Feature

We Do Talk
About Bruno

Bruno Fonseca’s recipe for success:
Make it delicious.
Make it beautiful.
Share it with people.

“What I try to do is feed the people foods that may be familiar and somehow entirely different, but for a reason.”

Chef Bruno Fonseca’s pantry is stocked, like most in his culinary bracket, with the cream of the seasonal crop. On one hand, he draws from the legacy of local Central Florida farmers: Sugar Top Farms in Clermont to Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee, Herta Berk Schwein in Groveland, Everoak Farm by Baldwin Park, just to name a few.

On the other hand, he draws from nearly three decades of working with the best. Indeed, Bruno’s culinary journey reads like a roadmap of ambition and achievement. From the esteemed kitchen of Norman’s to the venerable Bern’s Steak House, he honed his skills in the hallowed halls of haute cuisine and food trucks alike, as anyone who remembers 5 Gastronomy can attest. His expertise extended beyond the stove, as he shared his knowledge as an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, helping shape the next generation of culinary talent as an instructor and now as an employer.

Still, there’s more than just hard work and dedication at play here. It’s the way the chef handles his raw materials with a neurosurgeon-like attention to detail that must be the secret ingredient to his success.

This became clear to me just from watching him at work during Friday evening service at his celebrated restaurant, Foreigner.

His movements are as fluid and sure as a classical dancer. Each move has an immediate end but is also part of a bigger design.He slices Jamon Iberico, then spins to his right to flip a filet of black drum with his palette knife—but that spin continues almost full circle to his mise en place for yet another plate.

If you like to watch cooks at work, as I do, Bruno is engrossing, an intersection of legacy and experience, technique and heart, skill and inspiration. “Foreigner came out of necessity to create,” Bruno explains. “I try to feed the people foods that may be familiar and somehow entirely different, but for a reason. In other words, we aren’t doing this just to be different; we are trying to expand horizons.”

Foreigner opened March 3, 2023, in Winter Park to critical acclaim and sold-out seatings. Just months later, Bruno’s Oysters opened in Plant Street Market’s Barrel Room — an intimate space just six minutes from his house in Oakland. “Pure insanity,” he says with a laugh.

There is, of course, a driving force to this insanity, one that colors both Foreigner and Bruno’s Oyster Bar: marrying creativity and education. “The inspiration behind it all is to tell the story of a foreigner’s perspective on food, let it be the food that I grew up eating in my house, which was very multicultural with Brazilian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian influences. There’s the food I encountered when I moved to the U.S. and then the food I grew up cooking in the different kitchens I’ve been lucky to work in. It’s given me a unique perspective on food, one that I deeply appreciate and want to share as often as possible.”

Scenes from a Foreigner experience include a bespoke charcuterie platter, compressed beet salad, fresh black truffles, and a caviar service upgrade, all presented with Chef Bruno’s neurosurgeon-like attention to detail.

Beginnings

Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Bruno was steeped in a culture of diversity and shared experiences. “My mother is a huge part of what I do. She’s a great cook, of course, but what made the biggest impact was dining out. She took us out to restaurants at an early age, and it was always a ‘happening,’ if you will,” he recalls. “At first, it was very annoying—what kid wants to wear a jacket and sit at a nice restaurant? But she always made it fun and educational. We were always tasting and learning, so the beauty of breaking bread together and sharing a meal is just part of me.”

Basketball was Bruno’s first love, paving his way through high school and into college at Florida State University. But when he took his first restaurant job, his future was forever changed. “My first job was in the front of the house. I enjoyed it, and the money was good, but I can’t say I loved it,” Bruno says. “One day, I had the opportunity to help in the kitchen and I fell in love. The adrenaline, the rush, the skill, and the technique felt like playing basketball but with fire and knives. It’s intense in a way that other careers just don’t reach.”

He dropped out of Florida State but kept working in kitchens, challenging himself to learn and progress daily. When The Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts announced its opening in Orlando in 2002, Bruno applied and was accepted into the inaugural class.

“I’ve been cooking for 25 years now,” Bruno says.“I was never OK with being complacent or mediocre. I hit walls at times, working with other chefs. The people above me wouldn’t be willing to step outside their comfort zone and be creative. And I hated that; it drove me nuts. Over time, I thought ‘Maybe I should just do something myself,’ but I didn’t have any money. So I test-drove the idea by doing pop-ups nearly five years ago.”

Indeed, this underground series of transcendent chef’s tastings were held at The Heavy in Winter Park and Melts on Main in Winter Garden, growing from five courses to seven to nine, from one night a week to two to three.

