Fish To Fork Weekend Showcases Florida's Culinary Talent

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.



On Saturday night, the chefs were split up at tables placed on opposite sides of one of the resort's bright, grassy front yards. To vote for the dish they liked most, visitors placed $1 bills — or $10 bills or, hell, even $20 bills — in the corresponding chef's basket. Whoever made the most money won the title of Fish to Fork Champion. And, fabulously, all of the money raised went to the James Beard Foundation, which provides scholarships to aspiring chefs and awards to the best chefs and restaurants across the United States.

The six competing chefs were pooled mostly from the Southeast, but also from the farther Northeast Coast — Amelia Island, Florida; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Orlando, Florida; and Boston, Massachusetts.

Blake's resulting dish at Saturday night's competition was light and summery, featuring watermelon balls, pickled watermelon rind, smashed favas, lime, and sunflower sprouts. The fish tasted clean and refreshing, and the sunflower sprout added an earthy crunch. It was a hard contrast to the other chefs' creations. Hector Santiago, former Top Chef contestant and chef at Bacchanalia in Atlanta, Georgia, only caught sting ray and shark. But he brilliantly beat the chewy texture associated with both of those fish by turning them into a sausage. The shark-and-ray chorizo featured whiting rouille and a spicy green olive and tomato relish.

Marais, originally from South Africa, prepared the simplest dish using smoked whiting, avocado cream, tomato salad, and a green onion emulsion. It finished just behind Blake's dish in my book of delicious simplicity. Greg Zanitsch, chef and owner of the Fig Tree in Charlotte, North Carolina, served grouper and cobia ceviche with roasted red pepper chimichurri, cucumber-orange agrodolce, pickled jalapeño, and — for an exciting sweet and salty kick — popcorn.

Tom Gray, chef and owner of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails in Jacksonville, Florida, served barbecue-spice pompano with seafood sausage and a seaweed crisp.

Wardynski won both the chef's pick award and the audience favorite for the night with his perfectly cooked and cubed black bass. The fish wasn't overpowered by the sweetness of honey, some salty miso, fennel aïoli, and a small topping of pickled mangos.

After the individual contest, the chefs split into two teams: Wardynski, Blake, and Santiago were on the green team, while Marais, Zanitsch, and Gray made up the orange team. The teams had one hour to prepare a seafood dish with local ingredients and one secret ingredient: Tequila.



Some of the chefs later said they should've known it was tequila, since the liquor was a theme throughout the weekend. The tequila-tasting experience was somewhat inconveniently placed the night before our 6 a.m. fishing expedition, so the secret ingredient was the final fabulous joke.

While cooking, Santiago drank straight from the tequila bottle and the crowd cheered wildly. He said he was making a salsa to pair with the striper the group had chosen. The orange team prepared cobia with a fruit chutney and rosemary. When about 15 minutes remained, both teams started plating their dishes, which they personally set out buffet style for each of the 300 attendees.

The green team's striper won, but both teams took on the challenge with energy and... tequila.

Fish to Fork managed to turn what could've been a simple competition into a family-like event. The running jokes and the focus on community transformed it from a luxury resort getaway to what felt like a weekend reconnecting with old friends — who just happened to be nationally recognized chefs.