Try this thought on your plate: Food is the fuel that generates the profits for Florida’s upscale resort industry!
400 South Collier Boulevard, Marco
Is it a coincidence that it’s all about the food at upscale hotel resort properties that operate at least two or more full service restaurants and host tasting panels on the premises? Coming up with those answers is tougher than chewing a 50 cent steak or eliminating the national debt.
Instead, we’ll talk to the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort’s new Executive Chef Charles Albanos who is passionate about food and possesses the enthusiasm to instill it in others.
We wanted to interview him to share that excitement and also, of course, because any foodie knows it’s great fun to be allowed into the “back of the house” (like “Ratatouille” but for real) and delve into the realm of an executive chef!
Did I mention that the “we” — bandied about in this fab foodie field trip story — usually includes Jason, the Marco Eagle’s very professional photographer? Well, just in case words fail me, Jason’s pictures are sure to be worth a thousand words!
That having been said, we asked Chef Albanos to tell us about himself.
“I moved here from Atlanta late October. I was the executive chef at JW Marriott Buckhead, a 24-story luxury hotel in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead District. I also worked at the 1600-room Atlanta Marriot Marquis on Peachtree — I kinda grew up there — but my first executive position was at the Lake Lanier Renaissance,” he told us. “I was only there (JW Marriott Buckhead) two and a half years. I loved Atlanta — it was great, but I miss the water.”
Here on Marco Island at the Marriott Beach Resort in Kurrents dining room, we’re sitting with Chef Albanos at a table with a view of the pool area, and beyond that, we can see the ocean water — sparkling Gulf waters past a small stretch of the resort’s three miles of beach.
The conversation drifts into the Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort’s multi-million dollar renovation.
“The environmental strategy — the major focus — is to be a certified-green property for 2008,” Chef Albanos exclaims. “We’ve just opened a new restaurant called 400 Pazzi’s with an authentic brick-oven that serves gourmet pizza along with appetizers, salads, paninis and substantial entrées like lasagna and Chicken Marsala after five.”
That’s not all — as the Executive Chef — Albanos oversees the five full-service restaurants in the Marriott Beach Resort’s nine food outlets with two sous chefs and 12 chefs.
“Our sous chefs run each (outlet), they’re great leaders,” he says. “My goal is to re-vamp the menus to reflect my vision for food and work with the team to incorporate it.” He also says that Kurrents’ Asian steak house menu will focus on organic ingredients instead once the new menu comes out in February.
Speaking of food, it’s a good time to find out why taste panels held in tasting rooms are not the exclusive property of a popular TV cook show.
“Walk-in tasting rooms are built for us to show guests and meeting planners what we do,” Chef Albanos explains it’s a Marriott trend and how taste panels and the tasting room play an essential role in the restaurant’s meeting and wedding business and, catering (pun intended) to those clients is also part of his job.
“Would you like to see the tasting room?” he asks. “Do fish swim?” I ask silently.
We follow him through Kurrents’ dining room. We pass the restaurant’s fantastic open exhibition kitchen and walk through the double swinging doors into a huge and busy main kitchen and then left around the corner facing — at first impression — the solid steel door of a bank vault.
Wow! Chef Albanos has to tug hard to open it before we walk in!
“We have the tasting panels when the wedding or meeting planners come for site visits. We want their business, so the groups are invited to come to the kitchen. We even feed them a meal in our tasting room — small dinners sell the hotel,” he says, waving his hand toward three windows that face directly out to the line. “They can see our chefs actually cooking the food they will be served.”
I also glance enviously at the awesome procession of serious-looking stoves on one side that are opposite to a similar row of gleaming stainless steel counters topped with shelving.
The windows — although essential for the aforementioned reason — are the least item in a small room that has recessed ceiling spots strategically placed to create a luxe ambiance. At the same time though they cast a glow on the satin-finished stainless steel furnishings to evoke the professional aspect of food preparation in a restaurant kitchen, Chef Albanos explains, pointing out the ample, custom-made stainless steel-topped dining table for serving clients.
“It’s similar to the table that was custom-built for the guest kitchen at my last property,” he says.
Kurrents’ patrons have a more intimate view of food being prepared in the restaurant’s open exhibition kitchen which features a very elegant counter where diners can eat perched on sky-high, custom-built and upholstered stools that provide a bird’s eye view of the kitchen’s “line.”
Here the cooking area is divided into stations outfitted for specific cooking techniques where diners can watch the cook in action, stir-frying food over an ultra hot burner, or perhaps see the flames searing food in the wood burning oven built into the wall or even observe the chef standing before a much lower counter as he plates the food and transforms it into edible art.
Of course Kurrents is “the” showcase where people go to eat fine food and see chefs’ cooking skills, but Chef Albanos believes everyone on his staff should share his passion for food yet he admits, “Sometimes you have to wake them up — I can see it in their eyes. If there’s no passion everything is dull and tasteless in the kitchen!”
If Chef Albanos has a magic formula for maintaining the Marriott Beach Resort’s four diamond rating (which is identical to the AAA rating at the Buckhead property) it’s keep food simple, use good products, stay trendy, and to the staff he also maintains, “Keep it simple and use proper cooking skills.”
Yet, he thinks keeping up the fine dining quality is harder in Florida than in Atlanta.
“We do our homework, find great products and try to use local ingredients from South Florida because shipped produce is not always the best quality,” he explains.
On the other hand, he knows that having a perfect kitchen isn’t about having great equipment — it’s about great teamwork and working well together.
“This is a great opportunity for me, I love it here because I’ve always wanted to work at a resort like this — it’s one of my stepping stones!” he concludes.