“I really wanted Foreigner to be in Winter Garden, and it breaks my heart to say that it just struggled here. But it took off like wildfire in Winter Park, growing in popularity and respect. So when I decided to open a brick-and-mortar, Audubon Park became the obvious choice.”

“On the outside, Foreigner can look pretentious, but it’s not meant to be. It’s set up like a kitchen island, a place to break delicious bread and drink delicious wine with friends.”

Despite Bruno’s success with his tasting menu concept, he yearned for a more intimate, casual dining experience where friends and family felt welcome. No reservations or stuffy dress codes; just honest, simple food, a really nice beer, and a great time. So, when fate presented him with the opportunity to open a small operation inside the Barrel Room at Plant Street Market, he couldn’t refuse.

“Opening an oyster bar was totally selfish,” he says. “I’d always wanted to have something at Plant Street Market since the day that it opened. Plus, I’m super, super passionate about oysters.”

This is a subject on which Bruno and I fervidly agree. Much like champagne or caviar, raw oysters can make an evening luxurious, but also comfort food. They are reminders of the beach, the boat, the sand,and the surf. They’re shucked and slurped on the dock, chased with a cold beer,as wonderfully and easily as they are served on a silver platter with champagne and mignonette, a briney, slippery vehicle of happiness.

“There’s so much to learn about oysters,” he says. “They’re like wine in how they depend on the terroir, the temperature of the water … if they’re going to be in cages, or if they’re going to touch the bottom of the ocean or the bay. Every little shift in the environment affects how an oyster grows and tastes. It is much more magical than people realize … I want to share that.”

Sharing. That’s a word that comes up quite a bit in conversation with Bruno, inside and outside the restaurant. Sharing meals. Sharing memories. Sharing moments. “I think one thing that played the biggest role in growing up in Brazil was the sense of hospitality. On the outside, Foreigner can look pretentious, but it’s not meant to be. It’s set up like a kitchen island, a place to break delicious bread and drink delicious wine with friends. That’s it. Nothing else. I have it because I can’t have 10 strangers coming to my house twice a night during the weekend. That’s the honest truth. It’s a home away from home that I can share with the world.”

“Every little shift in the environment affects the way an oyster grows and tastes. It is so much more magical than people realize.”

Foreign No More

For Bruno, his two restaurants navigate a delicate dance between tradition and innovation, striving to meet the demands of discerning diners while educating those new to the world of food while staying true to his culinary ethos.

Whether experimenting with seasonal ingredients, reimagining classic dishes, or fostering collaborations with local producers, Bruno finds solace in the kitchen’s endless possibilities, fueling his passion to continually push boundaries and delight gastronomic enthusiasts.

“Lately, I’ve been inspired by the classics and how to make them more interesting,” he says. “There’s one dish in particular that comes to mind. It’s very classical to me, to my Portuguese and Spanish heritage. And that’s bacalao.”

In its most basic form, bacalao is salted cod and potatoes cooked in olive oil. It’s a culturally significant dish, especially in Rio. When there’s something to celebrate, bacalao is there. “We decided to make a little tartlet of bacalao, but we wanted to give it a more Iberian peninsula flavor, so we made cannellini beans with stock made from the bone of Jamon Iberico,” Bruno explains. “Here’s the thing: No one would come to a restaurant and order a salt cod tartlet with beans, right? But they eat it here, look at me and say, ‘This is incredible. I would never have ordered this, but this is incredible.’”

The same can be said of the Beet Pave that appeared on Foreigner’s March menu. “I hated beets growing up, absolutely hated them, and so many guests feel the same way, which is exactly why I put them on the menu. We roasted and compressed heirloom beets from Sugar Top Farm, served it with pistachios, arugula, fresh flowers, and finished it with a dusting of chocolate. Those people who don’t eat beets … their eyes widen in astonishment, and now, suddenly, they like beets.” 

That moment inspiresBruno to nourish others,evoke different memories and feelings, and create new memories for them. “This whole thing, it’s very educational. Once you learn how to make it relatable and not so fussy or ‘cheffy,’ it’s like the curtain goes away,” he explains. “Sure, I want the food to be excellent and memorable. But when we evoke those feelings, that’s where the success comes in. That’s what keeps me inspired every day.”

Make it delicious. Make it beautiful. Share it with people. That’s Bruno, simple, direct. No longer a foreigner, but a friend.

From oysters and caviar to scallops and pasta, Chef Bruno blends a unique perspective on food from his Brazilian heritage and the flavors he discovered moving to the U.S. with the skills honed in various kitchens where he’s had the privilege to work.

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