Elaine and Scott Harris
Elaine and Scott Harris
The Boca Raton Resort & Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, is a piece of history. It was an important link in luxury train travel for the affluent in the northeast who wanted to winter under the warm Florida sun. Go back in time in a luxurious private stateroom heading south on Henry Flagler’s railroad in the late 1920s and 1930s, leaving the snow behind and anticipating the beckoning orange blossoms.
The Boca Raton Resort & Club, which opened Feb. 6, 1926, as the Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn, is a large resort and members-only club and one of the crown jewels for the elite on Florida’s east coast. The other luxury resorts included The Breakers in Palm Beach, Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn, The Biltmore in Coral Gables, and the Casa Marina (The Flagler Hotel) in Key West. Ladies and gentlemen of the era enjoyed the best of the best at these resorts as they traveled the Flagler Railroad to Key West and some on to Cuba.
Arriving at the Waldorf Astoria Boca Raton, we were taken back in time with unbridled luxury and service. This grand dame was designed by California-born architect Addison Mizner in 1926. The Boca Raton Club Tower was built in 1969 and is still considerably taller than any other building in southern Palm Beach County. The resort has recently undergone a $150 million renovation, though the cloister and tower rooms were redesigned in 2006.
The resort is located just steps from its private beach on the stunning south Florida coast. Our floor-to-ceiling windows provided a romantic view of the Atlantic Ocean, Inter Coastal Waterway, and the marina, which is home to 100-foot yachts.
Guests can dine at one of the 11 award-wining restaurants or unwind with an ultimate spa experience at the hotel's Waldorf Astoria Spa, voted the No. 1 spa in the country by Condé Nast Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards. We were here on a culinary mission, partaking in Taste of Waldorf Astoria, a competition that had us deep-sea fishing and sourcing local ingredients.
In a world inundated by food TV contests and cooking competitions, an interesting twist on a traditional rivalry is always a refreshing deviation for the creative culinary world. The Waldorf Astoria has partnered with the James Beard Foundation for a third year to find the next Taste of Waldorf Astoria champion. Each of the participating five JBF Rising Star semi-finalists have been partnered with a Waldorf Astoria’s Master Chef for a multi-day collaboration to conceive the next culinary masterpiece. After the pairings have been created, the program culminates with a competition in February at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, featuring a star-studded panel of judges who will determine the winning combination.
The Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts have given the world classic dishes such as eggs Benedict, Waldorf salad, and the red velvet cake, and now there is a worldwide search for yet another dish to hallmark this iconic brand. Just before the holidays we joined two accomplished chefs, one a 20-plus-year veteran and executive chef of the Waldorf Astoria, Andrew Roenbeck, and his counterpart, a young James Beard Rising Star, chef Sara Hauman of San Francisco. This culinary challenge propelled these chefs together without any prior communication as they were tasked to prepare a dish that will be not only featured in every Waldorf Astoria worldwide but an iconic dish that would withstand the test of time.
This year’s contest is to transform the happy hour into the "Fifth Hour” by expanding bar offerings beyond traditional drinks and appetizers. Roenbeck and Hauman were challenged to create two small bites that must pair perfectly with an original cocktail and a mocktail. Working with the skilled Boca Raton hospitality staff, they spent several days creating a truly memorable dining experience encompassing every detail of the overall presentation, from plate to palate. Not only was this a culinary challenge but also a mentoring and educational experience for the Rising Star chefs. We came along to catalog and chronicle the weeklong journey of these two vastly different chefs as they journeyed through their purpose, finding the best purveyors while developing their creative process into a winning plate.
With several of us coming together from different parts of the country and various time zones, we were all a bit jet-lagged but ready to be educated on the local flora and fauna. We met with some of the best local purveyors in search for the superior ingredients needed in producing the winning menu items. Our first culinary assignment: Meet at the Waldorf Astoria boat dock for a fishing trip. Living in the desert (like we do) does not include fishing expeditions, so this looked like an intriguing adventure. The seas looked a bit choppy but knowing we were going to be with experienced fishermen, we put aside our doubts and bravely stepped aboard the small fishing vessel. Docked aside multi-million dollar yachts, this fishing craft looked diminutive and a bit fragile for the stormy weather that seemed to be brewing on the horizon. Our angst was starting to show, but we put on our seafaring faces and ventured into the channel as our jovial seamates reassured us of their skillful knowledge that would keep us from any impending doom.
