Talking with Executive Chef Joe Natoli and Assistant Sous Chef Thomas Allen
1. Tell us about Sawgrass Marriott
The Sawgrass Marriott is considered a resort, so it’s a pretty special place. With such a large property we’re able to differentiate ourselves with 7 different restaurants. Each has its own identity with a separate flavor and voice. We can focus on seafood at 619 Ocean View and Southern style contemporary cuisine at Vernon’s, for example, while Alice & Pete’s Pub has a sports flair but with a Sawgrass taste.
2. Who’s the audience for the restaurants at the Sawgrass Marriott?
We’ve traditionally drawn a lot of our guests from the hotel business but we’re having a lot of fun recently engaging with the locals to show them what we have here. Friday and Saturday nights have become extremely busy and that’s mainly because of the local audience. It’s been a blast. People can’t believe what they see when they come to visit us.
3. Can you tell us about the different restaurants?
619 Ocean View is seafood oriented, along with some great land loving fare. The chef at 619 is fun and classical when it comes to his dishes. We’re playing around with the menu now to make the food super sexy but also fun and approachable. Part of that is making the servers really knowledgeable about the food - everything from knowing about the farms where the food comes from to how the food was prepared. We’re also keeping things seasonal so everything is as fresh and flavorable as possible. The food has a fine dining aspect but the restaurant isn’t stuffy at all. It’s very approachable with a beautiful view of the beach and the sky as the sun goes down and the shadows go over the building. It’s a beautiful place to enjoy a drink and a relaxing meal. 619 enjoys a very large local audience.
Sea Porch Bar & Grill is not open to the public but is directed towards our Cabana Club members and hotel guests. Sharkey’s is also a private venue modeled after a beach shack. It’s very busy throughout the day and into sunset.
In the main building we have the 100th Hole Pool Bar, which is open to the public. It’s a bar with simple food oriented to the pool area. We have fun with things like oysters. We also pull out our Caja China every once in a while to roast a pig. We’ll make tacos and have a happy hour towards the end of the night on a Friday or Saturday with music playing and that sort of thing. It’s lots of fun.
Alice & Pete’s Pub is a sports bar and a local hangout. If there are any sports games going on we’ll have a lot of people come out. There are also some pool tables, shuffle board, and dart boards for entertainment. Alice & Pete’s has a great outdoor aspect too. There’s an outdoor seating area along with a fire pit, which is a great place to hang out. The food at Alice & Pete’s has a sports theme, but with a Southern twist. For example we serve a Pickle Fried Chicken. We take a chicken breast and pickle it for 24 hours before frying it. The sandwich is what you’d expect from a pub but the pickling gives it a pop of flavor and a twang that represents our Sawgrass voice.
Vernon’s, of course, is our fine dining restaurant at Sawgrass.
4. Chef Joe: can you introduce yourself?
I’ve been with Marriott for 21 years. I’ve worked my way up on what’s been a really fun journey. Before coming to Jacksonville I worked at the Marriott in Miami for 10 years. I’m new to the Jacksonville area, arriving here last October . When I got here I wanted to get out to the farmer’s markets to see what was coming out of the ground. I know Jacksonville is a totally different food culture from Miami so I really wanted to play around to ensure I had the voice of the food from this area. With all the restaurants here at the Sawgrass Marriott I wanted to use what’s local. For restaurants like 619 that meant looking to what was coming from the ocean. For Vernon’s we’ve been working with some great farmers to get our proteins and our produce. We want to keep it as local and seasonal as possible. I know those are buzz words a lot of people use, but we mean it here. And more than being just local and seasonal we want to focus on having fun with our food. A lot of our cooks have been here a long time and know what our guests want, so I’ve been careful to include their voices in whatever we’re doing.
5. What do you do as Executive Chef at Sawgrass?
As Executive Chef I oversee all the restaurants as well as the catering. What that looks like on a daily basis is that I’ll get together with my chefs to discuss the menus, build the menus, do tastings and ensure that the service staff is fully aware of all aspects of the food we’re serving. We want our servers to be able to tell a great story about any item they’re asked about. If we don’t have a good story about something, we won’t put it on the menu.
6. What kind of story are you referring to?
Telling the story behind a dish means being able to talk about the farm where the food came from, or the fishmonger who pulled the lionfish from the ocean. Everything from where our food comes from to how it’s prepared.
7. Do you serve lionfish?
Yes, whenever we can. It’s an invasive species and while many people just want to get rid of the fish we like to be creative when serving it. We’ll do things like making a lionfish ceviche. The lionfish are also getting so big now that they’ll serve up just like a snapper. It’s really amazing, and the cost of a lionfish is half that of a snapper. It’s a fun fish but it’s challenging too. Because it’s venomous and comes to us with the barbs intact only Chef Thomas and myself will break it down.
