You might recognize her from Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," "Food Network Star" and "Cutthroat Kitchen." Chef Emily Ellyn is hard to forget with those cat-eye glasses, platinum blonde hair and '50s glamour. Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen has even compared her to Marilyn Monroe, whom he happened to meet as a child.
Emily Ellyn might have a playful and quirky persona, but her culinary skills are serious. She holds degrees from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and a master's from the Academie Internationale de Management in Paris.
After graduating in Paris 10 years ago, she ended up in Orlando serendipitously, she says, where she landed a job at Roy's on Restaurant Row and acceptance into the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality and Management, named for Harris Rosen.
"I feel blessed I came to Orlando when I did," she says. "I came while there was a such a movement and growth. I was here from the beginning. There were all these chains at first, then people started getting into the craft of cooking. We always blame it on the chains and hotels and resorts, but they had the products and resources to cook for an attentive audience. They brought in chefs and sheer numbers of people to staff … we started actually growing a community around the resorts."
Now Ellyn spends her time in the heart of Orlando, where she lives in Lake Ivanhoe, a quirky and retro-loving neighborhood that suits her perfectly. "We have a winery in walking distance; I have a brewery and antique stores—how perfect is that?" she laughs. "There's Pig Floyd's for barbecue, Santiago's [Bodega], craft cocktails at the Matador ... and that’s just in my little borough. We’ve built these micro-communities within this big, loving community."
Ellyn encourages visitors to get outside of the tourist areas and explore the city's main streets. "Just how New York has Little Italy, Mills 50 is known for Asian," she says. "There are cool markets like Plant Street in Winter Garden and East End in Audubon Park, which also has Redlight Redlight and P is for Pie. College Park has a neat little ice cream shop [The Soda Fountain], Credo for coffee and K restaurant and Rustek. There are all these little pockets."
Ellyn, a world traveler, has has been impressed with the city’s diverse neighborhoods for Peruvian dishes, Vietnamese cuisine and Ethiopian fare.
“We have a melting pot of flavor that gives us the opportunity to eat a different dish every night of the year,” she says. “We are one of the most diverse food cities in the world.”
Not only is Orlando’s palate diverse, but local produce is ripe and ready to give diners a true taste of Florida. She says fall is the most amazing time for Florida avocados (she has a tree in her backyard), as well as oranges, grapefruit and corn.
"Key limes are not from here, so if you see orange cream pie on the menu, order that instead," she says.
The Florida-grown corn is a dessert in and of itself. “Zellwood farms' corn is sweet as sugar.”
Ellyn's last piece of advice for visitors is to be on the lookout for Orlando's up-and-coming chefs. Central Florida is already home to seven chefs who have been nominated for James Beard Awards along with celebrity chefs with Orlando outposts like Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Roy Yamaguchi, Art Smith and Rick Bayless. But a half-dozen, soon-to-be-known chefs from Orlando are making appearances on reality TV shows. Hollis Wilder was a three-time winner of "Cupcake Wars" and Jillian Hopke was a past winner; Ashley Nickell appeared on "Cutthroat" and "Hell’s Kitchen;" Zac Kara won "Master Chef Kids;" Manny Washington appeared on "Cutthroat" and "Master Chef;" and Francis Biondi appeared on "Master Chef." Dawn Viola is currently competing on “Cooks vs. Cons."
"We as a city are rocking on the chef scene," she says. "We are getting notice. Celebrity chefs of Orlando compete on television but the Orlando food scene has never been about competition. It’s been about collaboration and elevating the entire industry.”