If I could travel back in time I would’ve never attended graduate school. Although I’m proud to boast a Master’s Degree, I no longer foresee it benefiting my career path. If I had it to do all over again, I’d go to culinary arts school and train to be a chef. Not only do I love eating delectable cuisine, I’m also quite obsessed with the art of cooking it. Oh, and I’ve always thought about how sexy I’d look in that white coat and goofy hat…
When I was recently invited to an event benefitting several local high school culinary arts programs, I didn’t hesitate for a second with my RSVP. I genuinely admire teens with ambition and devotion-especially when it’s in the area of cuisine. I knew that I’d be living vicariously through the talented kids on this night and for that, I was thrilled.
The 8th Annual Ryan Wells Foundation Evening with the Chefs celebrates the short but inspiring life of Ryan Wells- a leader, team player, and aspiring chef. Honoring Ryan’s intended career path, the foundation has awarded 82 scholarships to Pinellas County students totaling over $424,000. I can only imagine the countless successful chefs out there who can thank this foundation for putting them through school.
After traveling over a few bridges, my friend Megan and I arrived at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort. Quickly making our way to the cocktail hour, we couldn’t help but notice all of the excited and eager student chefs. As we sipped on wine, we looked at the hundreds of enticing items and vacations up for the evening’s silent auction. We also observed impressive live cooking demonstrations put on by student chefs. Once we found a table for cocktail hour socializing, we were offered tons of student-made passed hors d’oeurvres like Shrimp Puffs with Crème Fraiche, Vietnamese lettuce wraps, and Chicken Satay Wontons.
Once the relaxing cocktail hour was complete, guests were invited into the main dining hall where nine executive restaurant chefs were dishing up signature items. With assistance from student chefs, the tight lines were quickly moving as guests grabbed delicious small plates of fare. I must say, I was feeling very giddy about sampling food from the St. Petersburg and Clearwater restaurants I’ve yet to visit.
I began at Café Ponte’s restaurant station and was shocked to see a doubly (and decadent) meat course. Mustard Pomme Puree came topped with short rib and sous vide heart of rib eye, dressed up in a Red Wine Salsify and a Cognac truffle sauce. Oh yes, a mouthful indeed. I’d be lying if I claimed to know what all of those ingredients are. However, let me insist, this was one memorable carnivorous dish. With a great depth of flavor, I was in awe from the first forkful to the very last morsel.
After containing my excitement from Café Ponte’s masterpiece, it was time to give Guppy’s on the Beach a try. It has been some time since I last visited the Indian Rocks Beach eatery but from what I could remember, their cuisine is divine. They proved their kitchen skills once again with a beautifully plated mustard and herb encrusted lamb chop. Sitting atop mint studded spring pea puree, the lamb chop came with a seared sea scallop and crispy Asiago white polenta stack as well as duck bacon. As if that weren’t enough, it all came adorned with a dollop of wild mushroom cream. Words simply can’t explain. Delightfully colorful, this plate was also executed flawlessly.
Up next was Parkshore Grill’s Niman Ranch Porchetta. To say this cut of meat was heavenly would be one crazy understatement. The wonderfully fatty and moist pork roast literally melted in my mouth. Just when I thought pork belly was as good as it gets, I was sadly mistaken. Porchetta is almost too good to be true. I guess I should mention it was served with an organic salad...
I was feeling quite full but refused to wave the white flag. Onto the next one I went. Rusty’s Bistro (of the Sheraton Sand Key) served up an Argentinean Shrimp Skewer with a warm tri-color potato and corn salad. Painted with a vibrant chimichurri, the succulent shrimp were also complemented with the crisp white corn and delicious Peruvian purple potatoes.
There was no stopping me now. This was a night meant for indulging. Mystic Fish lured me in with their Seared Ground Lamb and Beef rubbed with Greek spices topped with sautéed peppers and onions. In a pool of tzatziki, the lamb and beef was granted a refreshing finish. Also on the plate was a salad of wood grilled octopus, grape tomatoes, olives, and micro greens. The tangy olives and perfectly grilled octopus scored high nods from all.
I’m so glad I wore a flowy dress to this event. The gluttonous eating party would continue. But hey… I totally deserve it given my usual healthy eating regimen! Presented next to my palate was a dish from Palm CourtItalian Grill (of the Trade Wings Resort). Luscious braised beef Agnolotti came paired with a golden seared sea scallop and drizzled with veal jus, garlic truffle emulsion, and Rosemary olive oil. Everything about this dish was mouth-wateringly rich and I certainly wasn’t complaining.
Just when I thought I might topple over, I caught sight of Island Way Grill’s offering. I was too tempted to resist. Having eaten at Island Way before, I already knew of their culinary greatness. They served a pan seared fresh catch accompanied by crab, basmati rice, a vibrant orange-ginger reduction, and cilantro oil. Cool, crisp, and extremely light, it was an inviting finish to my savory feasting.
I thought I had finally finished the gorge fest until I remembered the dessert bar. William Dean chocolates and macaroons were calling my name. There was also an artistic patriotic treat created by Caretta on the Gulf (of the Sand Pearl Resort). Lady Liberty Geoise Baton made with chocolate marquis and praline crunch was standing in all her sugary glory. It’d be sac religious had I neglected these sweets. So, like any food-loving gal would do, I quickly swiped an array of goodies. Can you blame me?
Needless to say, I was completely and utterly stuffed at the night’s end. However, this evening wasn’t just about yummy eats. Twelve hard-working highschoolers were awarded with scholarships that’ll allow them to attend culinary school. The event was definitely a heart-warming one. The Ryan Wells Foundation is honoring a great man’s name by making dreams come true for passionate and gifted kids. I am truly so thankful and honored to have been invited to such an admirable event. I can only hope that I'll return next year along with many other new faces.