All these years later I’ll be attending the largest fund-raiser of the year – the Chef’s Gala – for the Heart of Florida United Way this evening, Saturday, May 4, at the Epcot World Showplace. The invitation came last week from out of the blue, my online writing efforts so fresh they still have that new blog smell. With my Local focus, at first I wasn’t even first sure it made sense for me. When I saw Winter Park’s own Cask & Larder and 4Rivers Smokehouse Sweet Shop on the participants list, however, I thought my angle, the story I would tell was basically clear. How naïve I can be.I know lots of people who talk about the arts. It’s a bigger four-letter word than it first seems. It covers so much, can hint at the creative talents and resourcefulness of so many types of people, so many who do such varied things. As I learned more about these two very young Local businesses I began to consider if they might be a sign of one of the greatest arts scenes presently at work in Central Florida: the art of food.
I’ll be honest and say that if I’d heard anyone talk about the “art of food” fifteen or twenty years ago I would have laughed. I’ve never been a good cook and am still not. I can destroy a kitchen given a simple task. But I live with one of those types, have for over 20 years, and have gotten much better at suggesting what one dish needs to pull it all together, accent its flavors. I’m surely no critic, never desire to be one, more a celebrator of what I LUV, what I see as special, of all the people I see who create, define whole new categories because their own imaginations are bigger than the current list of possibilities before them. That is more what the inclusion of both Cask & Larder and 4Rivers’s Sweet Shop is to me now. In addition to Local stories, they are tales of defined purpose and passion, creative artistic energy focused on the edible.I’d never been to the 4Rivers Smokehouse in Longwood. I’d heard about it lots, however, as it’s developed a cultish following, along with the other locations. But maybe this one especially. Can you be legendary in just a year and a half? I’m not sure that word is too big among those who work with my life partner. He speaks of them speaking of it and I can’t help but smile, appreciate the power of a good idea, of one man’s passion to do things which have been done before differently, better. You can’t escape it’s amazing success now, even as you drive around, those bumper stickers everywhere.
I visited that location on Thursday and spoke with The Sweet Shop Manager, Erin Young. She’s young, like the restaurant. She offers lots of one word responses to my questions because when you’re talking so positively about something, it’s easy. For this evening’s gala The Sweet Shop will be offering ice cream and “cupcake drop-ins”. I’ll admit to being at first underwhelmed. Again, I can be so very naïve.I was first blown away visually. Now handling social media for a number of Local restaurants, picturesque food is so nice to work with. We’re a very visual society. The Sweet Shop is big on visuals. After Erin told me of the plans for ice cream and “cupcake drop-ins” I asked such an innocent question, expected largely innocent answers. What are the favorite flavors? Could it be maybe vanilla or chocolate, or maybe something really exotic like rocky road? No. Erin responds, “Red velvet is really popular, and AIRPLANE.”
It is fortuitous I had nothing in my mouth at the time, not sampling anything, not chewing gum, as my ears and mouth worked together to blurt out: “AIRPLANE?” “Yes,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s my favorite.” She looks at me wide-eyed, smiling.
‘Airplane’ is a flavor built around biscotti you might receive in flight, she said. I think most would have been as shocked by the flavor as I was, but Erin explained that they like to produce TWO new flavors a week. It’s a process initiated and still overseen by John Rivers. She said he presents flavors, possibilities and the guy who makes the ice cream, others go to work. The whole staff acts as guinea pigs, but, she says, “then John okays everything. We’re trying to get more flavors out. Right now we’re testing a bunch.”I’m more than a little amused the guy who served me my favorite dish at the recent Taste of Winter Park – a beef brisket burger – is also this Local Willy Wonka of ice cream and cupcakes, with names like grasshopper, earthquake, junkfood and airplane. The Sweet Shop’s “cupcake drop-ins” are actually a milkshake produced WITH your choice of cupcake. Come with me, and you’ll see, a world of pure imagination . . . .
