When resort managing director Donald Stamets asked Linkie Marais, chef and lifestyle expert from Boston, Massachusetts, what her current state of mind was on Thursday night, she responded with, “Tequila!” But no one on the trip suspected that the liquor — or that kind of light-heartedness — would feature so heavily in the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort’s Fish to Fork culinary weekend. But not heavily in the way you think. Rather, tequila ended up being the secret ingredient that Marais and five other chefs would have to use in a Top Chef-style team showdown Saturday evening. Before the team competition, though, the chefs also had to compete individually, only using fish that they would catch themselves off the northeast coast of Florida.
The competition, which about 300 people attended, didn’t feel like a huge event. For VIP package guests, it started out Thursday night, with a very unordinary dinner at the resort’s Marsh View Bar and Grill. But dinner wasn’t held in the restaurant. Rather, executive chef Daven Wardynski and his team prepared a long, family-style table outside on the grass, overlooking the marsh and the sunset. The unexpected thing the culinary weekend provided was a sense of community, and that dinner set the stage for it.
The air smelled like saltwater, fresh grass, and dewy moss, which hung down from trees across the resort, giving the island the feel of a southern Gothic novel. The marsh dinner featured dishes that sounded ordinary and homegrown, but they were only the latter: tomato soup, deviled eggs, boiled shrimp, and blackberry cobbler. The presentation brought the dishes from traditionally southern to rustic chic. The deviled eggs, for example, were placed in individual glass trays, which were held by carved tree branches. The blackberry cobbler was served hot on a heavy black skillet, which we passed around the table and then covered with homemade vanilla ice cream.
All of the ingredients for each of Wardynski’s meals were sourced locally (even one of the tequilas we tasted during the Rum & Tequila Experience was barreled just for the resort), and so it would only make sense that for the Fish to Fork weekend, all of the chefs had to fish for their own ingredients. Before dinner, the chefs each reached into a tin bucket full of water and pulled out a small boat, each of which had the kind of fishing they would do written on its underside. The choices were backwater fishing, deep sea fishing, and fly fishing.
I ended up on a backwater fishing boat at the crack of dawn with Kathleen Blake, chef and owner of The Rusty Spoon in Orlando, Florida. Thankfully, we didn’t need enough fish to actually feed 300 people, because we only caught about five, and two weren’t legal. But man, was the pressure on. We ended up with two red fish and one flounder, and Blake had to use whichever variety she caught more of.