9. When you took over at Vernon's did you have a plan for what you wanted?
I didn’t. When I arrived I had dinner here a few times. I sat in the corner and watched what people were ordering and what they ate versus what they sent back. From there it was my walk through the farmer’s market and then my picture of Vernon’s came into play.
When you started going through the farmer’s markets, did you have an idea of what you wanted, or were you surprised by what you found?
I really didn’t have an idea of what I’d find. It was eye opening when I first visited the markets. As I was walking up and down the aisles at the farmer’s markets I started seeing new things like giant bags of peanuts. I was asking a lot of questions and everyone was so helpful and eager to share their information. Chef Thomas had come to the markets with me and when we got back we started scribbling down menus and playing around in the kitchen. We came up with some dishes that I think will be quintessential to this area, using datil peppers, long beans, and things that were coming out of the ground, here and at this time of the year. From there I started meeting with local farmers and having them send me lists of what they could provide on a weekly basis.
Walking up and down in the farmer’s markets gave me my inspiration for what I thought Vernon’s should be at this point in time and we’ve made some significant changes based on what I’ve learned.
10. What sorts of changes have you made?
Before I came here I think I’d describe Vernon’s as pretty mainstream. We had standards like beef with green peppercorn sauce. It was an old school steak and seafood house. We've gone away from that concept and have introduced fresh touches on everything, along with special spins on our dishes. We still have a great, aged steak but it’s served in a way that’s more natural and allows the food to stand forward without being overshadowed by the sauces.
In terms of our culinary style the biggest change is that we’ve gone from a convenience based menu that relied on a lot of pre-made or pre-packaged items to a completely from-scratch approach to all our cooking. I wanted to bring the culinary back to the kitchen. That’s the most exciting thing to me, and our cooks are having fun every day.
One example is our pasta. We make it here. I’m not patting myself on the back but I haven’t seen pasta like ours anywhere. We use old world tradition with new world flavors. The old world aspect is that we’re making the pasta ourselves. Then we’re doing things like using cauliflower in our ravioli. Who does that? It tastes absolutely amazing, because we’re using the cauliflower as quick as it’s coming off the ground. Another dish is our Broccoli Pesto. Traditionally pesto is basil based but restaurants having been moving to things like kale as the base of their pesto. We didn’t want to follow everyone else and be the kale pesto guys so we experimented and found that broccoli makes a great pesto as well, so that’s what we’re using. We don’t want to be like everyone else; we want to stand out and have people remember us when they leave, and I think they will.
11. How did you approach putting together the menu for Vernon’s?
We’ve always had a menu that appealed to our corporate guests. We wanted to keep that appeal but also, with our recent menu, we looked to our leisure guests who were coming here with families and staying for 2 or 3 nights. We wanted to have a service that would allow us to appeal to those guests for 1 or 2 nights of their stay. That meant having great variety and a price point that was approachable. We’re constantly looking through various lenses to see how we can craft our menu for certain members of our audience. This summer we really focused on our leisure guests and with future versions of the menu we’ll focus on other diners.
The menu changes very often, and we have a lot of specials. Those specials that are done well and embraced by our guests will become core menu items.
12. What drives the changes to your menu?
We definitely keep it seasonal - the season dictates the change. From there we start to play. We keep some core things. We made the mistake of pulling a Sea Bass off the menu - it was an expensive cut of fish and I wanted to make the pricing more approachable. Well, the servers let me know that people loved the dish and wanted to see it kept on the menu, so it’s back. We do make mistakes but we listen to feedback and fix things when necessary.
13. How would you describe the menu at Vernon’s today?
I’d say the menu at Vernon’s has an upscale, Southern flair. Being that we’re so close to the Georgia border we’ve tried to capture the flavors of both northern Florida and Georgia. For example, the datil pepper is known to this region, so instead of making a ceviche using jalapeños, as I would have in Miami, I’ll use the datil pepper in our ceviches. For another dish, we had a lot of fun with our meatloaf. It’s not a traditional meatloaf. We have a smoker we use to slow roast brisket for 12 hours before pulling it apart and mixing in some caramelized onions and a little barbecue sauce. We then put the mixture in a pan and weigh it down overnight using bricks placed in another pan on top. When it comes out it’s one big meatloaf. We cut portions and sear them individually before serving. We use caramelized onions and balsamic demi sauce as our sauce for the meatloaf. Pepper mashed potatoes are served as the side. It’s a dish with such great flavors that I could eat it all day long.
