Words and photographs by Kristen Penoyer
"I am easily satisfied with the very best."
The last five minutes of the drive are the best. This is daydream territory. Winding, sun-freckled roads. Feathery Spanish moss. A perfect balance of wild vs. manicured. Hot, but not too hot. Criminally muggy. Quintessential Northeast Florida.
I make a left into the Ritz-Carlton's unassuming drive, and I'm more than a little excited. Because I'm about to visit one of the State's best restaurants.
The term "best restaurants" confuses me a little. I've read my fair share of top-ten-this and 5-places-you-don't-want-to-miss-that articles, especially about the Jacksonville metropolitan area, and by the end I'm often making unattractive faces.
Best according to whom? Are we talking some Johnny-come-lately clickbaiter or a prestigious organization with a hundred-year history of setting standards in the dining and culinary world? These are two extreme ends of the spectrum, but a ton of chatter invariably rages in the middle.
Since I'm the storyteller here I'd love nothing more than to proclaim according to me! But instead, I'll defer to an organization that knows a thing or two about grading restaurants, and does in fact have a nearly century-long history of finding and designating the best of the best. That organization is AAA.
And the Oscar Goes To...
If the James Beard Award is the "Oscar" of the culinary industry, the Five-Diamond designation is hospitality's equivalent. Since 1937, when AAA began conducting inspections, it has amassed a staggering 58,000 properties in its inventory, the largest of any rating organization.
The best feature of their system? "[AAA} is the only system that uses full-time, professionally trained evaluators to inspect properties..." This matters a lot.
In an age of "crowd sourced" ratings hype, there is a lot to be said for the old-school professionals who visit hotels and dine at restaurants day in and day out for years. They develop something that no casual traveler has: large quantities of precious context.
Much like a budding wine connoisseur, the more wines he or she experiences, the better they are at calling the good, the great, and the truly extraordinary. I've stayed in hundreds of hotels over the last ten years, and believe me, patterns start forming after the first couple-dozen or so.
But were not talking hundreds. We're talking tens of thousands of hotels and restaurants rated. That's why I like this system.
Diamonds Are Indeed Rare
The AAA Diamond system is pretty straightforward: after conducting unannounced inspections, AAA awards properties one to five diamonds. The Five-Diamond designation is extremely difficult to earn. So much so, that in 2014 only 0.2% of 30,000 restaurants received it.
When I learned only three restaurants in the state of Florida have the Five-Diamond designation, I figured there must have been a typo. Florida is a big state and welcomes around 100 million visitors per year. I went fact-checking and AAA itself yielded the same result. Just three.
Salt at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island is one of them. I wasn't surprised at all that they were awarded Five Diamonds. Delighted? Yes. Because Salt is just minutes away, in my own Northeast Florida back yard.
Welcome to OZ
I've been a regular at Salt for a little over a year. After they knocked my socks off on my first visit, dining there became quite the addiction.
What's it like? My friends ask. It's not easy to explain, so I paint a mental picture: Imagine leaving black-and-white Kansas, and stepping out into Technicolor OZ for the first time. That's the best I can do. I consider myself a pretty seasoned "foodie" and at Salt, I'm consistently delighted beyond my admittedly high expectations.
Nowadays, my visits bring much more than great food. If possible, I try to steal Chef Andrew Yeo or Chef Rick Laughlin away for a few precious minutes of passionate, nerdy food talk. Speaking quickly, I cram as many of my fangirl culinary questions in as I can before they scurry back to the kitchen to make their magic.
This story was inspired by one of those nerdy conversations with Chef Rick. I wanted to know more about the inner workings of one of our region's best.
A Whole 'Nother Level
The shiny plaques with the diamonds and stars and "bests" are impressive, especially to a diner who is as food-obsessed as I tend to be. But what exactly does it take for a chef to operate at this high a level? Forget the 1%. Remember, we're talking the 0.2%.
It can't all be education or experience, I theorized. It's got to be a perfect storm of nature, nurture, creativity, raw talent, and the unrelenting willingness to work very, very hard.
Turns out, I'm a pretty good theorist. But first, let's have a look at which qualities AAA says any Five-Diamond restaurant must possess.
"Leading-edge cuisine of the finest ingredients, uniquely prepared by an acclaimed chef, served by expert service staff led by maître d’ in extraordinary surroundings."
I agree that each one of these characteristics is essential for truly elite dining. So I eagerly set out to examine each one and its role in making a Five-Diamond restaurant.
"Leading-edge cuisine of the finest ingredients..."
The finest ingredients? Very important, indeed. Extraordinary surroundings? One of the most sought-after aspects of fine dining. But, if I may be so bold, I'd like to add one of my own to the mix: delighting with difference.
There are a lot of fine ingredients and extraordinary surroundings out there, but what really sets an exceptional restaurant apart is its claim to novelty or exclusivity. In other words, what can I get here that I can't find anywhere else?
Chef Rick doesn't bat an eyelash: “That would be our salt block.”
