The Thrill of the Catch and the Joy of the Feast at Omni Amelia Island Resort
The luxury resort’s Fish to Fork Weekend showcases its culinary bounty in an immersive experience with the region’s top chefs.
When Omar Collazo, executive chef at Omni Amelia Island Resort, contemplates the return of the luxury getaway’s annual Fish to Fork weekend in the fall, he flashes back to cherished childhood memories. Growing up in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park, the chef accompanied his father and grandfather on charter boat fishing excursions out of Mayport. “I have a Puerto Rican background,” he says. “We ate a lot of fish.”
The excursions taught him some important lessons early on. “I guess patience, right,” he says, “and not being disappointed. To me it’s just a great experience just being out there, at one with the water. You get to spend time with a family member or a friend. When you catch fish it’s a bonus.”
The pressure will be on, however, when Collazo embarks, along with a talented array of five other chefs participating in this year’s culinary competition weekend (Sept. 29–Oct. 2), on individual Friday morning fishing trips to catch their main course for Saturday’s cook-off event.
Each of the chefs—including James Beard Foundation award winners and Top Chef alums—competes with a party of Fish to Fork guests and an Amelia Island charter captain, to reel in as much finned fare as they can. What they catch becomes their signature dish for 450 VIP and weekend-package attendees at the grand cook-off, where diners will vote on their favorite in the individual challenge. Afterward, the chefs will be randomly divided into two teams for the group challenge, in which they must work together to transform a mystery ingredient into a palate-pleasing dish that the guests also vote on. A third competition, the chef’s choice, reflects the favorite dish chosen between the chefs themselves.
“It’s really neat to see people like myself traveling to another place in an unordinary kitchen, kind of throwing down and figuring it out and it’s really cool to see what they come up with,” says Collazo, who will be entering the Iron Chef-style competition for the first time.
On the evening of the cook-off, the chefs gather on the resort’s outdoor terrace with a backdrop of Spanish moss-draped oaks. They’ll face an audience, feted with cocktails, and a huge table laden with the evening’s ingredients, as an announcer handles the play-by-play. Anything can happen.
“At home you know where the salt and pepper is, where your tongs are. When you’re in a different world it gets a little crazy,” Collazo says.
Guests can look forward to a lot of interaction with the chefs. VIP and weekend packages offer multiple dining opportunities, a fishing excursion, and a trademark Island Hopper (golf cart) for the weekend stay. For the first time, there will be an off-site dinner at Mocama Beer Company, where a multicourse beer-paired meal will shine a light on the Fernandina Beach-based craft brewery’s unique pale ale, pilsner and hazy double IPA.
Diners also will get to enjoy the company of some formidable chefs. The contenders include Ben Norton, executive chef of Husk Nashville; Carlos Raba, co-owner and chef at Clavel in Baltimore, and a James Beard Award nominee; Katsuji Tanabe, owner and executive chef at a’Verde in Cary, North Carolina, and an alum of Iron Chef, Food Fighters and Cooking Under Fire; Ricky Moore, founder and owner of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham, North Carolina, and 2022 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southeast award; and Florida’s own Jes Tantalo, executive chef at the soon-to-open Redlight Redlight brew pub in Orlando.
Tantalo prefers to cook away from the media glare.
“There’s something about cameras that just make me forget how to cut an onion,” she says, laughing. “Maybe someday I’ll finally not care anymore but some days just doing an Instagram post—whew! Stressful.”
A star on the Central Florida scene, Tantalo also has never cooked in this sort of competition before, but she’s excited by the prospect, and more than confident of her culinary reflexes. “I’m trying to figure out what will give me the edge,” she explains. “I’ve done so many pop-ups and themed events, where I’m always pulling from a brand new repertoire or a brand new basket of ingredients, so it will feel more natural to me than someone who has a set restaurant menu. I’m having to constantly pull this creative card out, so that might be a leg up for me.”
At home you know where the salt and pepper is, where your tongs are. When you’re in a different world it gets a little crazy.
— Omar Collazo
Tantalo has spent more than half her life in Florida, and she’s more than at home preparing seafood. “One of my best friends is a fishmonger,” she says, noting a special affinity for Atlantic species. “Stuff out of the Atlantic is saltier because it’s cold water and they have to work harder.” With her friend, the chef did a number of side-by-side tastings and classes. “We brought our Atlantic seafood to compete with a whole bunch of New Orleans’ boys and their Gulf seafood, and I’ve got to say we blew them out of the water.”
Depending on where the charter boat takes her, Tantalo may be reeling in river trout from Amelia River or red drum, grouper and black sea bass out in the Atlantic.
“I’ve been deep-sea fishing once,” she says. “I had a blast. I got to do the most fishing because everyone else got seasick. I had the boat to myself, just me and the captain.”
Amelia Island is situated in Northeast Florida amid an Edenic natural terrain, with plenty that swims, flies and sprouts from the earth. But the home team is already calling dibs on the cobia.
“You can really do anything with it,” Collazo says. “It’s really good for sashimi, it fries well, you can slap it on the grill and it won’t fall apart.” The chef’s affection for the fish, again, goes back to those family outings, and the kind of rich memory that’s always felt in the dishes he prepares.
“The last time I was with my grandfather on a boat, he caught this massive cobia, without even a fishing rod,” Collazo recalls. “Have you ever seen those plastic wheels, that you tie your string around? He brought one of those on a charter boat. The charter guys were like ‘Oh my God, what is this old man doing?’ He dropped his line and got this huge cobia! We didn’t know what it was but he probably fought this thing for 30 or 45 minutes, and he finally pulled it up. It was the happiest day of his life.”
From the thrill of the catch to joy of the feast, Omni Amelia Island’s Fish to Fork weekend promises to be one you won’t forget. To book a seat, visit fishtoforkweekend.com.