Fish to Fork Weekend
If it’s not on the island, you don’t need it, according to my driver, Jan Nordstrom, who has been working at the Omni Amelia Island Resort Plantation for more than 10 years. Nordstrom was my guide to Amelia Island for the 45 minutes it took to drive from the Jacksonville airport to the resort. He had an Eastern European accent, and when he talked about the resort and the history of the island, he almost sounded like he was telling me about a niece he adores. His motto about the island — and its occupants — being completely self-sustaining is represented perfectly by the resort’s aquaponic greenhouse and garden, which is known as the Sprouting Project.
The resort’s executive chef, Daven Wardynski, told me he started the project with the hopes that it wouldn’t become “a neglected 10-foot-by-10-foot plot that was sitting outside of the restaurant window as a PR piece.” Instead, he wanted something that really allowed resort guests to bond with their food, knowing that it was grown and harvested right on the property. The greenhouse and its carefully-tended plants featured heavily in the resort’s Fish to Fork weekend. The event revolved around a culinary competition in which Wardynski and five other chefs came together for a cook-off. The chefs, who came from the southeast and the northeast coasts, had to cook with fish they caught themselves off the shores of the island.
During the weekend, VIP Fish to Fork guests got to experience an exclusive lunch outside of the greenhouse. Guests tasted locally sourced pork and purées made with fresh vegetables — squash, peas, basil — grown in the greenhouse. Outside of the greenhouse and just across a small, handmade bridge, the project has its own beehives, which have helped rebuild local bee populations. Guests could even sample honey at the resort’s Sunrise Café.
Wardynski said the project is the perfect representation of the very important connection he wants guests to feel to the food at the resort. While we were eating lunch just outside the greenhouse, the air smelled like fresh vegetables and orange juice, which had just been squeezed from oranges that Wardynski bought from a local farmer down the road. Wardynski motioned to a sign on the small orange juice station he had created that read “Fresh Citrus”:
“I just stole that from the farmer down the road. Well, I didn’t steal it. I bought it,” he said, laughing.
That’s how close to the food Wardynski likes to be, and that’s part of the reason why he started the Sprouting Project.
“You need to be able to connect back to the food and what you’re eating,” Wardynski told me. “What’s the recipe for the recipe?…When you lose that connection with your food, when you lose that connection with the farmer, you lose that connection with the flavor.”
The Sprouting Project helped me remember that each fruit and vegetable has a season when it tastes its best. And this is a truth that Wardynski was very excited about throughout the entire weekend.
“I ran cross country as a kid in high school,” Wardynski said. “At about the two-mile mark there was a pear tree. And there was nothing better than… just stopping and pulling a pear off the tree and going, ‘That pear tastes different today than it did yesterday.’”
In the end, Wardynski said that, as a chef, he enjoys creating diverse dishes that are acidic, bitter, sweet, and sour all at once. For him, food is about invoking memories. Eating food is the thing we do second most in life other than sleep, so it shouldn’t be monotonous.
“It’s about engaging your nostalgia,” he said. “Food is memories. Food is romance. When you reconnect that with a really great delicious peach, well, does that come back to pulling peaches off the tree when you were younger? And, for me, it does.”
Wardynski either grows his own ingredients in the Sprouting Project or buys them from local farmers, because he was raised as a “Michigan farm boy.” For example, Wardynski never had real, fresh pecans until moving to Florida. And it was the same with shrimp. Relying on freshness, simplicity, and “peak” flavors are important themes in Wardynski’s dishes. He said the dish he and his team created for the Fish to Fork individual competition was a great representation of his approach. He caught his dish while deep-sea fishing before the competition. The chef’s tōgarashi black bass won the award for the favorite among all the chefs and the individual challenge, which was put to a guest vote.
“You had a little bit of spiciness on the outside of the black bass,” Wardynski said of his winning dish. “We had some sweet with the fennel aïoli. You had some salty from the miso. But then you also had some sour from the pickled green mangos that were on top. At the end of the day, when you roll it all together, it should’ve felt like here. If I’m in Michigan, I’m going to cook different than when I cook here.”
That’s the fundamental idea behind Wardynski’s cooking at the resort and the motivation for the Sprouting Project. The project connects guests to Florida — it connects them to real food. During the lunch outside of the greenhouse, Wardynski told us a story about one of his young daughters. He said she was walking through the greenhouse, picking at things and eating them. When she picked and ate a piece of kale she said, “Daddy, this tastes like salad!” Wardynski said he excitedly exclaimed, “That’s because it is!”
“I want my daughters to know that food comes the ground — it comes from a plant,” he said. “It doesn’t just show up in a bag at Walmart and you pick it up.”