By JoAnn Guidry • Photos By John Jernigan
For a group of five Ocala-based chefs, their successful careers can be traced back to a time spent working together at O’Neal’s on the downtown square. Twenty years later, Ocala Style catches up with this close culinary crew.
Too many chefs in the kitchen? Not if those chefs are Scott Markal, Loring Felix, Tomas Vallejo Jr., John Bell, and Bobby Ray Pesare.
It was the early 1980s and a new upscale restaurant named O‘Neal’s had opened on the downtown Ocala square. Michael and Patrick O’Neal, who at the time also owned several successful restaurants in places like New York City, established the local eatery using the same formula that had previously worked for them. They brought in some of their top chefs and then hired the best local ones they could find to cook good food served in a fun atmosphere.
It worked again. O’Neal’s — and its chefs — became synonymous with good food and good fun. The story is that when the aprons and hats came off, the O’Neal’s chefs were known to do a little partying themselves. Call it a unique bonding experience. With eerily similar backgrounds and a passion for cooking, this group of five O’Neal’s chefs would go on to make a lasting impression on the culinary culture of Ocala.
Need proof? Flash forward to the present. Along a five-mile stretch of East Silver Springs Boulevard, there is Carmichael’s, The Copper Pot, and Felix’s. Each restaurant can claim a direct association to one of the aforementioned O’Neal chefs. Ditto for Petit Jardin and North End Italian Deli. But there’s much more to the story.
Ocala Style recently caught up with the O’Neal’s quintet, gaining a little insight on how they got from there to here.
Executive Chef, Carmichael’s
Originally from York, Pennsylvania, Scott Markal, 45, credits a mother who was a great cook for his early culinary ambitions.
“I learned a lot from my mother,” he says. “She would cook the main meal and I would make dessert. That’s how I got started.”
His first official restaurant job was in a pizzeria at sixteen. Markal would later go on to be a chef trainer on the east coast for the Big Boy chain. He took his career to another level when he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While in the Empire State, Markal knew of O’Neal’s and heard they were opening a restaurant in Ocala.
“My parents had retired and moved to Ocala by then,” says Markal, who was spending his summers cooking at a salmon cannery cafeteria in Alaska. “So I thought it would be good to come down here. For awhile, I would spend the winter in Ocala and the summer in Alaska.”
By the time Markal was brought in to be head chef at O’Neal’s in 1982, Felix and Pesare were already there. Vallejo and Bell would soon follow.
“We became a great team,” he says. “Everyone had a real passion for cooking and O’Neal’s was the hot restaurant. As the head chef, I tried to challenge them. Every night they each had to come up with a new special or a new item. Something to keep it interesting for us and for our patrons.”
As it turned out, Markal would stay the longest at O’Neal’s and remain in Ocala while his fellow chefs left for other opportunities.
“I was probably a little more settled than they were,” he says. “I had a family and a small farm where we raised Arabians and Quarter horses. I liked being in Ocala.”
Markal didn’t have to go looking for new opportunities in the restaurant business because one came to him.
“Ken DePasquale used to come in and eat at O’Neal’s,” he recalls. “We got to know each other and he told me he was planning to open a new restaurant. He offered me an executive chef position and I took it.”
That was in 1987 and Markal has been the executive chef at Carmichael’s ever since.
“Ken wanted to establish a landmark restaurant and I think that’s what we’ve done,” he says. “Our niche is comfort food at a reasonable price, and that never goes out of style.”
As for his O’Neal’s cohorts, Markal says, “They were a great bunch of guys and I’m very proud of all their successes.”
Co-Owner/Executive Chef, Felix’s
When he was 15, Felix applied for a cooking position at the Long John Silver’s now not far from his own restaurant on East Silver Springs Boulevard.
“They hadn’t even started construction yet,” he says. “There was just this desk sitting in the middle of the lot and a person taking applications. I lied about my age when I filled out the form.”
But that wasn’t enough to get him the job.
“The guy told me I had to cut my long hair if I wanted to work at the restaurant,” he says. “In 1974, long hair was the thing and I thought long and hard about it. But I did cut it and I did get the job.”
