Table Talk with Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa

Executive Chef Dan Vargo, Hilton Sandestin
Executive Chef Dan Vargo, Hilton Sandestin

We’ve been immersed in some serious table talk with the folks at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. Here’s what they had to say:

Have you noticed any emerging food & beverage trends over the past year?

Dan Vargo, executive chef, Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood: The food industry has a growing segment that is focusing on returning to products being made in-house, as opposed to the more cost effective pre-fabrication products that has dominated the industry over the past 10 years. House-made charcuterie, breads and pastries are beginning to show up more on menus, mainly due to the perception it creates for the diner that there is a certain level craft that is going into preparing their meal.

Tia Triplett, GM, Seagar’s: Gluten free cuisine has definitely risen to the top as one of the hottest trends among full-service, sit-down restaurants. It has become such a mainstream issue that many notable restaurants are pursuing Chef and Front of the House education in pursuit of receiving The Foodservice Awareness Distinction accreditation from the Gluten Intolerance Group. The Gluten Intolerance Group is a third party conservancy group that has quite stringent criteria for accreditation and is considered the bar setter in this area. To meet the group’s independent verification criteria, food service providers are required to implement policies and undergo performance audits to determine whether it meets the organization’s safety standards. This process involves receiving written confirmation from food manufacturers ensuring that the ingredients they supplied to the restaurant are gluten free. In addition, product purity needs to be confirmed. The restaurant also has to meet criteria for sanitization, employee hygiene, and education. The severity of celiac disease has impacted not only the offerings of many restaurants but also the organization, labeling, and production of many food items. It is estimated that nearly 25 million people follow a gluten-free diet, and over 60% of people with celiac disease fear dining out. This is definitely an important trend which is not going away and one with will have far reaching impact on our industry.

How can cost-conscious planners create upscale food & beverage events?

This is a difficult question to answer because EVERYTHING costs…that being said. I would suggest:

•   Use multiple food and beverage stations.(people love to try new food / beverage items) Place different stations throughout the room (a lot of different food items, small bites, carving, pastas, sushi, seafood, fish tacos, desserts on small plates / shot glasses. Also, beverage stations with different drinks to match / complement the food stations)

•  The clients team build by doing the room décor for their event…(centerpieces, buffets, etc.)

Are there any local venues that you can recommend for an authentic local fare/cultural experience?

Nichole Moen, food & beverage administrative assistant: The staple in our area is the Red Bar. It’s one of those places that many visitors make it a point to hit every time they are in town, but you’ll always see locals there when you go. The menu is simple, but you can’t go wrong with anything on it. The atmosphere is extremely casual, but you’ll still see people dressed up and drinking mimosas on Sundays. They always have great entertainment from local bands. And, you can walk out their back door straight to the beach.

Can you recommend any “must try” dishes specific to your destination?

Vargo: I can’t say that there is any one dish in particular.  However “must try” for the area would center around seafood. Local to this area, the top five of the list would be Red Snapper, Scamp Grouper (the top choice of the Grouper Family along with Black Grouper), Trigger fish (what used to be considered junk fish is highly prized among chefs due to their delicate flavor and texture and pair well with many dishes), Apalachicola Bay Scallops, and Apalachicola Oysters.

Has the farm-to-table food & beverage trend changed our perceptions of upscale dining?

Vargo: The Farm to Table trend has influenced fine dining in the sense it has changed the perception of where the product comes from. There is perceived value in local ingredients ranging not only from produce, but also fish and meat mongers, dairy farms, local Honeys, artisan Bakers. There is a growing comfort that the product has a story attached to it, and that the consumers are supporting a local business as opposed to a large scale corporation.

Triplett: The farm-to-table movement has definitely changed the perception of upscale dining. Where upscale dining was once all pomp and circumstance and overly worked dishes with extreme plating and gravity defying garnish, we now find ourselves being asked to dial down the drama and deliver to our guest simply the freshest, seasonal bite that we can find. The phrase “farm to table” is a buzzword referring to food made with locally sourced ingredients. As a society that relies on cell phones, emails and texts for convenience of communication we have found ourselves compromising health and nutrition for convenience of fast and processed food.

