gives them an opportunity to sample something they wouldn’t try otherwise and once they taste it, 99% of the people will order it the next time they go to a Thai restaurant!

“I have started seeing lesser-known Asian dishes such as omurice, a beloved staple of Japanese home cooking and a literal mashup of omelet and rice, and another favorite is tteokbokki, a wildly popular Korean street food comprised of spicy simmered rice cakes and optional ingredients,” Nakamura added, pointing to some trends for 2024.  

Chef Emeterio Luna (Chef Tello), Head Chef, Harry’s Poolside Bar & Grill, Rosen Centre Hotel, Orlando  

Chef Tello’s love for the kitchen began when he was a child. Growing up in Mexico, he watched his mother create delicious food using old-world techniques.  

Emeterio Luna
Emeterio (Tello) Luna

“I remember her always using fresh, in-season ingredients to provide a wonderful meal for my 12 brothers and sisters and me. Using the little she had, she devised creative meal preparation,” he said.  

After restaurant stints in New York, Tello ultimately discovered Florida, his home now for almost 20 years.  

“Ten years ago, I was fortunate to work at Rosen Centre’s great restaurants with their amazing culinary team. I started working at 98Forty Tapas & Tequila and then helped develop Harry’s Poolside Bar and Grill’s menu. Guests love Harry’s because of its indoor-outdoor poolside vibe and chic decor featuring some of the best Caribbean-Cuban infused cuisine in Central Florida,” he said. “Recently, we added an elote corn dip to the menu that reminds me of a childhood snack in Mexico. It resembles corn on the cob, but with layers of amazing flavor added to it. It’s delicious.”

Tello likes to spice up his meals by incorporating more atypical herbs, like epazote and different types of chiles not readily available in this country.  

“The flavors are endless and can be sweet, smoky, pungent and spicy,” he said.

Further, Tello sees trends going this way with bold flavors from Latin, Caribbean and Asian cuisine in addition to fusions of different cuisines you wouldn’t assume go together, but can, like Latin/Asian.

“I love to challenge myself and our team to think creatively and try new things. I am fortunate that the culture here at Rosen is so empowering. It opens us up to a world of creativity and deliciousness,” Tello said.

Chef Nando Belmonte, Loews Hotels at Universal Orlando  

Growing up, Chef Nando Belmonte was always around food.  

“My mom was a wonderful cook and, like most Italian kids, I would help her with whatever she was doing at the time. For me, it was fun to get to eat what we were making. I have been fortunate to have some incredible people in my life who mentored me along the way,” he said. “When I finished school, I worked in an exclusive members-only tennis country club in Rome where the chef was incredibly creative and classically trained. He was the first mentor who really opened my eyes to the industry and the career opportunities for me. I will never forget him creating dishes that were so flavorful and looked so amazing.”

In Florida since 1995, Belmonte helped open Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in 1999, popularly known for its classic Italian restaurant, Mama Della’s Ristorante.  

Belmonte says he can always go back to his Italian roots, but having grown up in Australia, surrounded by many diverse chefs, he absorbed their talent and skills as much as the flavors.

“I was also able to learn about Southeast Asian cuisine, which was popular in Sydney at the time. I love to cook and eat and make a great Thai red curry chicken. It has always been a favorite in my household,” he said.

Belmonte is particularly proud of his Italian gnocchi with lamb ragu, currently available on banquet menus.  

“It works so well during the fall season and has been very well received by our guests,” Belmonte said. “Lamb is an item that some people stay away from, but when made into a meat ragu with gnocchi, people are more likely to try it. When they find themselves coming back for more, that is the ultimate compliment for a chef!”

He likes to experiment with different flavors at home before introducing them to his Loews’ kitchens.  

“Some of my favorite ingredients are fresh herbs; they make such a big difference with flavor. I grow some of my own herbs at home and have brought some to our hotel culinary operations because it makes such a difference when guests are eating our food,” Belmonte said. “Kaffir lime leaves are a must if you are trying to replicate a Thai dish from your cookbook. There is no replacement that gives you the same scent or flavor.”

One trend Belmonte sees is guests’ desire for smaller, shareable items so they can experience different flavor profiles.  

“Korean food continues to become more and more in demand. I have seen it in Australia and it’s becoming very mainstream here in the U.S. Mediterranean cuisine is also very hot, and people are becoming more in tune with what it is and willing to try popular dishes,” he said.  

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Executive Sous Chef Dannilo Zapatel Herrera, Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek  

Executive Sous Chef Dannilo Zapatel Herrera was born in a small town in Peru where his love for the culinary arts developed early cooking alongside his grandmother. His inspiring journey is a testament to following your passion.  

“My grandmothers and aunts were my inspiration. I’m very close to family; I couldn’t wait for the weekend to be around my big family and get together for cooking and spending time together where everyone was involved in the cooking,” he said.

Dannilo Zapatel Herrera
Dannilo Zapatel Herrera

With a degree in culinary and gastronomy arts from Le Cordon Blue University in Peru, he set off to the U.S. and in 2007, he planted his roots in Florida to pursue his dreams. A founding member of the culinary department at Waldorf Astoria Orlando and Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, Herrera joined the resort complex 14 years ago as a restaurant cook for the signature Italian restaurant, La Luce.  

