ORLANDO, Fla. – Eliot Hillis has thought a lot about noodles.
“(Noodles are) a vehicle for so many options,” the chef said. “In much the same way that a pizza can have like an infinite number of combinations of toppings, you can have a noodle that’s expressed upon a myriad of ingredients and, depending on the time of year, this could be a cold noodle, it could be a hot noodle, this could be spicy or creamy or any combination of all of those things.”
Hillis recently started a new, noodle-focused venture with his long-time collaborator Seth Parker. The pair now operate pop-up restaurants under the name Red Panda Noodle.
“It just excites us to be able to have this blank canvas that is also so deep and richly bounded by history,” Hillis said.
Red Panda may be new to Orlando’s dining scene, but Hillis and Parker are not. The pair have worked together for years at several restaurants around town. Most recently, the pair worked together at the now-closed Orlando Meats.
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“We actually wanted to open another restaurant, but we ended up with Orlando Meats,” Hillis said. “(We) did five years of that and now we decided to leave and we took pretty much everybody with us. So the whole of Orlando Meats staff is still employed by us.”
Even while working at Orlando Meats, Hillis said he and Parker were already workshopping the idea for Red Panda.
“Seth and I were workshopping this about five years ago,” Hillis said. “We were looking for a name that expressed a certain amount of playfulness with kind of hinting at authenticity without explicitly saying it.”
The chef describes Red Panda as being approachable and affordable while still being high quality.
“We want to be serious in our craft,” he said.
Hillis said he and Parker have different perspectives when it comes to their approach to food.
“I have no formal education and Seth did go to culinary school, but I didn’t, I started in the dish pit and just did my thing,” Hillis said. “I studied, like, literally just bought several thousands of dollars worth of books and I was like, ‘OK, well, I’m just gonna read these, I’m gonna watch as much as I can. I’m gonna learn from everybody.’ I would change restaurants every two years or so, to make sure I learned from different people. So I had a wide and diverse view on things.”
That drive to learn led Hillis to some pretty unique cooking situations, including running a kitchen along the Grand Canyon.
“I had this little cabin (near the kitchen) and I had to like check the windows before I left in the morning — because I left at like dawn to go to the kitchen — I had to check that there were no deer outside because they will kill you,” he said. Now that was a really fun experience.”
On the latest episode of Florida Foodie, Hillis nerds out about noodles. He also talks about his approach to creating new dishes and how he and his partner are expanding their business.
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Florida Foodie is a biweekly podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that takes a closer look at what we eat, how we eat it and the impact that has on us here in Florida and for everyone, everywhere. Find new episodes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you download your favorite podcasts. You can also watch Florida Foodie anytime on News 6+.