“This is the easy part,” said Omar Collazo as his eyes scanned the ocean on an early-morning fishing trip. The 42 year-old executive chef at Omni Amelia Island Resort, where he oversees no fewer than 10 dining locations at the idyllic Florida destination, was smack in the middle of the annual “Fish to Fork” culinary weekend, which features three days of lavish meals and entertainment capped off with a competition between star chefs from around the country. That May morning, each chef was on a different chartered boat, racing to reel in their catch of the day to use in the final night’s cook-off.
As the big man on campus, Collazo was also shouldering the weight of every meal throughout the festival. He’d made dinner for 400 the night before, and had a full day of events ahead of him. But for now, there was just one task at hand. The boat radar indicated he’d found the perfect spot for hauling up some bait, and it wasn’t long before he had bigger proverbial fish to fry. The fishing lines started dancing. The first big catch was a black tip shark, followed not long after by a bonnet head shark. Collazo gutted them right there on the floor of the boat.
Now all he had to do was use the sharks in some kind of dish that would convince voters to choose him over other competitors—including Ben Norton, executive chef at Husk in Nashville; Carlos Raba, co-owner and chef at Clavel in Baltimore; Jes Tantalo, executive chef at Redlight Redlight in Orlando; Katsuji Tanabe, owner and executive chef at a’Verde in Cary, North Carolina; and Ricky Moore, founder and owner of the Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham. This year was Collazo’s first time competing himself, while also overseeing the event.
On the final night, the chefs set up booths on the hotel grounds where they’d prepared the fish from their respective boating trips and paired cocktails to boot. Brightly-attired guests in their Florida finest mixed and mingled, sampling each dish and voting for their favorites live. Collazo had gone the handroll route with his shark (which tastes much like swordfish), serving his spin on sushi atop a vibrant green pool of spicy curry in tinned fish containers. Suffice it to say, Collazo won the competition—and then carved out time to share more of his story with COOL HUNTING.
What brought you to Omni Amelia Island?
I’ve been basically cooking in kitchens since I was 16. I started as a dishwasher. I studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando. After school I bounced around a bit. A chef friend of mine that worked here always talked about how cool it was, how they did a bunch of chef kitchen dinners and they were always kind of on top of the trends. I remember visiting one time and how massive the property was and this huge talented chef team. And also seeing the Sprouting Project [part of the property that includes a state-of-the-art aquaponic greenhouse, expansive organic garden, large collection of beehives, chicken coop and barrel room where the culinary team hosts monthly sustainable dinners], which kind of started out of nothing. Seeing that investment side into food and beverage, I was like, this place is going to do things.
Is that pretty rare in this industry, at this scale?
It is, yeah. I mean, we’re business people too so we do have to be diligent about how we spend and how we use labor to make sure things are profitable, but we don’t talk about the bottom line as much. It’s a lot about guest experiences and how everything falls in place. It’s a very guest-forward kind of property.
Is that different from your previous restaurant jobs?
It’s one of the reasons I left the previous job for this one. I was running a seafood restaurant. Private owners can make decisions that don’t make sense for chefs, like wanting to switch from fresh to frozen fish and things like that. That’s when I knew it was my time to keep moving because that’s not something a chef is going to want to do. Going from there and knowing the quality that this hotel buys—like, all the shrimp on the entire property is fresh. And that’s more expensive, but it doesn’t matter because we catch shrimp right outside in these waters. So being able to utilize local product and actually support local shrimpers, that’s a big part of Omni.
What would you say is the goal of “Fish to Fork” and how has it changed over the years?
A big part of it is showcasing what our team can do, from setups to service and coming up with some cool ideas and then seeing them through.
Are you thinking in terms of locals, tourists or other chefs?
A little bit of everything. These chefs that came through, they’ve probably never really heard of us, but when they see the tools that we have and the product that we use, it’s kind of like, “Wow.”
What is the best part of a destination culinary festival from a chef’s perspective?
We’re in the kitchen so much that we don’t really get to venture off and meet other chefs. Doing things like this is a great opportunity to actually meet another chef and get to know who they really are. It’s not like you’re saying hello or doing a table touch. It’s on a more personal level and we don’t get many opportunities like that because we’re always in the kitchen.
Is there any crazy thing you’ve pulled off that really stands out?
I have a boss that lets you get out there a little bit and he supports things whether you’re gonna fail or do really well. I’m very cautious when I jump into things, though. One of the amenities on the second night of the festival was actually beer that we brewed here on property. It took us about three months of trial and error figuring out what works. We pick projects like that—like, let’s ferment things. Let’s make beer. We do our Sprouting Project dinners and those are times where we’re not following recipes, we’re making things that we’ve never made before and it kind of gets us out of the day in, day out grind of running a restaurant. And we’re able to pull chefs from different outlets and the cooks that are excelling and deserve a little break. We’ll basically pull people together and just kind of create something new. We do that monthly.
I think the thing that surprises us most is it sounds like it’s a very nimble, flexible environment, which you just don’t really think of when you think of a resort chain.
We definitely take following recipes and creating standards very seriously on property, but when it comes to things that are seasonal and changing, we’re really open-minded about it.
Is there a menu favorite that’s not seasonal or connected to “Fish to Fork” that is a fan favorite that will never leave the menu there?
There’s one dish at the Veranda restaurant, the crab-stuffed grouper. It’s basically like crab on top of grouper that has Parmesan cheese that kind of melts on the fish. It’s funny, I think every chef has tried to pull that away and guests just don’t accept. They’re not having it! It’s been on that menu for like 30 years. We jokingly call it the goopy grouper. You’re not going to change the goopy grouper.
How are you feeling after winning the competition?
This whole event was a really big challenge, but man, it was easily the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
Hero image courtesy of Deremer Studios Jacksonville Commercial Photography