Ah, yes. That 250-million-year old rosy brick, heated to a screaming 450 degrees, delivered tableside on a beautiful wooden board. You wouldn't think this pretty mass were capable of putting a cast-iron quality sear on your steak, but thanks to science – or magic, I'm not quite sure which – it does.
“My forté is cooking with my senses,” he adds. And this one dish plays to nearly all of them. You see its components displayed with the delicate hand of a designer. You hear the sizzling. You smell as it transforms from an innocent ruby disc of tenderloin into a caramelized, grown-up steak.
Served with gorgeous orange rosemary sauce, beef jus, a fresh rosemary sprig from the Ritz-Carlton's culinary garden, and two perfect little quail eggs, you'd think this heavy-hitting signature dish would bear some sort of grandiose name. Yet, it's humbly called “Steak and Eggs”. I love that.
Each block is cut by hand, in-house, often by Chef Rick himself. They last about two months and after that, true to the professional kitchen mantra of “waste nothing”, they are recycled. “We give them to a lady down the street...she gives them to her horses.” He laughs. “They use it as a salt lick.”
Well Worth the War
Salt is precious. Wars have been fought over it. Salaries paid in it. And if you ask professional chefs which one ingredient the invading extraterrestrials would have to pry out of their cold, dead hands, the vast majority will say salt.
It's not hard to imagine why the Ritz-Carlton chose salt as the theme for its fine dining concept, but of course, I ask anyway.
“I give Chef Thomas all the credit. He was the Executive Chef here for 12 years. He passed away about two years ago. He was looking out the window and saw the ocean and the salt marshes...”
And there it was. Inspired by the surroundings and a reverence for salt as the most important ingredient in cooking, the new restaurant secured its unifying theme.
“It's a big thing to redo the a concept of a restaurant that [had] been around for 16 years,” he added. It's understandable. Especially since this restaurant has hosted some of Northeast Florida's most renowned culinary talent, including Top Chef Kenny Gilbert and award-winning chef and restauranteur Matthew Medure.
Humble Salt, Flavor Powerhouse
When dining at Salt you'll find its namesake incorporated into nearly everything, from giant glass cases decorating the dining room, to its use in plating, to the bread course served with three of Salt's best specimens.
At any one time, the restaurant houses between 40-50 different kinds of salt from all over the world, including 20 infused salts Chef Rick develops himself.
“It's an evolution. We're always growing our inventory. We're always on the internet searching, and the servers are very involved in developing the salts.”
Not to ignore the bounty of his home turf, 10 years ago Chef Rick assembled his team for a educational-slash-team-building exercise. “It's kind of like culinary school here,” he smiles.
It doesn't get more hands-on than this.
“I said, 'Alright guys. Take off your shoes, we're going to the ocean.' We grabbed about 5 gallons of water. Came back, reduced it, put it through a filter, and we had salt. They were so amazed. Guests from upstairs were taking pictures. They came to the restaurant just to taste the Amelia Island salt.”
This story appeals to my nerdy senses immensely. “So, does that mean salt has a distinct terroir, like wine?” I ask. “Does the salt taste like Amelia Island?”
“I don't know about that.” He laughs. “It kinda tastes like sand dunes. It had really nice texture to it.”
"...Uniquely prepared by an acclaimed chef..."
What's always amazed me about chefs - and cooks of any rank, for that matter - is how incredibly hard they work. You gotta do it for the love! is something I've heard more than a handful of times. This is an industry where insane work-ethic is built and learning to shrug off pain, exhaustion, and family isolation is branded into the centuries-old job description.
Coming from a stock of Russian immigrants and steel-forged Midwestern farmers, I can relate. And, at the risk of romanticizing, suffering for your art is something I have always admired.
Chef Rick Laughlin is no stranger to the food media. He's been featured in several high-profile food publications and just recently returned from an appearance at the James Beard House in New York City.
He's as good as they come. But, I'm a food nerd, you see. So it's not enough for me to tell you about Chef Rick's current events. I want to know how this 5-Diamond Chef was made.
Going back to my theory that nature plays a big role in building the best of the best, I ask Chef about his childhood and family.
THE MAKING OF A 5-DIAMOND CHEF
“My dad was a marine so he taught me work ethic and discipline. My mother's Filipino, so she's you know...a perfectionist. Those two, married. Oh, man.”
But perfectionism and discipline weren't the only things that nurtured this budding chef. At some point, food has to make an appearance.
“My mother learned how to cook through my dad's mother. She was Irish-Hungarian so at home it was stuffed cabbage, cabbage noodles, chicken noodle soup, chicken dumplings. I think it all stemmed from my mom. My dad was always a cook too...not by trade, just by hobby. My family doesn't sit around and play board games during the holidays. They were back [in the kitchen] just crushin' it,” he says with playful reverence.
Food was definitely a huge part of family life, but represented leisure activity only. Cooking professionally? Much different story.
"Everyone's in the medical field," he says. "One sister is a respiratory therapist, one sister is a nurse. My uncle is a pharmacist. I was the black sheep...the hyper kid. So I went to university to see if it was for me.”