14. Will there be signature dishes that Vernon’s will be known for?
I definitely want that to be the case. We have dishes like our Hot Chicken that are very unique. I want people to come in and try our pasta dishes because they’re absolutely amazing. I also want people to know that we will always have things that are new, whether it’s a special or a prix fixe menu they can try.
15. Can you tell us about your Hot Chicken?
Hot Chicken is our take on Nashville Hot Chicken. Todd Hickey, our General Manager, came to me one night and told me that he’d had this amazing hot chicken in Tennessee. I went and read up on it to learn the back story and about where the recipe came from. We started working on the spices and have come up with an incredible flavoring. We take chicken and blanche it with peppers in a little chicken stock. It’s par cooked, then soaked over night in a hot peppered buttermilk. For the breading Chef Thomas adds in a few spices like cayenne, garlic salt, and a little this and that. From there it goes into the fryer. So now you have the triple threat - there’s the spice infused into the chicken, the spice in the breading and the spice in the sauce that's brushed on after the chicken comes out of the fryer. You’ll taste the heat, but it’s enjoyable. In Nashville they serve it with a nice piece of white bread under the chicken to soak up the goodness. We decided to use an herbed waffle. We took some charred peppers - not hot peppers - to give the waffle some flavor, and some herbs from the garden outside. It’s a nice savory waffle that complements the hot chicken. We serve it with a little Vermont maple syrup to drizzle over top.
If someone isn’t sure about the heat we can send the sauce out on the side and let people use it to their own taste. If you really like heat with your food you can order it “angry” and we’ll serve it with one of our spicier sauces. We do get requests for that and we make it happen.
It’s been a really great item on the menu. It surprised all of us how well it’s taken off. It’s a fun dish to make that we’re really proud of.
16. What are some of the other highlights of your new menu?
Chef Thomas: Our grouper dish is one of our most popular seafood items. We use faro, which is a type of grain, that we cook like risotto. We call it Farotto on the menu. We cook the faro in a stock just like we would a risotto. We use fresh, seasonal mushrooms, English peas, and a little pecorino cheese at the end. We use the Farotto as our side. For the grouper we’ll sear it skin-on and place it on top of the Farotto. We top the grouper with pea tendrils and then garnish the plate with pickled beets. We only buy 5 pounds of grouper per day to ensure it’s always fresh. When we run out, we run out. It’s been a great dish. Of course grouper is juicy, succulent and delicious. The Farotto brings a nice touch, and it’s different from having a standard risotto or rice accompaniment.
Chef Thomas mentioned the pickled beets. We pickle everything. If something’s on its way out of season we’ll buy a lot of it and pickle it to allow us to use it throughout the year. Even if it’s just a small component to a salad or a garnish to a fish we’re still getting that little bit of vibrant acidity to kick things up.
We have a very simple Lemon Shrimp Linguine which is something I originally put on the menu for room service. It’s a dish I’d make for myself at home after working a 12 hour shift. It’s simple but very tasty - pecorino, lemon zest, lime juice, olive oil, linguine and shrimp, along with some currant tomatoes for a little sweetness, and crushed basil on top. We brought that dish from room service to our main menu and it’s selling like crazy. It’s simple and fresh.
Chef Thomas: all three of our pasta dishes are doing really well. We have a Cavatelli dish made with a chicken thigh marinated in a little sherry, garlic and thyme before being grilled. Cavatelli is a ricotta cheese pasta that we make. They look like little shells. We also make a brodo from Parmesan rind. Brodo is a broth that takes about 5 hours to make. We sauté onions with a little garlic and throw in rinds from our parmesan along with a little chicken stock, mushrooms, water and white wine before simmering for about 5 hours. We strain the sauce and use is as the base of our cavatelli pasta sauce. We add a little garlic and spinach and top the sauce with grilled chicken at the end. It’s fantastic - with the sherry and the dark, juicy chicken meat.
The Cornbread Soufflé with the Filet is something new that we’d never done before. It’s delicious. It’s a savory bread pudding. We cut up our croissants and add chilies and sweet corn to make a bread pudding. People will come in and just order the Bread Pudding. It’s fun stuff like that. Nothing is what you’d expect when you walk in.
17. How do you combine the idea of having a more approachable price point on your menu with cooking everything from scratch and the high touch required of your cooks?
Scratch cooking requires more labor but it isn’t necessarily more expensive when you have skilled chefs - and I’m talking about everyone from my cooks all the way up. My cooks are super excited about learning - they regularly show up early because they want to play around and try new things. When you have a great team that’s excited about what they’re doing and put everything into producing great food then you don’t need extra labor in the kitchen.
