Chef and Culinary Grad Finds Big Success by Thinking Small

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Michael Collantes can’t sit still.

That may explain why the Valencia grad (class of 2005) now operates three restaurants in Orlando and has a fourth concept in the planning stages. Not one of the restaurants is like the other; they’re all wildly different.  From Filipino-American food to specialty pizzas to omakase sushi, the restaurants’ only common denominator is food – and Michael Collantes’ fascination with it.

“When I get an itch, I’ve gotta scratch it,” says Collantes, laughing.  “I have a mind for exploring and wonder.”

Which means that Collantes is rarely still for long. On this day, he’s sitting in his Maitland office/test kitchen, where a photographer is taking pictures of plates that Collantes and team have prepared. There are fries and burgers on ube buns (which have a distinctive lavender hue, thanks to ube, a purple yam from the Philippines).

It’s been a long, winding road for Collantes, one that has brought him right back where he started. Although Collantes has worked for some of the world’s most famous chefs – including Wolfgang Puck, Joel Robuchon, Eric Ripert and Jennifer Carroll – he started his culinary career at what he jokingly calls “Sbarro School of Pizzeria” at Fashion Square Mall when he was 16.

“My motivation was: Find a job, get a cell phone and meet girls. So the mall was the spot,” he recalls. “I had no aspirations of being a chef.”

After graduating from Winter Park High School, however, Collantes began to zero in on a life in kitchens. After spending a year at a community college in Jacksonville, he transferred to Valencia’s culinary program.

“When I graduated and the time came to choose a career path, I realized I didn’t have a big skillset,” he recalls.  But the chef/instructors at Valencia made an impression. “I still remember the classes with Chef Ken (Bourgoin) and Chef Pierre (Pilloud)  — and Chef Pierre’s crazy stories,” he says, laughing.

Even then, Collantes showed promise. He won the culinary program’s “Iron Chef” competition – while working a number of side jobs, including at Sea World, California Pizza Kitchen and then Wolfgang Puck’s Bar & Grill at Downtown Disney.

Collantes was already working for the Puck team when he graduated from Valencia,so when the chance came to move up in the organization, Collantes grabbed it.

“In the early 2000s, when I graduated, Food Network was just becoming big. And who were the big names here in Orlando? Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. I decided I wanted to work for the biggest name possible. And because I had a pizza background, it got me in the door at Wolfgang Puck,” he said. Studying under Puck’s team, Collantes learned the ropes – and became Puck’s head sushi chef at Disney Springs for four years.

But his hard work paid dividends. “They gave me a lot of opportunity for a young chef.  That’s what I love about this industry: The instant gratification. You get what you put in. If you work hard, you’ll get opportunities. You don’t have to wait eight to 10 years.”

From the Puck organization, he moved on to Las Vegas to work for Joel Robuchon, who has more Michelin stars than any living chef.  Among his family members, it was a controversial move.  “I went from being a head sushi chef for Puck to an hourly employee at the best restaurant in the world. My parents thought I was nuts.”

Eager to learn from the best, Collantes shrugged off their concerns. “At Robuchon, I might be deboning quail for three hours straight,” he says. “But that’s ok with me. You get to see what other people are doing and feel the energy of the place. That’s important.”

From there, he moved to Philadelphia to work with Eric Ripert and, later, his mentor, Jennifer Carroll, (from “Top Chef”), before moving to Hawaii for a new venture. There, knee deep in a partnership that wasn’t working out, Collantes got burned out and stopped cooking.

Time for a change

Re-examining their lives, he and his wife, Jahaziel, knew that their next step would be important—because they both wanted to have kids. “And if you want kids,” he says, laughing, “you gotta have grandparents.”

So Michael and Jahaziel packed up and moved back to Orlando, where they’d both grown up.

To their surprise, while they were gone, Orlando had grown up too.

After dabbling in the family real estate business for a time, Collantes went back to the kitchen, this time working as the corporate chef for the Bento Group, a family-owned chain out of Gainesville.  That was a learning experience too, a switch to fast casual for a chef who’d spent most of his career in fine dining.

“Orlando got cool while I was gone,” he says. “The food scene caught up with what was happening elsewhere.”

Two years after starting with Bento Group, he and his wife went grocery shopping at a Korean supermarket on the west side of Orlando.  There, in the food court, he spied an open spot – and his mind started racing.

“I had an itch. I had to do it,” he explains. He debated what to do in the space. And though he knows sushi well, he decided to try something completely different.

“We could open the 100thsushi bar in Orlando or we could so something new.”

And so Taglish was born. The restaurant – tucked into Lotte Plaza Market on West Colonial Drive – serves Collantes’ take on Filipino-American food.  Though he and his wife are both Filipino-Americans, Collantes didn’t eat a lot of Filipino food as a kid. So he researched the food, experimented and came up with a menu for Taglish that he describes as “a second generation perspective from a Filipino-American.”

Part of the joy, however, was rediscovering his heritage.

“To me, this was a connection to my culture and finding out who I am as a second-generation immigrant,” says Collantes. “I definitely don’t feel Filipino and I don’t feel American. There’s a space in between.”

In a bit of serendipity, he also discovered the freedom of operating restaurants in small spaces.  Since opening Taglish in 2019, he has opened Perla’s Pizzeria, a tiny pizza place on Virginia Drive where he and his team serve unexpected combinations like Kalua Pig pizza, Spam and Egg pizza and the “Everybody Hates Pineapple” pizza (topped with slab bacon, pineapple jam and pickled jalapenos), along with more  traditional pizza toppings.

And this year, he opened Soseki, a 10-seat omakase sushi restaurant in Winter Park. Housed in a former hair salon on Fairbanks Ave, Soseki is a partnership between Collantes and Chef Denni Cha. Omakase is a sushi tasting dinner, with multiple courses and wine pairings, all selected by the chef. And it’s the opposite of the Taglish and Perla pricetags: A 20-course dinner costs $185.

But that’s just the beginning. Collantes and friends have formed the Taglish Collective Group and they already have another restasurant concept in the works.

In the meantime, Collantes, 37, is betting that Orlando’s new generation of foodies – and a new generation of chefs — are putting Orlando on the culinary map.

“The diners are younger and smarter and well-educated about food,” he says. “They’re dining for the experience, not just to feed yourself. They understand different cuisines and they’re eager to try them.”

 

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