By that time, Felix had been cooking for many years. His mother was a nurse who worked the 3-11 shift and she would leave him notes on what to cook for his siblings.
“I moved on to using cookbooks and coming up with my own recipes,” he says. “I’ve been cooking ever since.”
Out of high school, Felix joined the Marines and spent five years traveling the world as the personal chef to an admiral. Just about the time his military service came to an end, O’Neal’s was opening up.
“They originally hired 20 cooks,” says Felix. “Bobby Ray [Pesare] and I were among the first ones and we literally set up the kitchen. Scott was brought in later as head chef. Then John [Bell] and Tomas [Vallejo] came. We became a good team and O’Neal’s became the best restaurant in town. And one of the best party places, too.”
After several years at O’Neal’s, Felix moved to Fort Lauderdale and worked at several of that area’s eateries for the next decade. An offer in the early 1990s to be the head chef at Capriccio’s in Gainesville brought him back to north central Florida. It’s also where he would meet Marge, his future wife and partner in the restaurant business.
“We make a good team and came back to Ocala to manage Bella Luna in 1995. We were there for more than five years,” says Felix, 46, who is the proud father of nearly 2-year-old Christopher. “But I always had a goal of having my own restaurant by the time I was 40. We opened Felix’s when I was 42, so I wasn’t too far off.”
Only two years after Felix’s opened in the historic 1890 House on Silver Springs Boulevard, the restaurant was named one of Florida Trend’s Top 500 restaurants in early 2004. It was the only Marion County restaurant to make the list that year.
Tomas Vallejo Jr.
Co-Owner/Executive Chef, The Copper Pot
“I grew up in the restaurant business,” says Vallejo. “I’ve never thought of doing anything else. Why would I? I love it.”
Vallejo’s father operated such well-known restaurants as Coach and Paddock, Peter Dinkel’s, and the Silver Springs Shores Country Club. The senior Vallejo and his wife Judy are partners in The Copper Pot with their son and partner Myron Manthe. The Copper Pot opened in July 2004.
It is a homecoming of sorts for Vallejo, who after leaving O’Neal’s in 1985 moved to Colorado. He spent the next 15 years working at The Ranch, a 4-Diamond restaurant at Keystone Ski Resort, and later at Saguaro Grill in downtown Denver. He and partner Manthe started Trilogy Restaurant Group, a consulting business during that time. The business is now known as MJT Restaurant Group, the acronym standing for Myron, Judy, and Tomas (senior & junior).
“The Ranch was an awesome experience,” says Vallejo. “It had a conference center that employed 3,500 people and we had a staff of 22 chefs. It was never boring.”
Moving back to Florida in 2001, Vallejo set up the catering business Affairs To Remember for his sister, Tammie Bryant, before going to chef at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa. At the latter, Vallejo cooked for President George W. Bush.
“We had Secret Service people all over the kitchen,” he says. “They tasted everything and they served it. It was all very serious.”
Not so serious is how Vallejo, 41, remembers his time at O’Neal’s. “We had a great time,” he says. “Everyone had their own style and I learned so much from all of them. They were such a talented group of chefs. And Scott [Markal] really took me under his wing.”
Vallejo has incorporated much of what he describes as “a corporate casual style” he took from his O’Neal’s experience. “People want good food and a lot of choices in a casual, relaxed atmosphere,” he says. “That’s what I want people to get from my restaurant.”
Featuring an eclectic menu, Vallejo promises his patrons will never be bored.
“I like to call what we do seasonal fusion, which brings together so many different kinds of foods from many different cultures,” he says. “I don’t like being bored, so I like to try new and different menus to keep things interesting. We think our patrons will feel the same way.”
Instructor, Lake Weir Culinary Arts Program
Previous Owner/Executive Chef, Petit Jardin
A self-professed bad kid, Bell will tell you that cooking was his saving grace. Or more to the point, a certain culinary arts program instructor.