I’d heard everything is made fresh daily here and Erin confirms it. “Daily. Yeah,” she says. That sounds like a lot of work, I say. “A lot. Yes.” As we talk I notice four or so employees behind her who’ve been busily working as we talk. When you do this stuff daily, I guess you get pretty good at it, work as quietly, seamlessly together as what I observe.I now feel I need to allow her to get back to work, ask simply if what they’re serving Saturday going to be yummy? “Of course, yes.”
That spirit of pushing the envelope, of creating a new envelope when you don’t find one that suits you seems an interwoven part of the Cask & Larder fabric as well. In a setting Marketing Manager Erin Allport describes as “Southern Living”, Cask & Larder continues to do what it’s sister restaurant, Ravenous Pig, has done for years, but with a very upscale southern personality.
Admittedly, I AM the stereotypical American. I’d prefer to think of all my favorite meat dishes being immaculate, their origin was that small Styrofoam container with shrink wrap in the cooler at the grocery store. Once alive? The heck you say. Once upon a time my parents bought a steer and had it butchered during the inflationary 1970s. I refused to eat it. The Chinese like to stare their food in its eyes before they eat it. I’ve always preferred to pretend mine never had eyes.As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the silliness in that. James & Julie Petrakis’ Cask & Larder menu of vanilla pork belly, suckling piglet, and “lamb fries” would have terrified the old me. Embracing more of my adult self, and perhaps as part of this new and growing cultural appreciation of knowing more about our food and where it comes, my approach is much different.
“James talks about it all the time,” explains Erin. “Someone took the time to grow these vegetables, someone took the time to raise these animals, someone took the time to fish them out of the sea. We need to honor their time by honoring them, preparing them in a way that people will love, want to eat them.”
She continued, “We like to use the whole animal. We don’t throw away parts of the animal. We use it, whatever it may be, even if it’s just to make a stock.” She talks of grouper cheeks, “they’re delicious, but people either use it in stock or throw it away.” She tells me of their “lamb fries” dish – lamb testicles – and how “people were eating them like crazy. I gave them a try.” She speaks of customers’ openness, explaining, “I haven’t tried that before, but I’ll try it. We’ve earned the trust of the community. It’s fun to watch them trying new things, like livers and frog’s legs. People are really becoming more adventurous, they’re curious about where their food comes from.”Erin says Cask & Larder dishes are largely “very simple. That’s another thing about Cask & Larder, is that our preparations are simple. . . . . When you have fresh food around us like we do, you shouldn’t have to cover it up with a bunch of sauces.” She talks of how there are 144,000 farms in Florida, that 88 percent of what our agriculture industry produces is shipped out of state, while so much from California and other places gets shipped to us. She refers specifically to a Local farm which produces “Charlie’s sweet broccoli” with seeds he’s developed over time. She speaks of the intense flavors of their produce because it’s picked one and served the next. A large blackboard in Cask & Larder lists Local farms where produce is sourced.
She estimates 80 percent of Ravenous Pig ingredients are sourced Locally. Cask & Larder dishes, she said, are more from across the south. She mentions grits they purchase from Columbia, South Carolina, milled there and served fresh at Cask & Larder the next day, and will be among the dishes served at the Chef’s Gala, along with shrimp sausage made from Canaveral royal red shrimp and Key West pink shrimp, both from Florida waters. Cask & Larder’s popular country ham with ramp biscuits, farmer’s cheese and pepper jelly will also be served. Wines from South Africa and Spain will accompany the dishes.As I sat waiting for Erin earlier I noticed the large framed images hanging against the ceiling. She tells me they are images from James’ own family. At Cask & Larder bottles high above the dining room were found by the Harper family when excavating the parking lot, discarded during the Prohibition era. A wrought iron form rises before the front door, once part of the same building before it largely burned in the 80s. More black and white photographs from early in its history, as Harper’s, other businesses, line the hall to the bathroom.
There’s not just an appreciation of food, of the effort to produce it here, but also of history itself. I consider how such an appreciation increases the attention to detail, to ingredients and what is served.
I ask Erin if she will be in attendance at the gala and she says yes, says “the United Way is a really great charity. It helps a lot of families in Orlando so it’s good to be a part of this.”
And I so agree.