Have you ever been asked, “If you weren’t in the career you’re in now, what would you be doing?” My answer has always been the same, “I would be a chef.”
If there’s anyone I love spending the afternoon with, it’s a chef. So when I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with the Executive Chef at St Augustine’s 95 Cordova in the famed Casa Monica Hotel, I was thrilled.
Chef Aaron Chavarria, a native of Nicaragua, is known for giving guests and locals a true culinary experience. As the hotel prepares to up the ante on its guest experience by adding a luxury spa, Chef Aaron is also planning to take guests on a new culinary adventure.
Next month, the menu at 95 Cordova will offer guests tapas style dining, a throwback to Chef Aaron’s days of cooking as a child with his mother. Everything was made with fresh, local ingredients paired with healthy tropical fruits and flavorful herbs. The new menu will feature Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired small plates that are simple, yet elegant.
Among some of the dishes planned are tuna cured in cumin, a watermelon salad with fresh local greens, and cured salmon in Limóncello. Chef prepared a special tasting for me of conch Carpaccio with citrus and datil pepper-infused oil and the goat cheese medallion with pomegranate syrup over arugula. They were exquisite with the most satisfying, delicate flavors.
Chef Aaron wants guests to experience different flavors by offering small plates for sharing. I asked if this new style of cuisine makes his job more challenging. His response, “No, it makes my job more fun.” It’s the challenge of being creative with infused oils, herbs, liquor, spices and house-made jams that keep his job interesting.
Chef explained that tapas are a great way to please all palates, and the Casa Monica certainly sees its share of international guests. Best of all, his loyal local diners don’t have to travel abroad to experience rich, exotic flavors.
The Casa Monica has partnered with the city’s most popular new attraction, the St. Augustine Distillery, to offer locally-produced vodka as a guest amenity in rooms. Chef Aaron will also use the distillery’s products in his new tapas menu.
What I love most about Chef Aaron is that he’s put together a highly experienced and diverse kitchen staff that allows him to spend his evening talking with guests. “I think it’s important to educate guests on what they’re eating, how it was prepared and where it was sourced locally. “I’ll them exactly what farmer’s market I got their microgreens at, or where their fish was caught,” he said.
Chef Aaron also plans to begin hosting Flavor and Chef’s tables where guests can take a culinary tour of a specific ingredient or region. For example, chocolate is used in so many international dishes, both savory and sweet, so he plans to host a Chef’s Flavor Table with chocolate-inspired offerings.
Five questions with Chef Aaron:
Beth: What’s the one experience you want your guests to leave here with?
Chef: I want them to remember the sensory experience – the smell when they enter the restaurant, the presentation on the plate and the unique and exciting tastes they’ve enjoyed.
Beth: What’s your go-to meal at home after a late night?
Chef: I love to make seared cheese on tortillas with crème fraîche and cilantro with my kids.
Beth: As a native Nicaraguan, have you adopted any Southern foods you adore?
Chef: I love grits and fried green tomatoes. We actually ate those when I was a young child in Nicaragua.
Beth: The best meal you’ve ever had?
Chef: Berlin, Germany when I was a young adult. Duck in a cream sauce.
Beth: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
Chef: Limburger cheese.