Earlier in November, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort hosted its inaugural Cocktails + Canvases weekend. The event was a collaboration with the Cummer Museum & Gardens in Jacksonville and nothing less than a celebration of all things aesthetic and culinary. Even in its first year, it promised to become an amazing local tradition in subsequent years. We’re pretty sure you’ll want to book a ticket now.
But if you’re not yet convinced, take a look at how the weekend played out – with everything from bourbon blending to gourmet meals served on painter’s palettes.
Saturday morning dawned bright and early on the idyllic Amelia Island. Unable to attend Friday night’s dinner and art show at the on-site restaurant (and aquaponic greenhouse) The Sprouting Project, I drove from St. Augustine Saturday morning early enough to enjoy breakfast in the Sunrise Cafe with some of the hosts of the weekend, Grace and Brittany. During breakfast, the star of the event, Chef Daven Wardynski visited our table to welcome us and make sure everything was running smoothly.
Chef Daven has been with Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort since October of 2012 and is the mastermind behind the culinary side of the event.
Our first esculent activity consumed, the party moved to the hotel’s conference centers to meet Charli Leniston, one of weekend’s featured artists. Charli, a delightfully eccentric and entertaining artist who has lived and worked all over the world, was to demonstrate some of her favorite painting techniques and a few of the more unique ways her canvases come together.
Our artistic inclinations sufficiently awakened by Charli’s enthusiasm, the chattering group made its way to the lobby (weather issues had forced the event indoors) where mimosas and miniature easels had been set up in rows. The next event on our agenda was a basic painting lesson with landscape artist and Cummer Museum art teacher, Allison Watson. Each of us walked away after the instruction – with varying degrees of success – holding a small painting of a quiet Amelia Island beach.
Lunch was held at one of the on-site galleries, a delectable spread of some Southern essentials – Low Country boil, deviled eggs, fried chicken, a tangy peach vinaigrette, house made pimento cheese, and the like – proving once again that these chefs knew exactly what they were doing. And just in case we were forgetting the “cocktails” portion of the event, right outside the door was a beer wall.
The afternoon had grown unexpectedly chilly, but being the good sports that we were (and undoubtedly intrigued by “bourbon blending” listed on our schedules), we trekked via a hotel shuttle to the tennis courts to become alcohol experts. Nick from Breakthrough Beverage – who also happened to be the genius behind the main event cocktails – played professor and walked us through the basics of bourbon, offering insight on what we were tasting. We then mixed ratios of the rye whiskey and the bourbon (and a little water) according to our tastes and bottled our creations.
The glass blowing demonstration directly following the bourbon workshop was a welcome relief from the chilly November air and the group huddled close to the blazing oven. Devan Cole of Hot Glass Academy regaled us with stories of his start in glass blowing and walked us through making a bourbon glass and a bowl, demonstrating the various techniques for coloring the glass and creating intricate shapes and patterns.
After an hour at the resort’s spa and a brief hiatus for freshening up, the group congregated in the main lobby with Brittany and Grace to retire to the Magnolia Ballroom for cocktails before the main event. We were greeted with a red carpet and living statues, as well as a model in a dress equipped to hold champagne flutes (which she offered quite liberally). Tables around the ballroom glowed and shed a magical azure light over guests and paintings alike.
Servers maneuvered through the crowds of people with trays of sparkling cocktails and mouthwatering passed hors d’oeuvres garnished with paint brushes, paint cans, and sponges. The presentation of the appetizers as well as an unbeatable flavor filled the group with anticipation for the dinner to come and we waited impatiently for 7:30.
At precisely 7:30, the imposing curtain that had sliced the ballroom in half suddenly dropped to the ground and the setting for the dinner was revealed. Each course of the meal had been crafted aesthetically and culinarily after a painting provided by one of the guests artists then paired with an unusual cocktail and in a few cases, a glass of wine, as well (trust me, they were not going to be responsible for you being thirsty at any point).
The first course was served on a palette and garnished with sauces reminiscent of dabs of paint. It was a vegetarian dish of local carrots, beets, and violet adorned with chlorophyll and mustard. The paired cocktail was a Lavender Beet Collins. With each course, both Chef Daven and Nick mounted the stage to explain the elements of the dish and drink and why they chose each to represent the painting chosen.
A canvas held the second course – based on “The Reef” by Jose Garcia – of cured snapper, cilantro, pea shoots, and a root vegetable called sunchoke. The “Green Dream” cocktail had been heavily infused with sugar snap peas, but the basil and gin balanced out the flavor for a highly unusual, but distinctly delicious drink.
Inspired by Allison Watson’s “The Dunes of Amelia,” the main course of rare beef, palm, fennel, green tomatoes, leeks, and fava beans hardly needed anything more than a plate to be considered a work of art. The beef was cooked to supremacy and, though the accompanying sauce was delightful, could have stood entirely on its own. That afternoon, Nick had roasted pounds upon pounds of butternut squash to perfect the “Butternut Squash Old Fashioned” that began to mellow out the evening.
Ending the evening on a high note, dessert was modeled after Charli Leniston’s “Oysters and Pearls,” moist bites of cake garnished with nitro-frozen ice cream sea foam and presented in oyster shells. A coffee, chocolate, and Ancho Reyes cocktail rounded out the night with a bit of sweetness.
The next morning, breakfast was enjoyed before the group dispersed to wander the Artists Market on the grounds of the Shops and have the opportunity to purchase some of the art that had been savoring all weekend and get acquainted with some other local artists. The weekend was unlike any other offered in the area and would make an ideal (and unforgettable weekend getaway when life is getting just a little overwhelming. Be sure to keep at eye out for next year’s event.
For more information on the event, visit www.cocktailscanvases.com.