The success behind some of Florida’s most popular group dining spots are inspired by the stories of their chefs.

We talked to seven about how their homes, families and childhood memories influence the dynamic group offerings at their present-day restaurants.

Emeterio “Tello” Luna, Head Chef, Harry’s Poolside Bar & Grill

Chef Luna came to America from Mexico when he was 16. His first job was washing dishes in an Italian restaurant, working his way up to kitchen manager by age 18. After culinary school he worked at Metrazur by famed Chef Charles Palmer, among other fine dining establishments in New York City, but decided to move to Orlando for a “change of pace.”

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Today, the food he cooks adds a Mexican touch to some of the dishes he prepares at Harry’s—Rosen Centre’s most popular restaurant since it opened in 2015—and continues to create unique dishes as he celebrates 10 years with the hotel. 

Chef Luna with his mother.“My mother Epefania and my sister Bertha are my inspiration because they made everything from scratch,” he said. “I started cooking with my mom at the age of 13 and her food was so good that I wanted to learn how to cook the same way. 

“Their tortillas, mole and ground pit barbacoa were delicious. My mother would say not to use anything processed, that fresh ingredients make everything taste better and I completely agree.”

Luna still takes his inspiration from his family in the kitchen today. “I also use some of my mom’s cooking techniques (molcajete, or mortar and pestle, for example) as well as the use of Mexican spices.”

When prepping food, Luna pairs his heritage and cooking techniques with the fresh, sustainable seafood available to him in Orlando, and believes the trend is here to stay.

“I think more chefs will continue to use fresh, local food and sustainable seafood and other healthier options. Our company in general is very health-focused, from the top down starting with our owner Harris Rosen, so this is a natural for us,” he added. 

Shrimp from Harry's Bar at Rosen Centre
Photo: Shrimp from Harry's Bar at Rosen Centre; Credit: Harry's Bar

Gordon Maybury, Director of Culinary, JW Marriott Turnberry Miami

Mayberry oversees five restaurants at JW Marriott Turnberry in Miami, which is a long way from his home city, Dublin. But he still enjoys the taste of home. Sometimes a shepherd’s pie or whiskey cured salmon will pop up on the menus at his restaurants, and dense brown bread is a staple.

Chef Gordon MayburyMaybury says his mother and grandmother encouraged his love of food. “We would go to the market and stop at the fish monger, butcher, and fruit and vegetable stand,” he recalled. “We’d bring it all home and I’d be peeling potatoes at an early age. We were doing farm-to-table before they ever called it that!

“Everything took place around the kitchen,” Maybury continued. “Either something was roasting or cooking, and we all sat down every night for dinner. My grandmother might have been canning or pickling while my mother was ironing.

Maybury uses inspiration from his roots in dishes at the hotel, but also pulls local ingredients into its menus. The hotel has a small garden with beehives on property, and it’s not uncommon to see homemade honey in desserts.

For groups that want to further experience the cuisine onsite, Maybury says that Iron Chef competitions can be arranged.

“We divide the teams up with a few of our chefs and make something simple like scallops and bacon, nicely seared with a potato puree and corn in season. Everything tastes better with bacon.”

Claude Rodier, Executive Chef, Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach

Chef Rodier grew up in southern France where his parents were sources of inspiration, instilling in him strength and determination, which is now a part of his professional philosophy.

Executive Chef Claude RodierRodier also has some Italian roots, to go along with his French background. “My maternal grandmother, who was Italian, lived with us and she could certainly cook. My upbringing and ethnic background are woven into the dishes I create,” he said.

Professionally, he’s worked with renowned chefs including Roger Verge, of three-Michelin Star Moulin de Mougins, Jacques Maximin of two-Michelin Star Hotel Negresco, and Jacques Torres, master pastry chef.

These days, Rodier finds that food trends often emerge from dietary restrictions. “Keeping this in mind, we try to create menus that can shift to incorporate gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, keto and paleo options without sacrificing flavor.

“Being in Clearwater, we have prime access to fresh, locally sourced seafood which come to life in our new menu,” he explained. “One of my favorite offerings is called ‘Clearwater Shore.’ It allows guests to indulge in a variety of seafood prepared almost every possible way.”

Mark Zollo, Executive Chef, Mission Inn Resort & Club

Fond memories of rolling out ravioli with his Italian grandfather and making chicken soup with his grandmother are the roots of Chef Zollo’s love for cooking.

