Chef Talk With Kevin Fonzo

Kevin Fonzo, chef and owner of College Park-based K Restaurant and Wine Bar in Orlando, has spent the better part of his life in Florida but was actually born in Harlem, New York. His childhood memories are filled with family meals, home cooking, and picking up tricks and tips from his Italian grandmother, or Nonna. When his father retired from the police force, they packed up the family and, in Fonzo's words, did what all retired cops do: they moved to Florida.

Though you wouldn't know it from spending time with him, as his energy and passion is truly inspiring, the James Beard Award-nominated chef is regarded as the "old guy" on the block. He was an Orlando-area pioneer of the farm-to-table approach, and the first to rely heavily on sourcing from super-local farmers and ranchers.

"Our food at K isn't meant to intimidate," Fonzo said. "We use the best ingredients we can find, locally sourced when at all possible, and treat them with respect and present them pride." Many of the ingredients in the dishes come from the garden behind the restaurant that has been planted, tended, and harvested by K's staff.

"Before we moved into our current location, I had outdoor planters and pots everywhere I could find space to grow herbs and some vegetables. The city actually came by a couple of times and told me I had to move things around so I wouldn't block the sidewalk."

The current garden goes far beyond a few planters and pots, covers about 800 square feet, and churns out a variety of herbs and vegetables. They will be rotated throughout Florida's two main growing seasons, spring and fall, and will be integrated into as many menu items as possible.

Fonzo's gardens were actually the inspiration for another project near and dear to his heart. Seven or eight years ago, he was having a conversation at K with a member of the Orlando Junior Academy. They were looking for someone to take over the cafeteria's operations and Fonzo volunteered himself for the job. "We were doing all the prep work every morning at K, and then packing up the 200 or so meals and taking them over to the school for lunch," Fonzo explained.

"About three years ago we started the edible schoolyard garden, which shows the kids where food comes from; that fruits and vegetables don't just have to come from a supermarket. It has taught them how to make healthier decisions at dinnertime, how to garden, harvest, and make a delicious and nutritious meal by following a recipe."

Fonzo has taken this a step further and now oversees a weekly course that incorporates the school's curriculum into culinary lessons, teaching elements of math and science through food and cooking in a mini kitchen. Fonzo works with kids in groups divided into four makeshift stations, taking them through the process of the assignment at hand, and bounces around overseeing the kids' progress.

Fonzo's work at the school was recognized by Michelle Obama as a part of her "Chefs Move to Schools" initiative, earning him a tour of the White House garden. The project caught the eye of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who featured Fonzo and the edible schoolyard into his Emeril's Florida show on the Cooking Channel. Lagasse, already an advocate and participant of the edible schoolyard campaign in New Orleans, was so impressed with what he saw that he's pledged a significant grant from his foundation to assist with further development of the garden and educational program. The groundbreaking will be held on October 22 at a site near Orlando Junior Academy, which will be the future home to the school's new educational class kitchen.

Fonzo is taking any of the credit, though, as he gushed, "I'm so excited to see where this program goes and am so proud of all these kids and what they have accomplished."