“I had dropped out of school and was going nowhere fast,” he says. “The one thing I could do was cook. And Pam Snyder, who was my teacher in the culinary program at Lake Weir, wouldn’t give up on me. She talked me into coming back to school, had me enter some cooking competitions, and when I did well in those I turned the corner.”
One of 10 kids growing up in Long Island, Bell learned quickly that “if you helped out in the kitchen, you got plenty to eat.” It was after his family moved to Florida that Bell attended Lake Weir High School. Coincidently enough, Loring Felix had graduated two years earlier from the same school.
After that confidence boost from Snyder, Bell then attended the Baltimore School of Culinary Arts. He did his externship (the last three months of his senior year) at the O’Neal brothers-owned The Gingerman in Manhattan. The logical move was to O’Neal’s in Ocala.
“It was the most skilled kitchen I’ve ever worked in,” says Bell of his time at O’Neal’s. “I was the new guy, the last one to join the group. But they took me right in and it was a great experience.”
Bell actually did two different stints at O’Neal’s before a four-year apprenticeship with a master chef with the Sheraton Corporation. Then, like Vallejo, he too ended up in Colorado. While at several different restaurants in the Aspen area, Bell cooked for many celebrities, as well as then-President George Bush Sr. and Canadian Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He later also owned the Orchard Inn before coming back to Ocala in 1999.
“That’s when my wife Kelly and I opened Petit Jardin,” says Bell, 41. “I know there should be an ‘e’ on the end of Petit, but that’s how it was spelled on the license, so I had to keep it like that.”
He closed the East Silver Springs Boulevard restaurant that featured French cuisine in the summer of 2003.
“I had promised Pam Snyder that I’d come back and teach at Lake Weir. I thought it was time I kept that promise.”
The advanced students enrolled in the Lake Weir Culinary Arts Program learn the restaurant business first-hand through an on-campus eatery called Cane’s Cafe. The students hold every position from dishwasher and servers to managers and chefs. The café is open to teachers on Thursdays and to seniors on Fridays.
“It’s a great program,” says Bell, who still does private chef work. “And it’s a great way for me to give back to a program that had such an impact on my life.”
Bobby Ray Pesare
Chef/Former Owner, North End Italian Deli
He’s Italian. Pesare thinks that’s all the explanation one needs to know why and how he became a chef and got into the restaurant business.
“My grandmother, Florence Desautel, was a great cook. She still is and she’s the one who inspired me,” says Pesare. “And, of course, there were many family-owned restaurants. One of the first places I worked as a teenager was my cousin’s place, Vincent’s On The Hill.”
It was visiting his grandparents, who had moved to Ocala in the late 1970s, that brought him to O’Neal’s.
“It was snowing back home in Rhode Island and I come to visit — it’s nice and warm in Ocala — and I heard O’Neal’s was opening a new place. I applied and got hired,” Pesare says. “Since it was a brand new place, they were starting from scratch. [Loring] Felix and I opened up all the boxes and set up that kitchen ourselves. Then the other guys came and we were in business.”
Pesare credits one of O’Neal’s New York chefs with helping him to get serious about being a chef.
“He made me focus and see that I could make a career out of cooking, something that I always just considered part of my heritage,” he says. “And I’ve had a sauté pan in my hand ever since.”
After Felix left to go work in south Florida, Pesare soon followed, returning later to chef at the Radisson Hotel, Ocala Jockey Club, and Golden Hills Country Club. He even worked again with Felix at Bella Luna.
“In 1999, I opened the North End Italian Deli on North Magnolia,” recounts Pesare, 44. “Then we moved into the first floor of the Ocala National Bank Building in 2003. I sold the business in early 2004.”
Currently a real estate agent with Ellison Realty, Pesare cooks now strictly for pleasure, but has remained close with Felix over the years. When Pesare got married on October 9, 2004, the wedding and reception were held at Felix’s.
“My wife Laura and I enjoy entertaining friends and family,” he says. “But if one of those guys from O’Neal’s ever needs me to help out, I know just where my apron is.”
The Rat Pack Revisited
By JoAnn Guidry • Photos By John Jernigan