With multiple promotions spanning all 13 dining experiences on property, he believes there is nothing like the spark of inspiration that comes from working with an exceptional team. He has also discovered inspiration during his travels, especially the sights, sounds and tastes of his coastal hometown in Peru.  

“I strive to create the magic of flavors that ignite the senses and leave a lasting impression with every bite,” he said.

Dishes from his country he’s incorporated into hotel menus include ceviche, empanadas and anticuchos causas (marinated meats on skewers).  

Popular dishes he uses in the hotel for group meals are causa stations (national dish of Peru), using potato as the main ingredient, mashed and mixed with lime juice, aji amarillo and formed into bite size balls topped with many different toppings, such as octopus, chicken, crab, shrimp, avocado salsa and crema verde.

“At home, I love to use two items native to my hometown: chicha de jora (a corn beer prepared by germinating maize and extracting all the malt sugars, boiling and fermenting for several days on large clay vessel underground). It’s great for stews and to replace wine for cooking, and Algarrobina syrup (made from black carob trees located on deserted areas of northern Peru), is perfect for smoothies, cocktails or as a sweetener for any preparation to replace sugar.”

Executive Chef David Morales, B Ocean Resort Fort Lauderdale

Having grown up in Quito, Ecuador, since 2018, David Morales, executive chef, B Ocean Resort Fort Lauderdale, has overseen the food and beverage offerings of the hotel’s Naked Crab Seafood Kitchen & Bar, the historic Wreck Bar, Clipper Express and Salty Siren.

“With more than 20 years of culinary experience, I draw from my Latin heritage, blending fresh ingredients and spices to create contemporary Mediterranean dishes influenced by the flavors of Europe, North and South America,” he said. “All my menus at the resort are sourced locally in South Florida, using fresh seafood and produce from local farms.  

“My grandmothers encouraged my creative spirit as a child, where I would often join them in the kitchen, and I have recreated several dishes inspired by the recipes we made together,” Morales added.

Morales has created dishes from his corner of the world that include seafood ceviche at signature restaurant Naked Crab.

“It is a testament to my roots and culinary journey. Infused with Peruvian spices, I crafted it with the intention of satisfying both adventurous travelers looking to taste something new, and the locals longing for a taste of home. This refreshing and shareable starter dish is a great representation of the lively Latin culture that permeates South Florida,” he said. “And that is what I aim to capture in every dish I create. I’m particularly excited about serving groups my arroz con pollo recipe as it’s a filling meal that appeals to a wide variety of tastes. Rather than the traditional plating method of serving bone-in chicken on top of yellow rice, I incorporate organic shredded chicken in paella-style rice for a creamy texture and a more refined presentation.”

Other ingredients he incorporates into hotel dishes include potatoes, peanuts and green plantains.  

“While these are staples of a traditional diet back home, they’re not as prominently used in the culinary landscape here in the U.S.,” he noted.

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Executive Sous Chef Carlyle Bain, Embassy Suites by Hilton Deerfield Beach Resort & Spa  

Executive Sous Chef Carlyle Bain is responsible for conceiving the restaurant and bar menus of The Beach Terrace Restaurant at Embassy Suites by Hilton Deerfield Beach Resort & Spa to ensure diverse, flavorful and seasonally conscious options. He also monitors the daily operation of the resort’s kitchen and bar to ensure a high-quality guest dining experience.  

While Bahamian-born Bain credits his culinary schooling, it’s mostly his father, he says, who played a pivotal role in nurturing his passion by purchasing ingredients as he experimented with recipes.  

“My mother and sister taught me about flavors and recipes as they prepared meals, whether it was breakfast before school or traditional Sunday meals. Once my family recognized my passion for culinary arts, they wholeheartedly supported and encouraged me to pursue a career in it,” he said.

Traditional items from the Bahamas he has included on the menus are conch fritters at The Beach Terrace Restaurant, a personal favorite since childhood.

“These fluffy doughballs are packed with minced conch, chopped vegetables, spices, cornmeal and more. Served with a variety of dipping sauces, conch fritters are a great option for groups seeking a taste of Caribbean flavors,” he said.

But there’s still one dish from home he’d like to add to the banquet menu.  

“I would be interested in transforming our traditional Bahamian boiled fish and Johnny cake meal from a rustic island-style breakfast to a satisfying mid-day meal for professionals,” he said. “Made from tender fish filet, citrus juice, chopped vegetables and a variety of regional spices, this dish creates a well-rounded entree, perfectly complemented by the soft and dense Johnny cake bread loaf to balance out the entrée’s bold, spicy flavors.

“By infusing the tastes of the Bahamas into my dishes, I hope to spread my passion for my home country with others,” he continued. “From sweet to savory, sour to tangy, each of these ingredients have a unique taste that calls back to the delicacies of the Caribbean islands.” 

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Jennifer Juergens | Contributing Content Developer, Florida and Caribbean