Valrico chef cooks her way to fulfillment and acclaim

Gourmet dreams often envelop Debbie Frangipane's moments of rest.

Aromas waft through her sleep. Spices dance through her subconscious. Unique food combinations come together in visions.

Maybe it's beef Wellington with a mushroom mix and Camembert cheese — instead of foie gras.

Or perhaps it's a curry pistachio encrusted sea bass.

Yes, curry and pistachio.

No matter how odd they may sound, when she awakes she quickly tells her husband, Barry, to write down her latest inspiration.

"These moods and tastes get in my head, and it won't do until they come out," said Frangipane, 46. "I can taste it before I even make it."

For Frangipane, this isn't cooking. This is art. And in the past year, her canvas has grown to include cooking classes, television appearances, national magazine attention and a forthcoming cookbook.

"I've been blessed," said Frangipane, who goes by the name Dolce Debbie and lives in Valrico. "This is something that just found me."

Travelers found her cooking exploits through Savory Adventures, the couple's travel company that takes tourists to Italy for luxury gourmet experiences.

Locals found her through her cooking demonstration classes at the Rolling Pin. TV program producers, including the syndicated Daytime program, found her with the help of Twitter (dolcedebbie.com).

And this fall, More magazine found her in a search for women who have reinvented themselves.

The magazine flew Frangipane to New York last month so she could meet renowned chef B Smith. They did a photo shoot for the article, scheduled to come out in February, and Frangipane prepared her special sea bass for Smith, the television host and restaurateur.

But Frangipane may have never begun her personal renaissance had it not been for the influence of a famous Italian city.

Her rebirth began in 2003 when she and her husband decided to relocate to Venice, Italy. As a computer programmer, her husband could work anywhere so Frangipane took a break from her 9-to-5 world as an executive assistant and joined him for a Venetian venture.

During their 14-month stay, she discovered the true meaning of la dolce vita. The sweet life, she came to realize, involved working to live instead of living to work. Even amid famous Italian brands such as Cartier, Gucci and Fendi, the admitted shopaholic gained a new perspective.

"I learned to appreciate life itself," said Frangipane, who now speaks fluent Italian. "I used to buy five new pairs of shoes a month, but all of sudden, it wasn't about how much I could acquire. It was about appreciating what I did have."

What did she have? A supportive husband who also loved to cook, and a gift for creating meals. After leaving Venice and returning to the states, the couple eventually landed in Valrico. Frangipane went back to work but found that the stress was bleeding into every aspect of her life.

So she walked away from a steady paycheck, first becoming a personal trainer and teaching spinning classes at Shapes, then heating up her cooking repertoire through Savory Adventures.

The couple played host to visiting guests during their Italian stint, and so many friends told them they should do it for a living. It helped that Barry's late mother, Maria Louisa, passed on her best recipes.

The tour company business boomed, and so did Debbie's reputation as a talented chef. Now she's preparing her first cookbook by perfecting recipes at the test kitchen inside Famous Tate's on State Road 60 in Valrico.

In addition, she hopes to eventually earn the rating of certified master chef through the Culinary Institute of America and the American Culinary Federation.

Frangipane's success allows her to meet culinary stars, cook for dignitaries and showcase her skills to TV audiences.

Still, she has lost none of the Southern charm she first gained preparing food as a 7-year-old with her maternal grandmother in a Decatur, Ala., kitchen. She says goodbye with a hug, accents fancy French cooking terms with a light twang and always looks for somebody to feed.

"This is where I'm at peace," Frangipane said of the kitchen. "This is where I'm comfortable."

Something tells me Debbie Frangipane isn't quite done cooking up dreams.

That's all I'm saying.

Valrico chef cooks her way to fulfillment and acclaim 11/19/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:46pm]

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