“We were making peasant food, or what we now call ‘farm-to-table,’ before anyone used the term,” Zollo said.

And with a garden full of tarragon, mint, sage, edible flowers and a planned vegetable garden, Zollo is keeping his credo of pride and consistency of product for his guests.

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“My focus is that everything we put out for guests goes above and beyond. We want to give them what they want. In Florida it’s easy, because of our year-round produce and citrus, we can deliver the freshest food.”

“I think it’s exciting to stay on trend in the culinary field; it’s a benefit to your guests to come up with different dishes for different needs,” he said, noting the new challenge of dietary requests. “We even have food for different types of vegans.” 

That extends to eliminating salt from foods, too. “We’d rather do marinades with herbs and citrus and limit salt and sugar in recipes,” he said.

One trend that won’t go away in the group business is the healthy meeting break. “The days of serving doughnuts and cookies at the coffee breaks is long gone. We’re more likely to make fruit kabobs or smoothies with fresh fruit, mint and wheat grass from our garden,” he said.

Paul Mattison, Executive Chef, Mattison’s City Grille

Executive Chef Paul MattisonChef Mattison recalls a time when he was in the car with his Italian grandmother and she suddenly veered off the road, got out and picked what he thought were weeds. She’d bring them home, cook and serve them as a side dish.

“I learned they weren’t weeds, but mustard greens,” Mattison said, who adds that his grandmother spent a lot of time in her garden growing tomatoes and herbs. “She had a Dutch oven in her basement where we’d cook lamb chops at 700 to 800 degrees.”

Mattison said traditions like this and foods from his culture are some of his favorite dishes to make at work in Downtown Sarasota. “I like house-made pastas, Italian basil and balsamic vinaigrette, risottos, homemade gelato, and our Torta di Nonna, a pine nut cake that is delicious with coffee,” he said.

“Today, everyone wants to know what they’re eating, so on our menu meats are antibiotic and hormone free and we put the names of the farms we source from right on the menu. People appreciate it.”

Raviolo from Mattison's in Sarasota
Photo: Raviolo from Mattison's in Sarasota; Credit: Mattison's

Rashaad Abdool, Executive Chef, Diplomat Prime

Hollywood’s Diplomat Beach Resort has Chef Abdool leading the kitchen at the property’s main restaurant. Abdool was born in South Florida, but his family is from Trinidad and Tobago, with roots going back to India.

“With my family being from the islands, there were always lots of spices and flavors at home such as curries and different peppers. When my mother remarried, it was to a Cuban, so there were also lots of Spanish flavors floating around, as well,” he explained.

Growing up around many flavors, Abdool says that when a group is in house, he likes to showcase something from his background.

One in particular is a whole-roasted cauliflower.

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“In this dish I coat the whole head of cauliflower with za’atar, a Middle Eastern blend of spices containing ground thyme, oregano, coriander, cumin and sumac and roast it. The sumac comes from berries from the sumac bush, also a Middle Eastern plant, which are then dried and ground into a powder. The spice has a tangy lemon flavor that complements the cauliflower very well.”

Another dish he enjoys making for passed hors d’oeuvres is potato and green pea samosas. “In this dish you combine diced roasted potatoes with green peas, onions, coriander, cumin and a nice pepper such as scotch bonnet or habanero. Then the mix is placed in empanada dough and formed into a triangular shape and deep fried. I like to serve this with a mango chutney which is both sweet and savory.”

Louie Bossi, Owner, Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar & Pizzeria

Louie BossiLouie Bossi was born in Astoria, Queens, New York and grew up in an Italian household. Because his mother was a single mom and juggling three jobs, Bossi dropped out of school in eighth grade and honed his culinary skills in Manhattan and New Jersey pizza restaurants. There, he not only learned how to make pizza, but meatballs, calzones and other classic dishes.

Today, Bossi holds a Master Pizza Maker title from Scuola Italiana Pizzaoili in San Francisco and owns Louie Bossi’s Ristorante, Bar & Pizzeria in Boca Raton and in Fort Lauderdale with his partners. Both are sprawling venues with an old-world feel, yet large enough to cater to groups.

When there’s a group in house, Louie likes to do meet-and-greets at the tables.

“I like to do it as much for the guests who are shocked that there really is a Louie Bossi as for the servers who say it helps with their tips,” he said.

The meetings and events landscape is constantly changing in Florida. Read more about the latest updates in the 2020 edition of Meetings Today Florida.