The farm-to-table movement has arisen more or less concurrently with societal changes in attitude about food safety, food freshness, food seasonality, and small-farm economics.

We are seeing for the first time in decades the opposite ends of our guest demographic actually meeting in the middle and informing us that they are driven not only by convenience but also by health and wellness, pleasure, social consciousness and value when it comes to dining.

The Farm-to-Table movement has been seen as an embodiment of all of these desires.

On one end we have the seasoned demographic who is now living longer and therefore seeking healthier choices to maintain the quality of their life and well as the longevity. This demographic grew up in the farm era and remember the freshness and quality that existed during the heyday of the American Farm Movement where most of the food that they ate came from a 50 mile radius. It was not until the improvements in shipping technology and interstate highways that we began to move away from locally produced items.

On the opposite end are the younger demographic who was raised on fast food but who has embraced as a culture less processed food and more organic choices. They have sought out education on nutrition and have seen the negative impact of processed, mass produced, non locally harvested food on their waistlines as obesity incidence in America is on the rise. We pair that with the increase in Patriotism and demand for items made in America/locally and we have the recipe for success for the Farm-to-Table or Farm-to-Fork movement, as it is now being called.

It has definitely changed the perception of upscale dining as our guests are educated and understand that small farms are only able to produce limited quantities of certain items and therefore the demand for the local items can exceed the supply. This increases the desire and cache of these items. Restaurant who highlight the items that are locally sourced are seen as more current, conscientious and culturally savvy than those that choose not to participate in this movement. We as a society yearn for simpler, less complicated times. We are moving away from chain restaurants and focusing more on the independent operator. Our guests feel that they are contributing to the good of the local society as well as reaping the health benefits from the freshness of locally produced items when they eat Farm-to Table. Guests now actively seek out items on menus and will inquire of service staff “What do you have local?”

It is a movement that has united guests, farmers, local artisans and food service operators. It is one that has staying power and benefits everyone involved. The increase in health, communication and connectivity of local citizens is priceless.

Where does the “wow” factor come into play when it comes to food & wine? Has this changed over the past year?

Myres McDougal, director of wine, Seagar’s: For me personally the “wow” factor is one of the main reasons that I am a sommelier. I can still remember the wine vividly today, black plum, hints of cassis with cedar, allspice and a vanilla velvet finish. It was a 1982 Chȃteau Beychevelle that inspired me to take this journey that has led me to where I am today.  I am always trying to find that next wine to wow me so I can pass that same excitement on to the guests at Seagar’s, but there are many different level and ways it can happen. For example, the new pinot noir we serve by the glass at Seagar’s is an excellent wine at a great value, a “wow” opportunity, and being able to serve it by the glass is a great way make it more accessible.  Also, finding the wine that for years to come a guest will reminisce about…“that bottle we had at Seagar’s, wow”. One thing that has changed over the past few years is that guests are more willing to open up and try new wines. Just last week I was able to sell a La Rioja Alta, Ardanza Reserva 2004 to a table and it “wowed” them. In the past Spanish wines as well as many other international wines with the exception of French were a bit harder to sell. Now many new wine regions are blossoming because of the change and there is a whole new “wow” for guests.

Are there any hands-on food & beverage experiences that planners can integrate into programs?

Rick Curtis, director of banquets

  • Wine blending class.
  • Mixology class.
  • Pastry (bake shop) classes. (One idea, make homemade ice cream. Then use it on the clients break with the clients scooping / playing soda jerk. They can tell their  fellow attendees how they made the ice cream etc.) (2nd idea, cupcakes, pretzels, specialty cake classes and use them on the breaks / events…)
  • Build your own buffet or stations. Clients can team build their lunch / dinner for the group. Treat it like a breakout and have teams of clients build buffets / décor for the event…(w the help / guidance of banquets)
  • Cooking classes. (Endless possibilities for this one….)