How the Ocala Culinary Festival has elevated Marion County’s gastronomic reputation on the world’s stage.
Three years ago, a group of passionate, community-minded tastemakers and visionaries embarked on a journey to establish Ocala as a culinary destination, engage food influencers, highlight the region and offer artfully curated, one-of-a-kind experiences. They knew, that if successful, the event would become a platform for extraordinary talent, enrich the local culinary scene and raise the profile of Marion County’s multicultural mix of restaurants and cafés.
Local foodies know that our region is home to award-winning restaurants and nationally recognized chefs, including Rashad Jones, owner of Big Lee’s Barbecue and the 2018 winner of Guy Fieri’s Food Network TV show Guy’s Big Project; Jose Juarez, aka The BarbaCuban, who was awarded the title of America’s Next Grill Star by LIVE with Kelly and Ryan; and Randal White, the award-winning and highly acclaimed executive chef at Mark’s Prime Steakhouse.
But as any good chef will tell you, you can’t achieve true culinary greatness without the right recipe and mix of ingredients. That is something the organizers of the festival understood, and they envisioned a format where local chefs would participate with celebrated chefs and mixologists from Central Florida, throughout the United States and from across the globe. And they had something else in mind, which was the potential of the festival to stimulate tourism and, in turn, have a tremendous impact on the local economy.
Understanding that food and wine events tap into the growing interest in culinary tourism, the team set their sights on attracting visitors hungry for new and unique experiences. These travelers want more than just sightseeing—they want to sample outstanding regional cuisine, attend food and wine tastings, participate in cooking demonstrations and get an exclusive glimpse behind the scenes. This kind of authenticity with regard to gastronomic experiences extends beyond simply what we eat.
“People want to know the stories of where things come from, how it got to them, the history of a dish,” offers Sarah Belyeu, board member and wine director and partner at edison:food+drink lab in Tampa. “They are engaging on a level that they haven’t before, and the festival answers that desire for stories, information and engagement. At a time when there are so many challenges that people have in their lives and with all that is going on in the world, the festival is able to bring people together in a very unifying way.”
The large number of sold-out events each year is testament to that.
“We have had unbelievable community support, and we have a very strong advisory board, all of whom are experts in their respective fields,” Festival Director Jennifer Murty explains. “This group provides the leadership to ensure the event is driven by the best. We are passionate about community, good food and family, and we are committed to producing a top-notch event that will inspire, excite and educate.”
Indeed, there is no shortage of talent or enthusiasm on the board and visible evidence that the group is setting the bar higher for themselves each year.
“It’s really evolving,” offers board member and grilling-world star Jose Juarez. “We’re at the start of an explosion in terms of the culinary scene in Ocala. It’s going to continue to grow and get bigger and bigger.”
“In addition to our local chefs, we also bring in some really great chefs from other areas,” adds fellow board member Chef Randal White. “We’re trying to expand our culinary culture. When these chefs come here to work with us on the festival, they give us a whole different perspective on certain flavors and textures that we may be able to share here in our community.”
That is something that Dimitri Pomakis, chef at Feta Mediterranean Cuisine, can personally attest to.
“The reason the culinary festival is so important to Ocala is that it gives an opportunity to local chefs, like myself, to not only get some exposure, but it is also a learning experience for us as well. Just to interact with other James Beard-nominated chefs, you inevitably learn a lot. That’s actually my favorite part of the festival.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Festival Mixologist and Beverage Innovation Manager at Monin Clearwater Shelby Goelz.
“We all have a great opportunity to learn from each other. I was doing things with cocktails that the chefs hadn’t seen before, and they were inspired to incorporate into their dishes… and vice versa.”
For Paula King, owner of Agapanthus and designer of the tablescapes and decor for the festival, it has been a somewhat life-changing experience.
“The level of passion that I see from people who are involved with the festival is so impressive that it has changed my point of view. I’ve always enjoyed good, fresh, well-prepared food, though I would never have described myself as a foodie. But now I can!”