Kitchen Reverential: Valencia Grad Learns His Trade from the Masters
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Camilo Velasco may be one of Florida’s hot young chefs — earning accolades as the chef de cuisine at Norman Van Aken’s new restaurant, 1921 — but he did not learn to cook at his mother’s knee.
“When you talk to chefs, usually they speak of really powerful memories of being at their grandmother’s feet or at their mom’s feet while she was cooking,” says Velasco, 31. “But that was not my experience.”
Instead, he had a more traditional, middle-class upbringing in Colombia, where hired help cooked the meals and cleaned the house. However, as violence in Colombia escalated, Camilo’s world turned upside down. When he was 14, his family moved to Miami and, a year later, relocated to Kissimmee.
For 15-year-old Camilo, food wasn’t the center of his life. Music – and a possible career as a musician – was.
But in Florida, he discovered an international culture – with neighbors and friends from Latin America, Europe and Asia. “I grew up in a small town. When I came here, I met people from everywhere,” he says. “I thought that was so exciting.”
He took his earnings from his part-time bagger job at Publix and begged his mom to drive him around Kissimmee, where he began sampling foods from bodegas and take-out joints. “That’s where my interested started in food – as a diner,” he says.
Yet the turning point came when he was 18 years old and returned to Colombia to visit childhood friends. There, they gathered in restaurants and reconnected over food and wine. And that magical feeling of communing together sealed Camilo’s passion for food. “I love the way I feel around food,” he says with a smile.
So when he returned to Kissimmee, he enrolled in culinary classes at Valencia College. He’d already been reading books about chefs – and at Valencia, he found a passionate mentor in Chef Ken Bourgoin.
“Chef Ken’s passion is very contagious,” says Camilo. “He gets the students really pumped.”
Excited to try something different, Camilo made over-easy eggs and Hollandaise sauce for one of his first class assignments – and then garnished the dish with an array of tiny pearls he’d carved from strawberries.
“It didn’t really work, but I think Chef Ken saw that I was captivated by cooking and wanted to experiment,” he says.
Indeed, Bourgoin saw the seeds of talent in Velasco. “He listened and liked to be challenged,” Bourgoin says. “Mind you, this is a beginner course he was doing this in.”
So Bourgoin helped the young culinary student land a job at one of Orlando’s most exclusive restaurants – the five-diamond Victoria & Albert’s, where the kitchen was commanded by Chef Scott Hunnel, a friend of Bourgoin’s.
The job wasn’t glamorous: Camilo started out peeling carrots and tomatoes, chopping garlic and shallots. Each time he mastered one skill, he tackled another – carving quenelles from gelato, carving cheese and handling caviar. After a while, he added another duty: Peeling flats and flats of eggs so that the chef could create a custard inside the egg shell. Many broken eggs later, he learned the technique.
“It was all just super exciting for me,” recalls Camilo, who was taking culinary classes by day and working at the restaurant at night. “I got yelled at every day for the first three months, but you realize that the way you continue to be a five-diamond restaurant is to understand the urgency and the fact that there’s a certain standard that has to be maintained.”
Before Victoria & Albert’s, Velasco’s only restaurant experience had been washing dishes and making sandwiches in a chain hotel’s café. This, he realized, was the big time. “The sense of reverence, working in this kitchen was church-like,” he recalls. “I loved that environment.”
For a year, Velasco worked at Victoria & Albert’s – and saved his money to eat at Orlando’s other fine restaurants. He never dined with others, always alone. “As a solo diner, I wanted to focus on the food, ask my server questions.” At Norman’s, the restaurant that renowned Miami chef Van Aken opened at Orlando’s Ritz-Carlton in 2003, Velasco was wowed by the food and the service. His server was a fellow Valencia grad, Scott Geisler, who was the sommelier at Norman’s.
Velasco was so enchanted by Norman’s that when a sous chef position opened up, he applied — and got it.
“I was just learning how to cook and I was given this crazy opportunity – but he really believed in me,” he says. About six months later, when Velasco was tapped to work with Van Aken at a star-studded food event in Charleston, S.C., the young Valencia grad impressed the master chef — the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of “Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage.”
“He saw that I had the ability and was passionate,” says Velasco. “Shortly after that, they promoted me to executive chef at the restaurant.” Before long, Van Aken asked Velasco to work with him at Tuyo, the Miami restaurant that Van Aken developed at Miami-Dade College’s culinary institute. The experience was invaluable, says Velasco: “I got to work with him every day.”
But after a year away from his wife and his family, Velasco was ready to return to Central Florida. So in 2013, he took a job with Barnie’s Coffee Kitchen in Winter Park and, over the next three years, helped create a foodie hideaway, a café that served gourmet meals, not just bagels and coffee.
“We pushed the envelope,” he says. “We were making oxtail terrines a coffee shop. Rabbit roulades with madeira. You’d never expect that kind of food from a Starbucks.”
But in 2015, Van Aken called again – with plans to open a restaurant in Mount Dora, one that would celebrate the bounty of Florida’s farms and fisheries.
Today, Velasco is back in the Van Aken fold, serving as the chef de cuisine at 1921, Van Aken’s latest restaurant. Together, he and Scott Geisler have reunited; Geisler, the former general manager of Winter Park’s Ravenous Pig, is now the general manager of 1921; Velasco runs the kitchens.
As for Velasco, he’s grateful to be home, living in Kissimmee with his wife and three kids.
And he remains thankful to Valencia professor Ken Bourgoin, who opened doors for a kid who shared his passion for cooking.
“What he taught me in school and helping me connect with Chef Scott Hunnel,” says Velasco, “he started it all for me.”
Tags: Camilo Velasco, culinary program, culinary school, Norman Van Aken, Orlando, restaurant in Mount Dora, Valencia Alumni, Valencia College, Valencia grad, where do Valencia culinary graduates work