What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear “Orlando”?
Chances are it’s blazing sun, or Mickey Mouse, or even meetings. Certainly not farm-to-table food.
The cadre of foodies who run Grande Lakes Orlando — home to both a JW Marriott and a Ritz-Carlton hotel — have long been working to change that. As GLO managing director Jim Burns points out, their resort sits on 500 acres, Florida has a year-round growing season, and chef team is first-class. So what happened next was probably a given.
“Since what has always defined our properties is commitment to food and beverage, and sometimes to local, organic, crafted experiences, we took [food] to a different level a few years ago.” said Burns. Part of that strategy involved tapping Melissa Kelly, the award-winning chef of Maine’s Primo — which sets the nation’s bar for farm-to-fork cuisine — to open a second Primo inside JW Marriott Orlando.
Nearly a decade later, the staff tilled 7000 square feet of the property for an on-site farm, Whisper Creek Farm. Two years into its life, the plot teems with citrus fruit, berries, greens, tomatoes, melons, and even hops — as well as swarms of bees creating honey. Most of it ends up on guests’ plates.
In the next few months, Grande Lakes will open two new restaurants to showcase that bounty: the Southern-inspired Highball & Harvest inside The Ritz-Carlton (which will open this July), and the small-plates-focused Whisper Creek Kitchen, which will open inside the JW Marriott Orlando this fall.
Early this week, a clutch of GLO chefs unpacked their knives inside the tiny kitchen of New York City’s James Beard House to show off the exquisite ingredients they get to work with — in both food and cocktails — during a relaxed luncheon.
The guests were split between writers (like me) and meeting planners, a few of which affirmed that meetings at Grande Lakes were rarely ordinary. (Whisper Creek Farm is adjacent to a 6000-square-feet event space). We were welcomed by a smorgasbord of appetizers and drinks, including a zingy mocktail conceived by GLO food and beverage director Brian McHugh that blended jasmine green tea, lime juice, cucumber, mint and sparkling water over ice. Waiters also offered a crisp pale ale brewed at Grande Lakes; come July, they’ll have their own microbrewery, too.
Once guests were seated, executive pastry chef Stephane Chéramy appeared to explain the not-so-ordinary bread on the table: Parker House rolls made from ancient grains. Much trial-and-error had led to their creation — and they were close to perfect: warm, moist, and cosseting.
Next, JW Marriott executive chef Chris Brown plated a trio of tastes from the Whisper Creek Kitchen, which he’ll helm: A dollop of foie gras-cashew nut butter over wild blackberry jam; a curl of “duck ham” atop oatmeal risotto; and a sublime, herbaceous chicken sausage over a golden purée of Calabaza squash and some racy giardiniera (pictured at the start of the post). Each miniature dish was brought to life by sips of citrusy, caramel-tinged dunkelweizen that had been infused with Kaffir limes. (“Every dish we’ll serve will have at least one ingredient harvested from the farm,” said Brown later, and that includes the hops that go into the beer; the kitchen will also cure its own meat for charcuterie plates).
Ritz-Carlton Orlando head chef Mark Jeffers grew up partly in the South, so he spooned creamy grits into our bowls for a dish called “Pig-n-Egg”: braised pork cheek (from pigs raised in central Florida), sautéed kale, maitake mushrooms, and a sous-vided duck egg which, when broken, gently spread across the plate. Bits of pickled watermelon rind offered bursts of sharp pucker.
Cheramy’s dessert was a tiny parade of sweets (including something akin to a cider munchkin) poised atop an earthy, bright-green, and utterly imaginative wheat grass coulis.
At the lunch’s close, the chefs looked ready to leave the “cozy” kitchen and explore New York before heading back south for what will probably be a frenetic few months before their respective openings. We hope they found some vittles as tasty as those they served up on Wednesday afternoon.