For business travelers, eating “local” on the road might look something like this: A salad of local mesclun and tomatoes. A grass-fed burger. Maybe even a local-peach cobbler. But rarely all three during the same meal.
Here’s how that same scenario plays out in the kitchen of Chris Brown, executive chef at the JW Marriott at Grande Lakes Orlando (GLO): “Our bananas tend to be a bit starchy, so we dry them out slowly in an oven and then make banana flour,” Brown said, from which he then makes gluten-free pasta — such as ravioli stuffed with blue cheese and walnuts and served in a brown-butter sauce. “Or we might wrap the [banana] leaves around some lemon fish, and serve that on a nice ratatouille that uses our eggplant, tomatoes, and spring onions.”
When Brown says “our bananas,” he means it. Two years ago, GLO tilled 7,000 square feet of its property to create Whisper Creek Farm, which supplies the kitchens of both the 500-acre resort destination’s hotels — the JW Marriott and The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes — with just-picked herbs, fruit, and vegetables.
For years, hotel chefs have tended kitchen herb gardens and rooftop plots, but GLO was pushing the envelope long before farm-to-plate became a buzz-phrase, and in one of the unlikeliest American cities. In 2005, they wooed chef Melissa Kelly — a local-foods doyenne and owner of Primo restaurant in Rockland, Maine — to Orlando to open a second Primo, at the JW Marriott. GLO’s on-site chefs have long partnered with local Florida farmers for their meat, dairy, and produce. And Whisper Creek Farm, which is still in its youth, has kicked the entire operation up an octave.
“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 Jim Burns, GLO’s managing director. So while Whisper Creek yields herbs, berries, melon, citrus, greens, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, pumpkins, and of course bananas, the farm also provides hops for GLO’s pilot series of beers (an on-site brewery is due to open next year) as well as honey — even if meeting planners don’t necessarily ask for it. “There’s always some interest,” Burns said, “but for us, it’s just the way we want people to experience a hotel. We felt passionate enough about it to spend some money on it.”
GLO is betting that there is a growing market for this approach — especially among planners. The farm is adjacent to a 6,000-square-foot meeting space, and the staff has been proactive about melding their kitchen ethos with special events. Brown himself works on “anywhere from three to 10 events per week,” he said, from dinners in the “chef’s office space” (aka the chef’s table, which can host anywhere from 12 to 100 people) to outdoor events on a lawn adjoining the farm, where pigs might turn on a spit and up to 300 attendees can look over the rows of carrots and okra. “Once we build the brewery portion, we’ll look to sell that as a private dining room, too,” said Brown, who as a rule meets with planners to discuss their culinary needs.
Yet having to work with what’s in season means a certain degree of unpredictability — one for which the property tries to prepare planners. In late summer, for instance, eggplant and tomatoes are at their peak but local greens and berries are scarce. “We hope our guests understand that we might not have an exact menu for them days or even weeks ahead of time,” Brown said. “We make sure everything is going to be as fresh as possible.”
At The Ritz-Carlton, Chef de Cuisine Mark Jeffers recently opened Highball & Harvest, a Southern-themed restaurant that also uses Whisper Creek Farm’s fruits and veggies — which means his menus “are dictated by the weather and the seasons, but also in perfect relationship between me and the farmers and the food,” Jeffers said. “It takes legwork.” For H&H’s signature hot sauce, Jeffers uses the farm’s fiery Scotch bonnet peppers; in late summer, he fills dumplings with summer vegetable ragout. Jeffers eagerly anticipates the not-too-distant day when a curing box arrives at GLO — and house charcuterie takes its place on the menu.
Last June, Brown, Jeffers, and their staffs traveled to New York City’s James Beard House to seduce a room full of planners (and Convene, too) with their dishes — including Parker House rolls made from ancient grains, a dollop of foie-gras cashew-nut butter over wild-blackberry jam, a curl of “duck ham” atop oatmeal risotto, and an herbaceous chicken sausage over a golden Calabaza squash purée and some racy giardiniera.
“We built a farm to set ourselves apart,” said Brown, who’s now planning the Kitchen at Whisper Creek Farm, a JW Marriott restaurant that will open in the spring. “We will need a couple of years to make the farm successful.” Diners might already feel differently.