Orlando-based chef Shaun Noonan is all about the experience, not the destination.
“A foodpreneur of any sort should gain years of experience before even entertaining the idea of starting something on their own,” he said. “If you truly love food, don’t do yourself or your customer the disservice of skipping the part where you pay your dues.”
Noonan will tell you that it is while gaining this experience a foodpreneur has the opportunity to find mentors, train, practice knife skills, wash dishes, scrub floors and essentially fall in and out of love with the industry many times over.
“It’s not all Instagram followers and camera angles,” he stressed. “You want to know why there’s so much turnover in the hospitality industry? Want to know why it’s such a risky endeavor? It’s because everyone wants to skip the hard part.”
For Noonan, food is not a second career or hobby; it is his life, and he knows to respect it as such and thus has a laundry list of experience to his name. Noonan grew up cooking and accepted his first job in a professional kitchen at the age of 14. He worked as an international dishwasher and a bhakti prep cook for various temples spanning from Los Angeles to Haridwar, India. He also cooked in Chicago and Atlanta, added Appalachian mushroom forager to his resume, and was the executive chef for the Opera Sofia in Bulgaria.
Before making Orlando his homebase, Noonan rounded out his experience and drove an 18-wheeler across the country for two years to self fund his dream of bringing plant-based food to the South. Through hardwork and experience, his dream was made a reality when he opened Dixie Dharma in 2013.
Dixie Dharma is a southern-inspired, vegan restaurant located inside the Market On South in the Milk District of Orlando. Market On South, a shared restaurant space or food hub, was the brainchild of Noonan and Celine Duvoisin of Valhalla Bakery.
“We were working all the same farmers markets and realized we could work together and really make a statement,” said Noonan. “Our different skills in the sweet and savory world complemented one another, so why not share a roof?”
Chefs like Noonan are starting to use the same creativity they bring to each of their recipes to their business models and overall operations. Because of Dixie Dharma and other restaurants challenging the status quo, it is no surprise Orlando was recently named one of the top 10 “Foodie Cities in America” by Wallet Hub.
“Beneath the shadow of the mouse, we’ve had time to cultivate our identity,” Noonan said. “It turns out it’s wild and exceptional and anything we want. You want to eat some real-deal Vietnamese in an inner tube floating over an alligator at the springs, we got you. You want to get into a little bit of trouble with your liver and top it off at The Vegan Hot Dog Cart at 3 a.m. on Orange Ave? Sure! Being surrounded by so much creativity makes Orlando a wonderful place to work.”
Noonan’s restaurant has been so well received by the Central Florida community that Dixie Dharma is set to open five new locations throughout the region over the next three years. “We’re taking this show to the rural communities of our region,” he said. “The first location is slated for the Sanford area in a food hall called Henry’s Depot.”
Noonan, 36, has accomplished a great deal in his young life, but what inspires him the most is other people. “I derive all my inspiration through struggle and the success that comes on the other side of that,” he admitted. “I pay close attention to the world we live in, and I thrive off the determination of others in the face of adversity.”
Fortunately for Central Florida patrons, he has turned this inspiration into a great dining experience at Dixie Dharma.
Market On South
Home of Dixie Dharma
2603 E South St.
Orlando, FL 32803
For more information, visit online at
Kristine Thomas is the executive director of the ORL Food Lab. The Lab is dedicated to celebrating Central Florida’s extraordinary culinary community; learn more at www.ORLFoodLab.org.