Delicious, decadent, and delightful, this year’s Ocala Culinary Festival focuses on local sourcing, heritage dishes and drink pairings sure to please your palate.
Culinary talent from near and far are already dreaming up menus and planning pairings for Central Florida’s largest culinary festival. As it enters its fourth year, festival co-founder, Jennifer Hunt Murty, reveals the one ingredient that has led to the festival’s phenomenal success—quality.
“It starts with the superlative talent who generously lend their expertise and love for food and drink,” Murty offers. “And then the quality offerings they bring to the table, because what’s being served to the festival attendees is always the chef’s choice.”
After two years serving as festival director, Morgan Willet adds that there is an intangible aspect also considered while planning the festival.
“Yes, technically the festival is all about the food and drink, but we realize that it also has become about making significant new connections with people. One of my favorite things to watch unfold is attendees making new friends and the participating talent coming face to face with new fans without the kitchen or dining room as a barrier.”
Refusing to rest on the laurels of previous festivals’ success, the festival team has now set their sights on planning a lineup that brings new flavors, new ideas and new talent to Ocala. Here are some behind-the-scenes details of festival events that include some new faces and a welcome back to prior participants.
“We’re raising a glass to celebrate Women’s History Month,” Murty explains. “Chefs Vicky Colas and Natacha S. Henry will kick off the first of five days by collaborating on a multi-course dinner, served to a small group and paired with wines produced by Caymus Vineyards.”
Colas, originally from Haiti, attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and holds a bachelor’s degree in hospitality restaurant management, as well as a master’s in dietetics and nutrition. Most recently, Colas was selected as one of 20 candidates for the 2019 James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program fellowship and is part of a select group of talented chefs in the foundation’s local food advocacy training programs.
Henry, who is participating for a second year, also is originally from Haiti, and now lives in New York where she is a private chef. Henry loves sharing her Creole heritage at food festivals all over the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. Through her catering company Icancook2®, she helps make Haitian food accessible to her clients. Many will recognize her as a challenger on a Season 5 episode of the Food Network reality series Chopped.
On Thursday evening, festival attendees will enjoy Florida’s diverse culinary heritage with native Chef Randal White, who will serve the finest fresh produce, seafood and beef from Florida in a unique setting.
Festival favorite Shelby Goelz will be returning to concoct libations using spirits distilled in Florida and Florida craft beer pairings during the meal.
On Friday evening, the focus shifts to the food and wine of Argentina. Argentinean cuisine is typically described as a kind of cultural blend of flavors, mostly influenced by Italian and Spanish immigrants, as well as a love for beef.
“Bring your appetite and comfortable shoes for this outdoor event,” says Murty. “And fair warning: Attendees may have a strong desire to tango.”
Attendees also can look forward to even more spirited concoctions by Shawn Ford, “The Liquid Savant.” This northeastern Ohio native is a nationally recognized, award-winning hospitality trainer, operator and concept developer. Over the past 25 years, he has designed, redesigned, rebranded and launched successful food and beverage programs for more than 200 hospitality brands. Ford is well known as a resident master mixologist on the hit Paramount Network TV show Bar Rescue and for his hard work on behalf of several charitable organizations.
Fun fact: Respected California vintners Caymus Vineyards ship grapes from Argentina to create a delicious malbec called Red Schooner. This wine will be one of the wines featured at Una Noche.
“Sponsored by Showcase Properties for a fourth year, this Saturday night event is always the first to sell out,” Murty explains. “This year’s farm host is restaurateur Carolyn Wilson, who owns CW’s Gin Joint in Tampa. Chef Cody Tiner is assembling a team of culinary pros, including CW’s Gin Joint Beverage Manager, Daniel Bareswilt, to create what is sure to be another very memorable feast.”
Tiner is executive chef of CW’s Gin Joint, (formerly Chef de Cuisine at Piquant in Hyde Park), and is a graduate of the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Tampa. He was drawn to his craft while watching the women of his family cook up traditional southern dishes, as well as garden and preserve fruits and vegetables from season to season. He also tagged along with the men of the family on fishing trips, catching local bass, warmouth, bluegill and catfish, or going over to the coasts for deep-sea adventures, targeting grouper or king mackerel and whatever else they might catch. Tiner’s cuisine inspiration comes from a southern background, a passion for seafood and a firm grasp on French technique.
Bareswilt is the beverage manager of CW’s Gin Joint. After cutting his mixologist teeth in Gainesville’s college bars, he relocated to Tampa to hone his skills. Most recently lauded as one of the 2019 World Class U.S. Top 100 bartenders, he is a prominent fixture in the trendy craft cocktail scene.
Valerie Dailey, Showcase Properties CEO, attributes the reason the event sells out so quickly to the delicious dining experience set on a storied horse farm. “Those two aspects combined definitely stir up some excitement,” she offers. “Great memories and new friends have been made during these dinners.”
“This year we are switching up the vibe for the Grand Tasting by holding it at one of the most prestigious thoroughbred farms in the country, Bridlewood Farm,” Murty reveals. The Grand Tasting is the culmination of the five-day festival where attendees get to mingle with like-minded foodies, chefs, winemakers, mixologists and culinary folks and enjoy many choices of delicious food, wine, beer and spirits.”
Check out part two of our series on the upcoming festival in our March issue. For more information on the festival, visit www.ocalaculinaryfestival.com
Still reminiscing about the delicious success of working with Chef Brian Whittington of Preserved Restaurant in St. Augustine during the first and second festival years, the festival team was happy to announce that he’ll return to this year’s festival at the Grand Tasting on Sunday, March 29th. We sat down to talk shop (and chops) with the talented culinary creator.
Tell us about the great growth your restaurant group has had since we visited with you at the festival in 2018.
Since our last Ocala Culinary Festival, we grew again with the opening of Chop Shop, our artisanal butcher shop. The location is an old car shop that helped with the name Chop Shop and which obviously connects to food as well. The shop was another way for us to control all aspects of what we do along with providing quality product to our community while also pointing out that quality doesn’t have to be as expensive as other large chains push. Chop Shop has allowed us to help tell the story of the group by showcasing our region, its produce and the farmers that provide us with what we put on the plate daily. It also allows the community to provide better food for friends and family without the added costs of a sit-down restaurant.
Both Preserved and Smoked [the barbecue joint] have grown as well with Chop Shop now doing all our meat fabrication. It has allowed us more time spent on serving the guests without all the added prep work.
What are some of the highlights of participating in the 2017 and 2018 festivals in years past?
The two years I was at the Ocala Culinary Festival I felt motivated to perform at a higher level. Great chefs always show up and showcase their craft, and when you have others pushing to show off the Southeast it creates healthy competition and that always creates internal growth. We are stoked to return, as we felt we missed out not being able to be there last year.
You’ll be representing your restaurant group at the Grand Tasting held at Bridlewood Farm this year. Any clues on what attendees should expect to taste?
We always strive to explain why we do what we do, so guests can expect us to showcase the Southeast region, its culinary heritage and ingredients all while proving Southern hospitality has always been the heart of the culinary industry.
For more information, visit www.striverestaurant.com