By Annalise DeVries
Step into the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort and the expansive lobby with its clean modern lines serves as an open entryway to the pool and the beach beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the space, putting the area’s beauty on constant display. The resort showcases the natural charms of this northeast Florida destination, inviting guests to explore and enjoy.
Located on coastal Florida’s barrier islands, the resort’s 1,350 acres capture the rich diversity of the area’s beauty. The waves of the Atlantic lap at the creamy-colored beaches along the coastline—a ribbon of sand that quickly gives way to forests of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, which in turn open onto salt marshes and a broad landscape of verdant wetlands.
In the midst of this spectrum of natural interest stands Omni Amelia Island’s main resort. Here guests can venture out as suits their tastes and leisure. A day might be spent poolside, sipping signature cocktails crafted by the resort’s Rum + Tequila Experience, or just as easily taking an afternoon bike ride for a tour from the resident naturalists. There’s the golf course and the spa, as well as a nature center that introduces the area’s wildlife and explains the unique characteristics of the sea islands.
A more unexpected way the Omni Amelia Island captures its distinct setting is through the food. Chef Daven Wardynski came to Amelia Island in October 2012. Having started his career at TRU in Chicago, he is quick to remind guests with pride, “I’m a Michigan farm boy through and through.” Perhaps it’s that ongoing connection to cultivating the land that keeps him infusing his dishes with local flavor.
Daven explains that he strives to showcase the distinct tastes of the area. For coastal Florida, he says, “It’s about the vibrancy of the ocean.” He says his guests expect light, bright, clean flavors, and the culinary experience at Omni Amelia Island delivers with everything from fish tacos blended with coconut and citrus at Oceanside to a pizza from Natural Slice, where the crust includes water from the Atlantic.
Through thoughtfully crafted menus and beverage pairings, Daven says, the food at Omni Amelia Island sets the pace for the entire resort experience. “At the end of the day, we’re not just putting food on a plate; we’re trying to create an experience that encompasses everything that the resort is and be true to it.”
Daven has achieved a deep connection between the place and his food through the carefully cultivated Sprouting Project, which includes an aquaponic greenhouse, organic garden, beehives, and a recently added orchard. Continually challenging himself, he’s now thinking beyond plants and adding a barrel room and a pit for smoking meat.
“That’s why we called it the Sprouting Project—because there are always ideas sprouting. We’re always evolving and always changing. You always want to be current and relevant, and for me that was stepping beyond the plate and establishing what the recipe is for the recipe,” he says of his passion for fresh, raw ingredients.
To invite other chefs and guests into the Omni Amelia Island’s unique culinary experience, the resort has hosted Fish to Fork, which benefits the James Beard Foundation. For the past two years, area chefs are invited to embark on a fishing expedition with local fisherman. They use the catch to prepare a dish for the several hundred attendees, who then vote on the best dish.
For the past two years, Daven has emerged the winner. And he has faced steep competition—award-winning chefs like Kathleen Blake of Orlando’s The Rusty Spoon, Jacksonville’s own Tom Gray, and Atlanta’s Hector Santiago. Yet, for him, the real highlight is opening up Omni Amelia Island to his peers. “I love sharing everything the resort has to offer with the other chefs,” he says.
As for how the food became a centerpiece of the Omni Amelia Island experience, Daven says there was no mandate when he arrived three years ago. Instead, the food became an opportunity. Where the design and architecture of the hotel are set, Daven explains, food and beverage can continually change and offer something unique.
With the food, he says, “We’re able to make experiences. I want it to be the piece that you remember when you walk out the door.”
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