That seeming reassurance faded very quickly as large white caps loomed on the horizon. While the captain jokingly hummed the theme song to the ’70s TV show Gilligan’s Island (and we know what happened to that crew!) under his breath, we were thinking, Would our fate be any different? His carefree attitude did not pierce our cloud of trepidation as we heaved and pitched through the ICW and into the Atlantic Ocean. We bounced through the rough waves like a rubber duck in an agitated child’s bath, all the while praying to the sea gods for mercy. Once we cleared the channel, our fate looked as dubious as storm clouds and rough waters seemingly increased by the minute.
Meanwhile hope glimmered briefly when the front fishing pole nearly bent in half sending the crew into action; one trusting the bowing pole into the hands of a hesitant but eager Hauman and the other brandishing a menacing-looking gaffing hook. The two worked in frantic unison bringing aboard the combative mahi mahi amidst bouts of bloody surrender. With the prize catch now subdued, we anxiously urged the captain to take us back to dry land, and he obliged to our collective sigh of relief. As we bounced back into the harbor we were relieved and rejoicing, as our mission was now accomplished, having the first locally sourced protein in the quest for the best ingredients.
Elaine and Scott Harris
The next day after a lovely breakfast, we were on our way to meet a beekeeper and then off to visit notable organic farmers and a stop at Palm Beach County’s only “winery.”
It’s not every day that one is offered the use of a very expensive Maserati (the official town car of the Boca Resorts) as means of transport to an apiary. Was it the warnings we were told beforehand that made us just a tad apprehensive? These included: Do not wear black (what about the shining black Maserati that we were driving up in? Would that be the object of bee wrath?), and make sure you cover your feet (bees love to get at your toes).
Roenbeck reassured us that the bees were harmless as long as you adhere to the rules of the beekeeper. We were soon well-versed on bee etiquette, as we entered into the buzzy world of Roxanne L. Altrui, passionate beekeeper. We gingerly opened the car door to the bee-filled atmosphere; the distinctive buzzing sound and busy creatures were now surrounding us, and we were anxious to approach their territory respectfully and safely.
Altrui, a tall, robust woman adorned in a full bee suit, quickly gave us each our own suit, and we made haste in getting our protective gear on as the bees were becoming increasingly interested in our presence. We felt much more relaxed in our protective garment, though a bit warm on this humid day. Roxanne took us through an extensive overview of her bee world, with live demonstrations showing us the work of the queen bee to the birth of a new bee. Every facet of her work was fascinating and often enlightening. “See, there are millions of bees around us, and are they attacking us?” queried Altrui. “They are only doing their job,” she added. And their job is making the incredible golden local honey that we came to gather on this day.
Bee populations in the area and worldwide are diminishing as large numbers of these much-needed creatures are facing devastating environmental changes and overspraying of pesticides and other chemicals. Altrui claimed to be the spokesperson for the bees and actually calls them her “girls” since there are no male worker bees. “We need bees to pollinate our food, and they need us to help them thrive and dispel the fears that many people hold to be true often based in fear and ignorance,” she added. We truly learned the beauty and complexity of the bee world and both chefs procured the local honey for yet another ingredient in their menu quest. It was time to get back into our Maserati for the next part of our exploration.
Elaine and Scott Harris
Driving down dusty, palm-tree-lined roads with large open canals, we lost our GPS signal. We knew we were truly lost in the back brush of South Florida when we unknowingly happened upon the entrance to a nudist camp. Quickly turning around, our navigation system finally alerted us to farm known as Swank Specialty Produce operated by a husband-and-wife team, Darrin and Jodi Swank.
The couple, considered to be pioneers in the family farming business, left the eastern United States in the late ’90s to try farming in South Florida. Hydroponic, natural farming was virtually non-existent and through a great deal of sweat, tears, and extremely hard work the farm continues to offer the highest-quality and best-tasting produce in Florida. The Boca Resort and Club was one of the first accounts for the Swanks. “Our products speak for themselves,” Jodi said. “We were one of the first small family farms that started the local farming movement.” Walking along the rows of brilliantly colored organic vegetables, we tasted fresh tomatoes, beans, and other succulent organic produce. Both chefs seemed to bond over which produce they would be using in their next dish. This place was a Garden of Eden, the perfect place to find the best ingredients. After walking the farm, it was time to visit a local winery and see what they had to offer up to please our palates.