Everyone in the kitchen loves food, playing around with food, having fun and putting out great dishes for our guests. We love reading the comment cards from our guests. Their excitement about having a great meal is what keeps us going.
18. What sort of things come from your playing around with food?
Chef Thomas: things like chocolate spaghetti and meatballs! It’s something I just came up with one day. The spaghetti is made from white chocolate that's topped off with chocolate meatballs and strawberry sauce. The “Parmesan" is shaved white chocolate. It’s not on the menu but it’s something I’ll make up once in a while as a fun surprise for the kids.
19. We hear you also have an amazing PB&J dessert - where did that come from?
Chef Thomas: Peanut Butter Pie is a Southern dish. I came in one day, like I often do, and wanted to play around with something different. That day I felt like some peanut butter and jelly. I thought I’d make it into a pie. Chef Joe told me to go for it, so I did. I made a peanut butter mousse that’s very light and a grape sorbet to go with it. Everybody on the team was getting into it and helping out. We sampled and played around until we had it right. We put it out on the menu and people just went crazy for it.
A lot of people tell me PB&J sounds a little weird, but once they try it, they’re sold. I’ll often see people sitting at the bar and just having the dessert.
20. Chef Thomas, can you tell us about your background?
Chef Thomas: I’ve lived in North Florida since 1986, but I grew up in Kansas - that’s where my grassroots, scratch cooking and pickling came from. At Sawgrass I’m the Assistant Sous Chef. I run Vernon’s and am over Alice & Pete’s, and handle just about anything else Chef Joe asks me to do.
21. It sounds like you do a lot of experimenting...
Chef Thomas: yes. I have the team that allows me to do that. I’d like to speak to that for a minute. When Marriott and Chef Joe took over it was like a whole wall came down in the kitchen. Everyone was so excited to jump in and do scratch cooking. It’s what I love. I grew up on a farm cooking and pickling with my grandmother. We had everything - orchards, gardens, chickens, cows and pigs. The whole thing is that the team just jumps in - the guys are so knowledgeable.
22. We hear that you’ve started a garden...
Yes! My first request to the General Manager was for a little piece of land to start growing some of the things I was finding at the farmer’s market. We’ve been able to grow eggplants, zucchini, lettuce, arugula, herbs and peppers. I’m now looking to get more land to take things to the next degree. We’ve been able to grow all our own herbs for the restaurant for quite some time. The garden is producing and is quite prolific.
23. …and you’re making your own salt?
We’re creating our own finishing salt by taking ocean water from the beach in Ponte Vedra. We put the water through the proper filtration to ensure it’s clean and has all the metals removed. We wanted the purest of pure, clean salts. We get about 3/4 of a cup of salt from a gallon of ocean water. We’ve even gone a step further and burned some of our local sawgrass to add a smoky flavor to the salt. When one of my chefs, Matt Sanchez, approached me with the idea to create our own salt, I thought “how cool is that?” It’s just one of the things we do to add a lot of fun to our food. Not only do we get this really cool salt but we also bring the food closer to being about us and what we can do uniquely here at Sawgrass. You aren’t going to get that salt anywhere but here. And that’s just one idea we’re using to make the food here uniquely our own.
24. Aren’t you making your own local vinegar too?
Yes, it’s in the works now. It takes about 6 months to make. We have oak barrels - charred and regular - and are aging the vinegars now. We’re doing a little vinegar in both types of barrels so we can compare and contrast flavors. It’s still about 6 months away. This is the first time we’ve tried something like this so it’s still an experiment for us. We’re making our vinegars from wine and also from Intuition beer.
25. Have you gotten Vernon’s to where you want it now?
Things always evolve so we’re always changing, but I’m really excited about the menu we have out there now. It’s fun and really speaks to what I want Vernon’s to be. We’re going to have a great follow up menu this fall as well. We’re just starting to play around with that now.
26. What do you think people will remember about Vernon’s when they visit?
I hear a lot of “wow! I wasn’t expecting that.” I want people to expect that things will be done a little differently.
27. Where do you see Vernon’s in 2 or 3 years?
I want it to be a destination for foodies to come to. We’re a good bunch of foodies back here and just want to come out and share that food with everybody. Vernon’s is not your typical hotel restaurant and I never want to be known as that. I’ve always been so impressed with how beautiful Vernon’s is as a place to eat. We’ve been given this amazing canvas and now we get to paint on it every day - that’s the fun piece for us.
28. Anything else?
If you get from us that we think food is fun, that’s what I want people to take away from this interview.