Eyes on the Prize

Zasób 1

Top Chefs Compete in a Sumptuous Florida Cook‑Off

Vegetables
Vegetables

s the sun rises over one of Florida’s most charming destinations, Amelia Island, eight of the country’s best chefs set sail aboard fishing boats with one goal in mind: to win.

“This competition isn’t for everyone–it’s for the chefs whom I consider to be at the top of their game,” said Daven Wardynski, executive chef at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort. The property hosts a culinary contest, Fish to Fork, for a weekend every May. “When they get here, we throw down.”

Omni Amelia Island started Fish to Fork four years ago. Guests who opt in for the VIP weekend package can go fishing with the elite chefs Wardynski has handpicked. The culinary masters then transform their fresh catch into dishes that double as their contest entries and a weekend-long feast for the attendees.

“I want people to see that we aren’t just another hotel. That’s why we bring in these incredible chefs and put them within arm’s reach of every guest,” said Wardynski.

The chance to get up close with this expert level of talent is one of the event’s biggest appeals, and Wardynski dines incognito at each chef’s restaurant before offering them a spot on his roster. He said he looks for a combination of rising stars and established veterans—including many with James Beard Award nominations—and ultimately, the guests appreciate the curation.

“Fish to Fork is so much fun,” said Tyler Ratay, a local resident from Jacksonville. “I love how interactive the whole experience is, and the chefs they bring in are impressive.”

The setting of this food battle, Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, sits amid Spanish-moss-draped oak trees and swaying palms surrounded by sand dunes and salt marshes. Situated among an expansive 1,350 acres, the property has more than 400 rooms (plus another 300 luxury villas and homes) and mixes the best elements of a sleepy seaside village with sweet Southern charm. Most travelers come to Amelia Island, named for the daughter of King George II of England, for the 13 miles of pristine beaches. The Omni sits on 3.5 miles of them, on a tranquil southern stretch.

Shells
Shells

“I want people to see that we aren’t just another hotel. That’s why we bring in these incredible chefs and put them within arm’s reach of every guest.”

Daven Wardynski Executive Chef at Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort

This year, most of the competitors and guests had to stick to the backwaters on the six-hour fishing expedition that is the heart of the event. Still, they returned with a bounty of black drum, flounder, snapper and more. “Even though the wind played a major factor, everyone had a good time,” said captain Terry Lacoss, owner of Amelia Angler Outfitters and leader of the competition’s team of charter captains. “It’s such a unique opportunity for guests to mingle with the chefs.”

The New Yorker competing in the group, chef Mike Mastrantuono of the farm-to-table restaurant Roux, in Slingerlands, brought back the biggest catch of the day: a seven-pound sea trout. But there was no time to bask in the excitement of the victory. Mastrantuono and the other chefs had to move on to transforming their fish into dishes that could feed the 450 guests at the headlining Fish to Fork Main Event. There, after the chefs judged each others’ dishes in a closed-door vote, the well-fed attendees selected their favorites. It was an intense matchup, to be sure, and that was only the beginning.

This year, most of the competitors and guests had to stick to the backwaters on the six-hour fishing expedition that is the heart of the event. Still, they returned with a bounty of black drum, flounder, snapper and more. “Even though the wind played a major factor, everyone had a good time,” said captain Terry Lacoss, owner of Amelia Angler Outfitters and leader of the competition’s team of charter captains. “It’s such a unique opportunity for guests to mingle with the chefs.”

The New Yorker competing in the group, chef Mike Mastrantuono of the farm-to-table restaurant Roux, in Slingerlands, brought back the biggest catch of the day: a seven-pound sea trout. But there was no time to bask in the excitement of the victory. Mastrantuono and the other chefs had to move on to transforming their fish into dishes that could feed the 450 guests at the headlining Fish to Fork Main Event. There, after the chefs judged each others’ dishes in a closed-door vote, the well-fed attendees selected their favorites. It was an intense matchup, to be sure, and that was only the beginning.

“I love how interactive the whole experience is, and the chefs they bring in are impressive”

Tyler Ratay Guest, Fish to Fork 2017

After guests sampled the chefs’ creations during the cocktail hour, the cooking stars divided into two teams: Blue and White. The competitors then had 60 minutes to craft another dish, this time using ingredients from an on-stage pantry. Each year, at this point in the contest, to up the ante, chefs are asked to incorporate one secret ingredient. This time, it was locally sourced sea beans found in the island’s salt marshes.

The eager diners participated in more than just the voting. They were part of the action everywhere: on stage, in and around the dual open kitchens and dancing under the oaks to live music as they admired the fresh produce and massive sculpture of fish encased in ice. They also maximized the opportunity to pick up pro tips from the talent, who happily obliged. Even though the clock was ticking on Miami-based chef Brad Kilgore as he carved through a massive tuna, he took a quick break to take a photo with a woman who had leaned in close enough to check out his skillful slicing—and get a side-by-side pose.

Wardynski admits he also gets starstruck. He has a major hand in organizing the event and several major food initiatives at the Omni property, but he still gets a thrill from watching his handpicked teams of gourmet titans face off. Although he runs an on-site organic garden, operates an apiary that produces more than 1,000 pounds of honey each year and promotes Omni’s farm-to-table options through an effort called The Sprouting Project, he said “I would much rather have been competing.”

Mussels
Mussels
Shell

After a weekend of contestant events, a Fish to Fork winner was selected. It was Joey Ward, who has been bringing in accolades for his work at Atlanta’s Brazilian-Chinese fusion eatery, Gunshow. He won both the guest and the chef votes, and Wardynski noted that his creations showed a flair for achieving flavor balance: “He nailed the saltiness and herbaceousness in unison.”

Although it was a great night for Ward, his rivals didn’t go home empty-handed. The Blue team, which he wasn’t part of, squeaked by with 51 percent of the popular vote.

“Food tastes better when it has soul, and soul for me is a story,” said Wardynski. Omni Amelia Island has created a food festival that manages to tell the story of Southern cooking today, as interpreted by some of the nation’s top chefs, and the bounty of ingredients found in the waters off Amelia Island. “It’s really about creating a connection with food.”

Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort will host its fifth annual Fish to Fork on May 17-20, 2018. Tickets for the Main Event start at $125 per person, and raffle proceeds benefit Omni Hotels & Resorts’ Say Goodnight to Hunger program.