The Sprouting Project
When you're the new kid on a playground, you might be inclined to stand back and watch how the games are being played. This was not the case for Chef Daven Wardynski.
When he arrived at the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort a little over 3 years ago, he planted the seeds needed to incorporate more local products into the resort’s dining options – quite literally. In his previous role as Executive Chef at the Omni Chicago Hotel, Wardynski sourced locally as much as possible, which included the creation of a rooftop garden and support of a bee farm in the suburbs to provide honey to the hotel.
When the chef transitioned to Amelia Island years later and saw an idle greenhouse, formerly used to grow flowers on the resort’s property, he knew what his next undertaking would be. Appropriately named The Sprouting Project was born and includes an aquaponic greenhouse, an organic garden, beehives, event space and a smokehouse, all thoughtfully planned to maximize the output based on growing seasons in Northeast Florida.
“Although I grew up in a farm community in the Midwest, down here the growing season is very different, so I had to learn what to grow when in Florida,” said the chef. “In addition to herbs such as basil, rosemary, pineapple sage and mint, we also planted figs, blueberries, calamondins, raspberries, hot peppers, tomatoes and blackberries. I don’t want our garden to be one note. I want a variety of flavors that we can showcase on the menu.”
In the aquaponic greenhouse, there are lettuces and other plants, over 360 in each table, in various stages of the growing cycle. The frequent harvesting has demonstrated to management the return on investment is indeed leading to savings. In the woods behind the greenhouse, the beehives have already produced over 1400 pounds of honey. “Instead of a root cellar, I am building a barrel room so we can create barrel-aged honey and experiment with the flavors,” said the chef.
“Not only am I growing some of the food that we use in our restaurants – I am trying to produce food with a soul. I want to create an experience for our guests when they are out here for our farm-to-table dinners. There’s a reason why we used ground shells to cover the exterior walkways – it reminds me of shelling with my grandparents over on the Gulf.”
Within the tanks you’ll find blue gill, sunfish and bream, reminiscent of the fish Wardynski used to catch with his dad in his youth. And when the chef’s young daughters come visit him at work, he lets them help pick the lettuce and other produce. “I want them to have an understanding of where food comes from, and a similar connection that I had to the farm when I was growing up.”
Monthly dinners take place at The Sprouting Project, allowing guests to get up close and personal with the chef's work in progress. What other ideas are germinating in Wardynski’s head? “I am always thinking about the next-next. Like goats and chickens, so we can have milk for cheese and eggs that are hyper-local,” said the chef. Somehow you get the feeling that, even though there is a lot of hard work involved, the games on this playground are only just beginning.