After university Chef Rick submitted his application to culinary school and got in. “When I told my mom about it, she was upset with me. Deep inside cooking is what I wanted to do. As a teenager, I worked at a small specialty grocery store...just learning about the vegetables excited me."
"In university I took everything. From psychology to chemistry and I was just bored out of my mind. Then it clicked. What am I doing here?”
At age 20, he packed up everything he owned and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, paying his own way. With two months to kill before the start of culinary school, he applied at 5 different hotels and was turned down. Eventually he was hired at the Hyatt Regency, Scottsdale. “There was a guy there who gave me a chance. I didn't even know how to cut an onion properly.”
"I think Chef realized that I had that fire in me.”
With culinary school in the morning and cooking in the evenings, Chef Rick began a grueling 8am-to-midnight schedule. He got his foundation at the Hyatt, starting in the banquet kitchen and then transferring to garde manger before ending up at the Golden Swan, their fine dining concept, at the time considered the best restaurant in the valley.
“I was sleeping like three to four hours a night. So was it tough? It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And I'm glad I did it. I think Chef realized that I had that fire in me.”
“I built a great relationship with my Executive Chef," he continues. "An old-school Austrian guy. You know, throwing plates, yelling at people. We feared this guy.”
From Arizona he went on to the Hyatt on Grand Cayman to do his apprenticeship, where the schedule was even more unforgiving. The hard work paid off and after six months, with the apprenticeship complete and graduation behind him, he was hired full time.
Before long he was promoted to their fine dining restaurant, Hemmingways, the best restaurant on the island. “It was always fine dining for me.” He worked there for two years and followed a Canadian chef from Grand Cayman to Amelia Island.
So after all the grueling training, culinary school, and fearsome chefs, I'm dying to know the most valuable culinary technique Chef Rick learned. He begins with something about the “mother sauces” and making a proper hollandaise, but quickly snaps out of it and changes his answer. “Not walking in the kitchen. You're always running. My guys don't stroll through the kitchen, they hustle. I think I've been in 18 kitchens in all the resorts. I still hustle all the time like I'm in the weeds. That will take you everywhere.”
And there it is. What good is a perfect, silky hollandaise if it arrives to the table 20 minutes late...and cold?
"...Served by expert service staff, led by Maître d'..."
There's "great" service and then there's multiple-award-winning, world-class service. And, in addition to its AAA Five-Diamond designation, the Ritz-Carlton has been named "Customer Service Champion" by J.D. Power and Associates, "Worlds Best" by Travel + Leisure, and selected for myriad awards by organizations such as Forbes, Condé Nast, and Trip Advisor.
There is no question the service staff at Salt are experts. As you'd expect from Ritz-Carlton's famous service standards, every detail of the dining experience is finely orchestrated with precision and grace.
How refreshing it is to see a team take their craft so seriously; just as the food itself is executed with a certain level of artistry and flair, so too is its service.
There is a lot of "no detail overlooked" talk in the hospitality industry, but it seems the staff at Salt take this to a delightful extreme. The service, knowledge, and expertise at Ritz-Carlton are so legendary, in fact, that books have been written on them and an institution established - The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center - to teach them to individuals and organizations.
When evaluating the service in any fine dining restaurant, I go through a fun little exercise in my mind: if we removed all of the gorgeous food and replaced it with corndogs and french fries, would dining there still be an experience in and of itself? The answer in Salt's case is an undeniable yes.
"...in extraordinary surroundings."
One look out the enormous picture windows, just past what I believe are the most beautiful sand dunes in the world, lies the buttery blue Atlantic Ocean, and I know I'm in extraordinary surroundings. Extraordinary not because of what has been added, but for what has been left alone.
Dining at Salt is not an overly gaudy experience, but rather one of soothing, staid luxury, thanks to wood paneling, thoughtful splashes of color and a mostly neutral palette. This yields an incredibly warm and sophisticated atmosphere, far from fussy.
Decor is minimal and features floral arrangements, wine bottles from the restaurant's glorious collection, and of course, salt, displayed in large glass containers.
Before or after a meal, a venture outside is in order where I almost always see resident turtles, busy birds, and other native wildlife.
The landscaping around the dining room shows the same light hand in design, allowing nature to do most of the talking; lots of green dotted with vibrant color from flower beds, pristine sand dunes with feathery sea oats, and towering palms.
Today my explorations take me past the Chef's herb garden, a wonderful addition to the landscaping where the culinary theme is continued from inside. And right beside it, a single hammock sways in the breeze. I have a daydream about daydreaming in this hammock, and decide to plunk down for a few precious moments of sky gazing.
I can't explain why but the sky here is different from anywhere else in the world. It's bluer, it's enchantingly pastel at sunset, it's more calming.
My daydreams take me back to the stellar meal and then forward in time to Salt's upcoming dinner event where Chef Rick will pull out all the stops with five courses, each paired with the perfect wine. If dining at Salt were a sporting event, these exclusive wine dinners are the World Series.
Now it's easier than ever to see why Salt is one of only three. I can't wait to come back and do it all again.
The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island
4750 Amelia Island Pkwy
Fernandina Beach, FL 32034