Chatting with Orlando Chef Kathleen Blake
Kathleen Blake, chef and owner of downtown Orlando’s The Rusty Spoon, has been one of the city’s leading advocates of the farm-to-table movement for the past decade. To say Blake is obsessed with knowing where her restaurant’s food comes from is a bit like saying Mozart was a musician. Prior to moving to Orlando in 2003 to open Primo with chef Melissa Kelly, Blake wrote to the Department of Agriculture in order to get a list of the small farms and organic growers in Florida so she’d have a better understanding of where she could source her produce. She rattles off each one as if she’s listing dear friends she’s inviting over for weekend brunch. Some, like Dale Volkert from Lake Meadow Farms, have grown alongside her.
“I met Dale on a site called LocalHarvest.org and he was just raising chickens as a hobby and said he had chickens and eggs, so he brought by half-a-dozen. After trying them I told them I needed about 60-dozen as I wanted them for the restaurant. He’d bring them to me in wire baskets, every color you could possibly imagine, and they were still warm because he’d collect them from his chickens and bring them directly to the restaurant. Now he’s raising pigs and hydroponic vegetables and is really doing a lot for the community and getting people to source locally.”
Eleven years later, Blake is more committed than ever to not only serving delicious food at The Rusty Spoon, but also retaining relationships with each of her purveyors. She doesn’t use a middle man and instead prefers to maintain hands-on relationships with her farmers, ranchers, and fishermen directly. While she isn’t fanatical about everything coming from within Florida’s borders (she gets her lamb from Jamison farm in Latrobe, PA, for instance), seafood is the exception. "'What I do isn’t a concept or a trend, it’s the way I’ve always cooked'"
“I just got a text from my fisherman Chris from Wild Ocean Seafood about what he’s going to have available to me. Everyone I work with knows that if it didn’t come out of Florida water, then I’m not interested in using it.”
Talking to Blake about ingredients and eating in general provides true insight into the love she puts into each dish that is served to her guests. She’s passionate not only about the food, but also the preparation process. Her style, while currently in vogue, isn’t simply for show; it’s how she’s wired.
“What I do isn’t a concept or a trend, it’s the way I’ve always cooked and has always been my mentality. I really don’t know any other way.”
When asked about the state of the Orlando food scene as a whole, Blake is incredibly enthusiastic. Not typically thought of as a dining destination, she speaks fervently about not only her peers, but also the consumers who are more interested in food than ever—those that not only crave a tasty dish, but are also curious about the origin of the ingredients on their plate.
“The food scene here is like night-and-day from 2003 and more people are paying attention. There are good chefs and great food. There’s so much seafood that we can get every day. There’s an abundance of produce available, and nd our guests here are much more receptive to eating this way. They don’t just want a plate of food, they want to read the names of the farms and know where the food is coming from.”
Don’t expect to see Blake on any of the national competition food shows out there anytime soon. Not that she doesn’t have the chops or been called to participate, it’s just not in her nature.
“I have such a small staff and am in the kitchen six or seven days a week that I couldn’t imagine leaving them for that long of a period. I always say I’m not a competitor, I’m a collaborator. Participating in a competition show just isn’t the type of person that I am.”
For now, Blake is in the midst of Florida’s tomato, cucumber, and green pepper season, and she’s already dreaming up ways to work with the fragrant Charentais melons that she’ll be getting in the next couple of weeks. I, along with everyone else participating in the Orlando culinary scene, can’t wait to taste what she does with those.