Ensconced in the whitewashed, driftwood-clad environs of Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Augustine Beach Oceanfront Resort, Harvest & Reel is the signature restaurant of four outlets that Chef John Botkin ensures provide maximum flavor for guests of this new, luxury beachside haven. A delight for the palate, the restaurant recently won the New Hotel Construction & Design award from USA Property Awards, making it an impressive spot to enjoy a delicious meal with friends, family, and visiting guests.
John’s approach to the menu for this vast property caters to the local palate as much as visitors to St. Augustine. In keeping with the island lifestyle, John favors simplicity and freshness to overly-complicated dishes. Along with his team of 15 cooks, he creates a wide array of flavors wafting across dining tables nightly from the open kitchen.
Signature dishes such as Pan-Seared Jumbo Crab Cakes with lime mustard aioli; Bouillabaisse; and Diver Scallops with corn maux choux and smoked bacon lardons alongside celery leaves from Ponte Vedra aquaponics farm, GYO Greens, pair with the beautiful surroundings for a delightful afternoon or evening meal.
“We want to offer our guests a dining experience that reflects the effortless lifestyle of the beach,” he says, “light and simple items that are easy to understand with a menu that is easy to navigate.”
John’s culinary background is heavily based in classic French technique. He trained under three French Master Chefs after graduating from the Culinary Institute of New England. He served as Executive Chef at the Bellagio of Las Vegas before returning to St. Augustine in 2017. From DC to the Outer Banks, Coastal Carolinas and the Caribbean, Chef John has developed a unique flair for preparing sustainable seafood and Southern cuisine. “My personal technique involves getting the most flavor out of food,” he explains. “There is always an underlying French reference to my cooking, even if it is not blatantly obvious.”
John and his wife, Ophelia Rose, met in the kitchen at McCormick & Schmicks in Vegas. “The first moment she walked through the doors, I looked at her and asked, where were you 10 years ago?” he recalls. “17 years later, here we are, living the dream.”
Now that the couple has become empty nesters with both sons in the military (and a six-year-old grandson to boot), they trek to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. Packing light with the exception for a few cases of Provençal rosé, they enjoy the quietude of island living. Three quarters of the island is dedicated to agriculture and rainforest with 400,000 residents creating a warm, friendly atmosphere that isn’t so far away from that of St. Augustine’s mind-set. “I love European culture and the fact that the people on the island take naps and are super friendly and open,” he said. “Eventually, we want to buy property and retire there.”
In the interim, the chef creates a retreat here at home. Along with Harvest & Reel, he oversees the culinary stylings of Rhum Bar located in the hotel’s lobby with peekaboo ocean views and crowd favorite shareable dishes like Conch Fritters and Fried Calamari with Pickled Shrimp. An impressive rum list includes signature cocktails and flights alongside domestic and craft beers and an extensive by-the-glass wine program. Castaway Cantina offers Latin cuisine and poolside favorites. Though a note to everyone hoping for a quick après lunch dip: sorry folks, the pool is reserved for paying guests of the resort.
The double steak burger – grass-fed, organic, sourced from Brasstown Beef Farm in North Carolina – lives up to its reputation. Two 4 oz. patties hug a festival of caramelized onions and homemade steak sauce topped with American cheese on warmed Brioche. Chef John uses minimal filler in his crab cakes (an essential lesson he learned in his years with Clyde’s Restaurant Group in D.C.). Don’t miss his She Crab Bisque, served with sherry and paprika cream and of course, roe. But Chef has his sticking points when it comes to sourcing. “People don’t realize that 90% of scallops are treated to help them retain water yet leave a chemical taste behind,” he said. “You want a fresh, clean-tasting scallop.”
His are purchased straight off the boat in Winches, North Carolina with year-round availability. His secret? Perseverance. Other favorite purveyors include local farm Bee Hill, for lettuces and greens, Morrison Tomato Farm, Congaree and Penn, and Seafood Shop.
On a parting note, I asked him what his advice to home cooks might be. “Don’t be afraid of your skill in the kitchen. Cook what you love. You don’t have to follow a recipe to the tee. You know your taste better than anyone, just try to hit the sweet, salty and sour notes. If you mess up, throw it out and start over.”