Top Chefs make memorable meal at the Marriott
Put together two “Top Chef” contestants, a high-powered group of travel influencers and the king of foodstuffs and you have the ingredients for a memorable dining experience.
The JW Marriott’s fine dining restaurant, Ario, hosted a dinner Monday evening designed to show what a luxury tier resort kitchen can do. Called “Truffles by the Gulf,” the meal centered around black truffles, with each of seven courses featuring the elegant fungi.
Preparing the meal were two renowned celebrity chefs, who had previously faced off in Season 14 of “Top Chef,” the Bravo Network series that pits culinary wizards against each. One of the chefs, Gerald Sombright, represented the home team at Monday’s dinner, as he is the executive chef at Ario.
He was joined in the kitchen by “Top Chef” repeat contestant and “Dallas bad boy chef” John Tesar, who came to Southwest Florida to anchor a dinner at Naples’ Winter Wine Festival. The choice of truffles as a theme was ironic as Tesar infamously smuggled in his own truffles when he and Sombright faced off on television. This time, though, the chefs were working together.
The two chefs alternated courses, each of which had given a name: Prelude, Ocean, Tulum, Earth, Smoke, and Commence, along with a “bonus” course near the end. Each course was also paired with an appropriate delectable wine, from the Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne served with Prelude, which consisted of a creamy vichyssoise, to the Quinta das Murcas vintage 2011 port served with Commence, a dessert of truffle-infused risotto, highlighted by flower petals, cacao and fruit.
In between the courses, patrons enjoyed diver scallops, petite lobster, hand-rolled garganelli pasta and unicorn tomahawk steak (no unicorns were harmed), all garnished with truffles lovingly hand-shaved onto the dishes by the chefs and bustling kitchen staff.
The lucky diners who oohed and ahhed their way through this feast for the palate were primarily members of the Travel Leaders Network Advisory Board, a group of topnotch travel agents and hospitality industry opinion influencers who were in town to check out the “new kid on the block,” the JW Marriott.
Accompanying them was Jack Wert, executive director of Collier County’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, who's charged with bringing tourists to the area. His presence came under the category of “a tough job, but someone has to do it."
Wert welcomed the advisory board, telling them that Marco has “the widest expanse of white sand beach in the area, and the golf in Southwest Florida is spectacular.” He didn’t have to tell them anything about the food.
“These are very heavy hitters” in the hospitality industry, he said as the guests enjoyed signature cocktails, including “ultimate smoked Manhattans” featuring Woodford Reserve and “Diva’s Cosmopolitans.”
“This group will bring millions of dollars in bookings to the area," Wert said.
While Tesar is known for being brash and outspoken, he was on his best behavior as a visitor to the Ario kitchen, but Sombright, moving briskly as he prepped dishes, kept his staff on their toes.
“Move fast, but lay it gentle,” he told one prep cook, and called out, “behind you, behind you, man,” as another momentarily impeded the choreographed dance on the line.
The diners were uniformly blown away by the meal, and several had the chefs sign their menus as a keepsake after dinner.
Some hotel guests and a few locals also partook, but at a steep cost. The dinner had a prix fixe of $210, plus $75 for the wine pairings. With a 22 percent service charge and tax, the per plate cost came to over $380. Valet parking was complimentary, however.
The chefs said they enjoyed the experience as much as their diners. For Tesar, it was “busman’s holiday,” but fun, he said, to be reunited with his friend and erstwhile rival.
“I love Gerald. He came and helped me at the wine auction dinner, and said, ‘Why don’t you come to the hotel, and we’ll do a truffle dinner?’ It’s like the first episode of 'Top Chef.' We had fun. It’s like we opened a restaurant together," Tesar said.
"Yeah, for one night,” Sombright added. Clearly, he hadn’t forgotten his brush with Tesar on "Top Chef." “I don’t trust this guy. He smuggled in truffles on national television. You think I trust him?”
But the camaraderie between the two was evident.
Sombright said that truffles sell for about $700 per pound, and one large one he hefted cost $960 all by itself. But the truffles, and the 'top chefs' preparing them, made for a memorable evening.