Chef Rafael Vallejo III, formerly the executive chef at McCamly Plaza Hotel, has taken the reins as executive chef at the Hilton Garden Inn and Holiday Inn Resort in Fort Walton Beach. According to Chef Rafael, there are plenty of familiar faces down on the Panhandle.

“I originally met Jeremy Skinner when he was sitting in as general manager at McCamly Plaza,” he says. “And I started speaking to George about the possibility of coming down here when I was working in Traverse City. I’m really happy that I was able to move forward with the company. I was impressed that Innisfree was willing to work with me and found a place for me to utilize my talents. It was heartfelt. Being able to grow with this company is a big deal for me.”

As a native of Atlanta, Chef Rafael admits to being excited about being back in the heat that the South seems to be so good at offering.

“That snow wasn’t going too well with me,” Chef laughs. “I was eager to move closer to my family. Atlanta is just a five-hour drive away from Fort Walton Beach. And since my daughter is only two years old, I wanted to move her while she was still young.”

But Chef did have some bittersweet feelings leaving the team at McCamly.

“I loved working with Ryan Simmons,” he says. “He’s doing such a phenomenal job up at McCamly. I owe him a lot. Plus, I usually don’t like to leave loose ends, so leaving McCamly kind of felt like unfinished business. But I had to jump at this opportunity.”

Chef Rafael hopes that his Southern roots will translate well with the guests at Fort Walton Beach.

“Since I’m originally from Georgia, I’m more familiar with the type of food that will sell here,” he says. “Southern soul food is what I’m best at.”

The menus at Fort Walton Beach are remaining the same for the most part, so Chef Rafael hopes to maintain the high standard for quality. But there is one area where he hopes to make more of an impact.

“The banquet menus are an area where I have a chance to be more creative,” he says. “The sales team here has been adamant about that on both sides.”

Chef Rafael hopes that this new opportunity is a chance to learn new things and build his career, especially with a company like Innisfree.

“I love my job,” he says. “It’s not very often that someone gets to make money doing something they love.”