David Bick, 42, and Teal Pfeifer, 33, are owners of Palm Beach County’s only winery, Sons and Daughters, which includes a retail space and a tasting room. As we entered the tiny tasting room we were looking forward to trying their wine made from dried hibiscus sabdariffa (also known as roselle), Jamaican sorrel, sour-sour, and Florida cranberry. “This is one of the only organic ways to preserve a high-quality product by making wine,” Bick claimed. Bick and Pfeifer strive to maintain the organic purity of their product, and it comes out in the refreshing taste of this lovely coral-color wine that boasts subtle floral notes. Bick also added an extra benefit to this type of wine. His wine boasts a 13 percent AVB but hangover complications are nearly non-existent. This hibiscus wine has a cult following from well-known rock stars to enthusiastic locals. There is even a waiting list as production is on a small, family farm scale. We were fortunate to have a sip or two and to gather a few bottles for the chefs’ recipe treasure trove.
With a full day of adventure, culinary education, and enlightenment behind us, we still had time had to make a last stop at the Loxahatchee Nature Preserve to fulfill Hauman’s desire to see a live alligator. As the sun was setting over the peaceful canal, we looked around hoping see these prehistoric looking creatures in their natural setting. Slowly a lone alligator emerged from across the embankment. We were on a tall platform looking down at the fierce-looking creature, and everyone was glad to be an observer and not his next meal.
After a full day of meeting purveyors and learning of the diverse and abundant produce in region, we headed back to the opulent resort for some rest, a lovely meal at Morimoto, and reflection. The next day was crunch time, as the chefs had to combine their creative skills and knowledge to come up with the winning “Fifth Hour” bar bites and cocktail pairings.
Elaine and Scott Harris
Watching the process of two vastly different chefs, Hauman, a 28-year-old San Franciscan who has generated a great deal of critical acclaim with as the opening chef of Huxley, and Roenbeck, who oversees multiple restaurants, hundreds of chefs, and a multimillion-dollar budget, was indeed an interesting voyage into the creative process.
Beginning with a simple drawing on a cocktail napkin, the conceptualization began. Ingredients were assembled, ready to use in capturing the flavor profiles and subtle nuances of tastes and textures. Both chefs acknowledged that skill and cooperation were essential to getting the job done with excellence and integrity. They spent another two days tasting, testing, and working with the Boca Raton Resort’s lead mixologist to create the drinks. A final consensus was made, and dishes were executed and plated for a bevy of hotel executives and members of the local media. Roenbeck, a bit of a comedian, kept everything moving in a jovial direction with amusing stories and anecdotes as the pressure to execute seemed daunting as the day wore on.
It took four days of foraging ingredients that took us from sea to bees. Now, it was time to put all of the hand-picked ingredients together into a culinary masterpiece. The first dish, all about Florida with an Asian flair, was the “Angry American Lobster”: fresh lobster featuring the classic Florida citrus of Key lime touched off with a spicy Asian barbecue mayo topped with toasted sesame. How much more Florida can you get?
We had the surf and now came the turf: “Kobe Carpaccio Bone Marrow Truffle Toast.” This gastronomic delight was spotlighted by thinly sliced Kobe Carpaccio layered atop of rich bone marrow toast (the truffles where brought in that very day) and accented with rich Parmigiano-Reggiano truffle cream, tomato conserva, black truffle caviar, and a king mushroom with white truffle honey to add a bit of ethereal sweetness to finish.
All this work for the perfect bar bites paired with a wine cocktail of porto, Spanish orange liquor, honey lemon ginger simple syrup, and a jasmine green tea brought accolades from the special guests who gathered for a secret unveiling before the public reveal.
We believe, along with the positive response from the food and beverage professionals, that Roenbeck and Hauman could easily be the next winners in the Taste of Waldorf Astoria competition. Their extremely well-executed, inventive, and decadent bar bites will indeed put happy hour into another dimension. The next stop for these two world-class chefs will take them to the renowned Waldorf Astoria in New York City where they will compete against other Waldorf chefs to be the winners of The Taste of Waldorf 2017.