ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Eliot Hillis and Seth Parker are not newcomers to the Orlando area, but they hope to bring something wholly different to the dining scene with their new restaurant, Red Panda Noodle.
Hillis and Parker recently left the kitchen at Orlando Meats to start their own independent venture.
“We were used to doing more boutique restaurant stuff — more focused and more intimate — and it was just time to get back to that,” Hillis said.
Hillis said that times had gotten tough at Orlando Meats and the pair wanted to take a chance on themselves.
“One of our cooks left us — quit the industry — and it basically put us in a position where without that staffing, we were beyond a skeleton crew and Orlando Meats was just not going to be functional for us,” he said. “We’d have to work like 100 hours a week for the same pay and it would just be horrible. So we’re like, ‘Well, you know if we’re gonna be broke, we might as well be broke on our own terms.”
Red Panda already has a brick-and-mortar location lined up. Hillis said he isn’t ready to announce the location, because the previous tenants are still wrapping up their lease, but he did say it is on the border of Winter Park and Casselberry along Semoran Boulevard.
“People are buying houses out there because it’s too damn expensive in Orlando and Winter Park proper,” Hillis said. “So we have a population that is going to be looking to eat more food and they’re going to be closer to us. So it’s a really good, solid location from that perspective.”
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Hillis said he and Parker are looking to strike a balance with Red Panda.
“It’s an expression of what we enjoy and what we’ve studied in our time cooking and eating,” he said. “It’s going to be familiar enough that people that are skittish can get what they want, and it’s going to be wild enough that people that are adventurous can get what they want.”
The example Hillis gave was Red Panda’s take on tteokbokki, which are Korean rice cakes.
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“We basically started with the concept of everybody and their mother loves macaroni and cheese. What’s our version of macaroni and cheese? And then from there, we develop this dish, and I feel like it’s unrecognizable to macaroni and cheese but spiritually I feel like it’s connected. It’s comfort food from multiple different cultures kind of mashed together,” he said.
Hillis said the dish features influences from South American and French cuisine and features a sauce that “kind of mimics that Velveeta.”
While the pair wait for their new space to open up, they have been running a series of pop-ups and area bars.
“The last one we did on Monday, we sold out in 45 minutes and then there was a two-hour wait for us to actually push the food out,” Hillis said. “It was an interesting exercise.”
The chefs intend to continue pop-ups for the next few months, posting them on their Instagram page, until the new location is up and running. Hillis said he plans to announce the location once they are about a month out from opening, hopefully in November.
Right now, the team is mostly composed of just Hillis and Parker, though they do have some friends and loved ones who have been helping them out. The pair plan to take a different approach when it comes to their staff.
“Everybody’s on salary because we have a philosophy that everybody needs to be there and have their hands on everything and you can’t really get that with part-timers. You can’t really get that with people that aren’t 100% invested in what’s going on,” he said.