On a Fishing Charter with a Chef at Amelia Island, Florida

Dinner at the Florida's Fish to Fork Weekend actually begins at 7 a.m., when chefs go fishing.

 

On the boat, Blake talked a lot with the captain about regulations that specify when certain fish are in season or how big or small the fish must be to keep. We started fishing with Greg at 7 a.m., and by the time we had finished at noon, we had fished at about seven or eight different spots that Greg frequented. When we were fishing, he pointed out specific points where he “got a pretty good-sized trout” or where the flounder liked to bite. Flounder, Greg told me repeatedly, are “really lazy eaters,” while redfish, the fish Blake and I caught the most of, are more aggressive eaters.

After the trip, Blake told me that Greg was “so diligent.” We caught a trout that was a quarter inch too short to keep, and Greg checked the fish’s length three times before throwing it back in the water.

“The livelihood of fishermen is something I think about,” Blake said. “If he wasn’t known as a fisherman that gets good catch, then that hurts his business. He knew every little nook of where we were.”

We were fishing close to a small barge holding equipment that Greg said was used for dredging when Blake got a bite. “Reel! Reel! Reel!” Greg yelled at us whenever our bobbers went under water for even a second. Blake reeled, but the fish fought. Finally, when she got him up to the boat, Greg pulled out a net and scooped up the 19-inch redfish, which bent the rod as Blake hauled him in.

We caught two redfish and one flounder that day, but the Fish to Fork rules said Blake had to use the redfish because we caught more of it. She said the resulting dish, “Sweet & Tart Redfish,” was inspired by what she saw that day during our fishing expedition. She didn’t want to overpower the great flavor of the redfish, which she said tasted similar to snapper. She aimed for simplicity. The dish featured watermelon balls, watermelon rind, smashed fava beans, lime, and sunflower sprout.

“I wanted each layer to have the sweet of the watermelon ball but then also the sort of tartness of pickling the watermelon rind,” Blake said. “Using the entire watermelon — that was really important. Then also just the crispness of the sunflower sprouts. To me, that was like the grass, because we were fishing in so much grass.”

The fishing experience, which is available to VIP Fish to Fork guests, was the perfect creative challenge for chefs who are excited by the gamble of only using what’s around them. As a chef, and as a fisherman, Blake is flexible and resourceful. When I showed up at her table during the individual Fish to Fork competition, she was plating dishes like a mad culinary scientist. When she looked up she yelled my name excitedly and asked me to move over to the side of the table, because they had a special dish just for me that used the flounder I had caught. I thought it was a true testament to her parents’ and grandmother’s influence that she saved it to serve to me.

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When the man who stood behind me in line asked, “Hey, why does she get that fish?” Chef Blake replied with a matter-of-fact, “Because she caught it.”