He moved to the Orlando area from Washington D.C. amid the chaos of the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Since then, chef George Vogelbacher has been bringing fine French dining to the Orlando area for decades.
“In 1968 we packed up our Mustang and our cat and moved to Florida,” Vogelbacher said.
It began when he opened a small Kosher Bakery on U.S. 17/92 near Orange Blossom Trail. Later that year, he and his friend Michel Zouhar leased a larger property that became the famous Le Cordon Bleu restaurant. Zouhar had been a sous-chef for the French Embassy, and with Vogelbacher’s French heritage, the restaurant became a popular fine dining experience in Orlando for 30 years.
A 1996 fire at Le Cordon Bleu ended that successful enterprise. Vogelbacher later opened Nicole St. Pierre on Orlando Avenue in Maitland, Fla.
“We named the Nicole St. Pierre for our daughter and son,” Vogelbacher said. “It is now where the Enzian Theater is.”
He later worked at the Oakwood Bistro, and after that, the Winter Park Fish Company. For the past five years, he has been the chef at Maxine’s on Shine. Chef Vogelbacher is celebrating 50 years of bringing lovers and families in Orlando together at the table.
“His heart and talents have always been about epicurean epiphany,” said Kirt Earhart, co-owner of Maxine’s. “Now a little over five years later at Maxine’s on Shine, one-tenth of what he has dedicated to his career, it is always about a culinary shoutout to those that take a bite.”
Vogelbacher’s road to Orlando was not straightforward. He didn’t meet his father until he was nine years old. His father had been drafted into the German army, captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. His mother escaped Germany to her home town in Bienne, Switzerland, with George and his four siblings. After his father was released, he spent years in a san- itarium recovering from tuberculosis.
As a prisoner of war, his father’s 5-foot-4 frame had reduced to 95 pounds, but this strong man persevered and eventually opened a bakery and pastry shop in Bienne. In that bakery, young Vogelbacher learned to appreciate food and the gift it brings to family.
In 1957, Vogelbacher went to Zurich as an apprentice to become a certified baker and pastry chef. As an apprentice, he shared a small room above the bakery with seven other boys. Vogelbacher extended his apprenticeship another two years to become a full-fledged chef.
For six years, Vogelbacher was a cook on the MS Hanseatic with One Ocean Expeditions cruises. He traveled to the Caribbean in the winter and the Mediterranean Sea in the summer and made three trans-Atlantic crossings where he first saw New York City.
In all, he explored over 60 countries as a young man. On the ship, Vogelbacher met and worked with many other chefs, and in 1967 he was offered a position as a pastry chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
He was given a preferred status to immigrate, but that still included multiple physicals and interviews in order to be approved. In Bienne he had met and married Monique Vogelbacher, his first love and lifelong companion. Only three weeks after their wedding they moved to the U.S. They spoke not a word of English but were met at their New York arrival by a hotel limousine and a driver who spoke five languages and drove them to D.C.
During his time at the Watergate, he made several trips to the White House. He even helped make the wedding cake for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter’s East Room White House Wedding. (You can see it on whitehousemuseum.com’s website.)
“I went to the White House many times,” Vogelbacher said. “The Watergate Hotel’s bakery kitchen was as big as Maxine’s entire restaurant.”
What a life filled with flavor – a life well lived.