What happens when a farm boy from Michigan becomes an Executive Chef at a luxury resort? You get a farmer chef who likes to get his hands dirty. When Daven Wardynski arrived as the Executive Chef at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation following an $85 million renovation, he realized that in order to elevate the resort’s menus, he needed better access to the type of fresh ingredients he grew up with. There was an old abandoned greenhouse on the property and Chef Daven’s sous chef suggested it might be the perfection location for a “project.” So, he got busy…and got his hands dirty. He built his own organic garden and aquaponic greenhouse on the resort’s property. Then he channeled his inner-beekeeper and built a beehive. Now, he’s building a rustic, yet state-of-the-art, smokehouse that’s sure to turn out some mouth-watering meals. Affectionately titled, “The Sprouting Project”, Chef Daven’s idea sprouted from the desire to be a more sustainable chef. His garden and greenhouse produce 6,000 plants for the resort annually, while his beehive turns out 300 pounds of honey each year. He uses honey in everything from ice cream to vinaigrette and educates guests by presenting honey on the breakfast buffet using the entire frame from the hive. His greenhouse features a cutting edge aquaponic system fed by two 500-gallon fish tanks, which provide nutrients to his plants. It’s a rather sophisticated system and I couldn’t help but wonder where one learns to construct such an elaborate setup. But Chef Daven is very knowledgeable and obviously, very passionate, about the process. He offers guided tours to the resort’s guests to show off his seed of an idea. I’m certainly aware of the benefits of local honey but I never stopped to think about what makes a honey truly local. Chef Daven explained that because of the all the palmetto plants on the plantation, the honey produced by the bees is considered palmetto honey. Now I get the whole reason behind why local honeys are known to alleviate allergy symptoms – the bees feed on the local foliage and the honey ahs a somewhat vaccine affect. The organic garden features dozens of herbs as well as strawberry vines and blackberry bushes. The courtyard is a frequent setting for private events and weddings. They trucked in yards of oyster shells for the flooring to create an authentic Florida ambience. My favorite feature? The bar made with this amazing reclaimed wood that could probably tell a dozen stories. In talking about his culinary style, Chef Daven tries to keep his dishes simple and let the main ingredient shine through. One of my favorite all time quotes from a chef, “As a chef, you don’t define your food, your food defines you.” It makes so much sense. Daven made this profound exclamation as he rode off through the oyster shells on his bike. Yes, a bike. He doesn’t own a car so his bike is his primary form of transportation around the island and the resort. Quite fitting, I do believe. Executive Chef Daven Wardynski has led the culinary team at Omni Amelia Island Plantation since October of 2012, overseeing ten restaurants and lounges as well as catering from more than 80,000 sq. ft. of conference space, beverage operations and in-room dining. With over 17 years of experience in the culinary world, Wardynski began his career at the legendary TRU in Chicago, serving as sous chef under celebrity chef Rick Tramonto. Prior to accepting the position at Omni Amelia Island Plantation, he was the executive chef at the Omni Chicago Hotel for a number of years. Due to his emphasis on supporting local purveyors and his passion for fresh, quality ingredients, chef Wardynski has received multiple honors from the American Culinary Federation, including a Gold Medal in the Chicago National Restaurant show along with coverage in such media outlets as Oprah Radio, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Cooking Light, and Food & Wine.
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