We have just returned from the Gasparilla Inn Food and Wine Weekend, which concluded its 12th year. The Inn is located on the small island of Boca Grande, which is on the West coast of Florida. The Gasparilla Inn was built in 1911 and has a rich history which you can read about here.
With its Southern charm and gracious hospitality, it is the epitome of understated elegance and not at all what you might expect to find in Florida. The common areas in the inn invite relaxation; from sunlit porches and cozy sitting rooms to an oak paneled billiard room. BZ’s, bar on the first floor with an adjoining terrace overlooking the fifth green of the golf course is a personal favorite for morning coffee and afternoon cocktails. The Inn exudes all the charm and sophistication of a grand old home. White Wicker and natural Rattan furniture throughout is decidedly Florida Beach, with a smart-casual flair, which reflects the attitude of not only the Inn, but the island as well.
The Beach Club, which is across the street and on the Gulf of Mexico played host to the first night of festivities. My intention was to post a beautiful Gulf Coast sunset, but it was not to be as yet another cold front decided to make its way to Florida and fill the sky with heavy clouds. The sacrifice of a beautiful sunset made for the most perfect weather for an outdoor event, so we did not brood for long.
The weekend kicked off with a beach side reception featuring several food stations and plenty of wine. As the cool air rolled in, space heaters rolled out to ensure a comfortable experience for about 100 guests in attendance. The setting could not have been more magical.
It is impossible to choose a favorite food station, but the Choucroute Garnie deserves props for the most dramatic presentation. Executive Chef Seth Shipley did not win the “location lottery” and battled the wind early on. Not missing a beat, he persisted until it finally decided to calm down. When the giant pan emerged, we were expecting Paella, so you can imagine our surprise as it was filled with the most savory chicken, sausage, and ribs. It was accompanied by sauerkraut and potatoes, making it one of the most hearty and flavorful dishes presented this evening.
Below are examples of additional food stations. Although it is possible to try one of everything, I would not advise it. “Pace yourself” is always our advice to friends who come along with us, or to any first timer. Every bite is as good as it looks!
The dessert station is equally impressive and offers something for everyone, from fruit and custard based desserts, to hard core chocolate.
It is a food and WINE event, and of course, the wines were carefully selected to compliment the food being served this evening. A Washington Cabernet along with a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon quickly became table favorites and we did not venture far beyond.
Day two begins with a hearty breakfast followed by cooking demonstrations and wine tastings. Again, pace yourself is the order of the day, as there is a champagne/wine reception followed by a six course meal scheduled for the evening.
Chef John Folse, of R’evolution and White Oak Plantation has a long list of very impressive credentials that you can read about here. The essence of Chef Folse is pure passion. His engaging story-telling style is both educational and entertaining as he connects to his curious and attentive audience. He is a man with a proud heritage and it shows in his love of food and cooking. It is said that most great Chef’s cook with soul, but this Louisiana guy seems to have gotten an extra helping.
High quality ingredients are central to his culinary creations and we were treated to an abundance of information behind everything from miniature vegetables to coffee. Chef Folse was expertly accompanied and occasionally “upstaged” (hard to do) by Executive Chef Jeremy Langois of White Oak Plantation, as they prepared four dishes; Community coffee marinated lamb loin, Honey glazed roasted root vegetables, Mango stuffed lobster and Sweet tea brined duck salad. We sampled the latter two dishes and the first two were served at our evening meal.
The duck for the salad was prepared using a method called sous-vide, or under vacuum, which was new to both Malcolm and I. We were so impressed that we ordered the device from Amazon and cannot wait to experiment.
We were greeted with an elegantly presented message on a piece of impressive stationery from the winemaker, (Nicholson Jones) along with a printed description of each of the wines that we were about to taste. The winery representative (sorry I missed his name) was a bit short on details about each wine, but long on where each vineyard is located in the region and the effects of recent fires. Not to sound unsympathetic, but we really wanted to hear about each wine as we tasted it in order to understand what makes them individual and special. I guess he figured we had the printed materials and that should be enough.
Admittedly, we know little about wine, but we do know if we like or dislike something after a few sips. Malcolm and I agree that while we did like two of the four selections, we would not go out of our way to purchase them. In all, the presentation was a bit lack-luster when compared to excellent presentations in the past and we did not walk away wanting to know more about Nicholson Jones, even though it looked very inviting on paper. All in all, it was a fine experience, just not quite up to the typical Gasparilla Inn standards.
Master Chefs’ Dinner
The main event of the weekend is the Master Chefs’ Dinner which is prepared by Chefs from the Inn, Chef de Cuisine Tom Haggerty (follow his Instagram to see what’s cookin’ at the Inn) and Executive Chef Seth Shipley along with several guest Chefs, including Chef John Folse, owner of White Oak Plantation and Restaurant R’evolution, Executive Chef Jared Van camp of the Element Collective in Chicago, Certified Master Chef Hartmut Handke , Executive Chef Jeremy Langois of White Oak Plantation, and Executive Chef Ben Grupe of Elaia in St. Louis.
Scroll through the menu to count the courses. Yes, you counted right, there were six in all. That of course, was after being served several hors d’oeuvres during the wine reception.
And yes, we made it through all six courses, including (I lost count) but I think it was seven wine accompaniments.
Each dish was like heaven on a plate. Smartly presented, tasty and just the right portion. Two seafood plates, one squab, one beef and one pork dish covered every protein category imaginable. Personally, I would have rotated the stone crab and the beef as it got a bit heavy towards the end. Just a personal preference that would probably make any one of these fine Chefs cringe.
The dessert plate was perfect in every way. I could have eaten my weight (actually I think I already had by this point) in the Mango Sorbet.
The Gasparilla Inn Food and Wine Weekend is always a first rate experience and one that we have enjoyed attending for many years. They have perfected a formula that never feels contrived or perfunctory. It is polished and professional from check-in to check-out. Staff are friendly and attentive while going out of their way to make sure everything is to your liking. A rare “sour” attitude or mishap (like having red wine spilled on your sport coat) is easily dismissed as just that – rare.
Rooms are spacious and comfortable and little niceties like a split of champagne and a cheese board (filled with cheeses) as nightly gifts are an unexpected touch of class. Who wouldn’t want to return again and again to this?
While you can visit the Gasparilla Inn at any time, we definitely recommend planning your trip around one of their events. Please visit their website for a complete calendar, including the upcoming Beach, Bourbon, BBQ and Beer event that will happen in June.
Warmest regards and our sincere thanks to everyone at the Gasparilla Inn for making this a delightful experience.