It was 7 a.m. when our small fishing charter pulled away from the dock and headed out to fish the backwaters of the northeast Florida coast, off of Amelia Island. As the boat picked up speed, it bobbed up and down over the small waves rippling across the inlet, and I could feel the tequila from the night before stirring in my stomach. Other than our captain, Greg, my one companion on the boat was Kathleen Blake, a 2015 James Beard semifinalist and chef and owner of the Rusty Spoon in Orlando, Florida. She said she took it easy the night before during our tequila tasting because she knew fishing at 6 a.m. wasn’t the time to have a hangover. Not to mention, she had to catch the right kind of fish to create a winning dish for the Omni Amelia Island Resort Plantation’s Fish to Fork weekend.
Blake was one of six chefs competing to win the Fish to Fork weekend cook-off, for which the chefs had to randomly select one of three types of fishing common off the Florida coast — backwater, deep sea, and fly fishing — and then create dishes with whatever they caught. The idea makes a lot of sense, not only because Florida has access to some of the best seafood along the coast, but also because all of the chefs invited to Fish to Fork have a commitment to sourcing their ingredients locally and building relationships with farmers and fishermen.
Blake told me that that’s why the trip intrigued her: because you “have to go out and utilize what was there in front of you,” which is what Blake does every day when she sources food for the Rusty Spoon. She said she meets each fisherman and farmer personally to talk with them about their philosophy and, most importantly, about sustainability.
This respect for the local community and the environment all started when Blake was growing up in a small town in northeast Iowa. Blake is one of five children, and her uncle had 10 children. Every Sunday, her uncle, a pharmacist, would close his shop early and drive to Blake’s grandmother’s house, where they would all get together for Sunday supper.
“My two sisters and I would go to Grandma’s on Thursday night and we would start getting things ready for Sunday,” Blake said. “That was the closure of the weekend — to have all of us together.”
Blake said her grandmother roasted a whole turkey or created elaborate Jell-O salads. For dessert, she made graham cracker pie, cobbler, or an “amazing” butterscotch cake. Blake, who moved to San Francisco when she was 17 to pursue a culinary career, said her grandmother’s attention to detail has stuck with her throughout her years as a chef. (She still has her grandmother’s serving spoon on her cooking station at The Rusty Spoon.) She said her grandmother kept cookies that were too crisp for herself and only served the ones that were “most perfect.” She ironed tablecloths before family meals and polished the silver. She even scraped off burnt toast before feeding it to the birds.
“She always scraped all the burnt off, you know, like the birds would come knocking at the door and say, ‘Hey, we don’t like your toast,’” Blake said.
Even Blake’s parents made a year-round commitment to using their resources wisely. Her father sold farm equipment and her mother was a teacher. In the summers, Blake and her siblings would stand underneath the family’s apple tree — because apples could go a long way in her family.
“My grandmother would do a week or two weekends of pie baking and applesauce making. Then we’d have pies all through the fall,” Blake said. “My dad would buy half a cow or half a pig and we worked out of the freezer.”