April 11, 2012:
Keeping It Local: The Longboat Key Club and Resort
Organic vegetable gardens and fruit orchards took root in mid-January at the Longboat Key Club & Resort, blazing the trail for what will become one of Southwest Florida’s greenest food locales.
Chefs are picking tart, red hibiscus leaves and cool mint sprigs directly off the plants for their signature teas. They are growing exotic trees to add pizzazz to their salads and dips. And this year, the 410-acre property’s seven restaurants will carry produce from 25 local farms. It’s culinary eco-consciousness at its apex. “We’re constantly evolving toward a more locally based model,” says Bob Weil, the Key Club’s food and beverage director. “It’s rewarding for us to be good stewards, not only to the community but to the environment.”
At the private beachfront club, which opened in 1982, Weil and his team have been sourcing their hormone-free ingredients from area farms and foragers. For more than three years, the staff has built bonds with vendors such as Suncoast Nursery in Bradenton, Hunsader Farms and King Family Farm in East Manatee County, Mitchell’s Natural Produce in Ellenton, and P & P Farm and Tractor in Myakka City. “Unfortunately, we’re a massproduction kind of society. Even our fruits and vegetables are shipped from California sometimes, and the skins are thicker because they’re genetically changed to be more resistant to bruising during transportation,” Weil says. “Produce is genetically engineered to get every dollar possible out of the product, and we’re really trying to get away from that.”
Every six weeks, Key Club chefs revamp their menus to accommodate seasonal crops. If Southwest Florida is having a bountiful heirloom tomato month, for instance, it will show in an abundance of gazpacho specials at the resort. “We have farms we work with that might specialize in one specific crop, like mushrooms. We drove out to East Bradenton today just to meet with a particular grower and find out what’s good this time of the year,” says executive chef Ed Geyfman. “It’s a lot more rewarding to do it this way but it’s also a tremendous amount of legwork. There are unforeseen costs involved. It takes extra time and we work on a very organized schedule.”
That schedule begins at 7 a.m. daily, when shipping trucks arrive at the central receiving station on the Harbourside end of the resort. These vehicles circle the grounds until closing time, transporting prepped dishes between eateries. All catering is handled in the 4,400-square-foot production kitchen at Harbourside. “Everything is staged there, prepped, and literally sent out to the restaurants via a refrigerated truck,” Weil says. “We also have a commissary on the property, so all of our sauces, condiments, and dressings are produced centrally. If a chef needs bleu cheese dressing, for example, that chef requisitions it and sends it over via email, and it’s produced and sent the next day with the regular delivery.”
More than 260 people work in the Key Club’s food and beverage department, relaying messages by cell phone while traveling in golf carts from the production kitchen to the satellites. They manage 375 member events annually, from afternoon teas and wine dinners to Italian festivals and galas. From February to May, they field a constant rush of cocktail receptions and brunches, feeding thousands of guests. Banquets account for one-third of the department’s overall revenue.
The Key Club’s restaurants are also independently demanding and each has its own savory flair. Portofino, which overlooks the Longboat Key Club Moorings, emphasizes Northern Italian home cooking—from handmade pastas to wood-fired pizzas—in a trattoria-style atmosphere. Sands Pointe, at the resort’s center, boasts creative cuisine, an imported wine list, and a glimmering view of the Gulf of Mexico. The Pointe Lounge has light bites, house-made desserts, organic cocktails, and more than 25 premium Scotches. For tennis enthusiasts, Spike n’ Tees is situated near the Islandside courts and provides a daily lunch buffet and all-natural smoothies. Court 21 Café and Lounge on the Tennis Gardens has breakfast plates and snack bar items, and Barefoot’s Bar & Grille offers poolside dining and live music on the weekends.
Then there is The Grille at Harbourside, which recently underwent a makeover from a clubhouse/steakhouse to a tavern. Bacon, vinegar, pickles, mustards, and microbrews are all made on the premises, and the gastropub ambiance is geared toward the younger set. “The restaurants all have different levels of cuisine and different styles, but for all of them, we’re using the best possible, freshest ingredients, and we’re scratch cooking,” Chef Geyfman says. “If I’m buying lettuces from California, they’re a week or two old, versus pulling lettuce out of the ground. The flavor of that versus something that’s been basically preserved for transport just isn’t the same. We want it fresh.”
These cherry-picked flavors are evident in the creamy Caribbean conch chowder with tortilla garnishes, the seared ahi tuna poke over pineapple carpaccio with wakame salad and crispy wontons, the char-grilled steak and watercress salad with fingerling potatoes, the portabella melt with fresh goat cheese and scallion-radish potato salad, and the jumbo lump crab cakes with tomatillo aioli and lemon confit. “The smaller the farmers, the fresher and better the products,” Weil says. “The farms we purchase our products from may be 20 miles away as opposed to 5,000 miles away. Smaller growers are not using pesticides or industrial fertilizers, and they’re more organically driven.”
Once a year, Weil and his crew visit the farms to plan their matrix for the coming months. They examine the eggplants, Chinese long beans, and baby bok choy, and map out when they will be at their ripest peak. “There will be a week where King Family Farm has heirloom tomatoes and maybe Hunsader Farms has them a week later. We have to use 25 farms because of the sheer amount of cases we bring in here, and we’re dealing with the inconsistency of Mother Nature, so we have to make sure the crop is good,” Geyfman says. “We just met with a grower to set up a schedule every 28 days for lettuces. We’re even going to have a plot with two or three rows on his farm and they’re going to till it for us.”
Cultivating the soil for the Key Club’s own gardens has been especially thrilling for Weil and Geyfman. “We’re planting different types of unique citrus, peach trees, curry plants, lemongrass, lavender, and other things that aren’t readily available in the market,” Weil says. “With certain things like that, you’re almost forced to buy the dry product if you get it elsewhere, and we want to get away from that. Now we get to go out and play in the dirt and grow our own stuff.” Taking a nod from restaurant harbingers in the Pacific Northwest and New York City, where keeping it local is second nature, the Key Club is reinforcing Sarasota-Manatee’s earth-friendly reputation. “People are more aware of what they’re eating nowadays. The fact that we can comfortably say we know where this came from, and that it’s natural and hormone-free, is very important to us,” Geyfman says. “It shows our guests how much we care about what we’re serving them. And of course, there’s no denying it tastes fantastic.”
View the complete article at Edible Sarasota