Garrett Gooch is executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and he takes pride in his cooking being influenced by being a native Floridian and the travels and various cultures he has been on and seen in his life.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
First and foremost, I’m “one of us,” as a Florida native. My earliest and fondest memories are of cooking and barbecuing with my dad in Sarasota and being outside exploring or fishing.
Learning to fish or gather the freshest, best Florida ingredients, different flavors and influences were not hard to find. You could go to almost any fish shack and experience a great meal without a lot of pretenses.
Sharing that joy of discovery and sharing something delicious really inspired me on my journey, beginning with culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Miami.
After graduation, I went to California to The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. I was lured back to Florida, with a job as executive sous chef at The Ritz-Carlton, West Palm Beach and then at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island.
I went west again, serving as executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Denver, and then I came home again to Florida, to The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island in 2015 as executive chef.
I also staged at Aioli, a beloved French-Mediterranean restaurant in Vienna, Austria. That experience, learning the European approach to life and seafood was very important to my work. They favor wild fish and focus on sustainability that adheres to the “less is more” approach to ingredients.
They use everything, tip to tail, nothing is wasted, even if it’s to make a simple stock, bringing dimension to tomorrow’s chowder.
It’s a mindful approach to cooking that really brings me back home. There’s a lot that’s special about our state, and I try to communicate that with some of our activities at Amelia Island, like my Hook, Line & Supper, where I take guests out to some of my favorite fishing spots and the catch is included in special dinner at Salt.
How long have you been in the executive chef role at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island?
Just over five years.
What are your goals and objectives you strive for in this role?
First and foremost, it’s to surprise and delight our guests and neighbors with our distinctive southern cuisine, leaving them satisfied with amazing food from all of our many restaurants.
We have a team of chefs that each have a distinctive style. Every month we feature one in our chefs in a cooking demonstration we call “Chefs Theater.” I want them all to know they a stars.
We also have chef Okan of Salt who already holds the AAA Five Diamond designation but who has also worked in several Michelin-starred restaurants. He’s a star, but we’d like to help him achieve more recognition.
We just completed our wildly successful Amelia Island Cookout, a showcase of the northern Florida culinary scene which also brought to the island some of the world’s top culinary talent.
It also featured vintners, producers, growers, mixologists, distillers, local chefs and up-and-coming culinary talent.
It’s really created a buzz within the professional culinary scene and is bringing these gastro-pilgrims to Amelia Island as a destination. It’s really inspiring and for 250 lucky guests, it was the experience of a lifetime.
Creating culinary events such as the Amelia Island Cookout that bring people in from all different areas to our beautiful island, that makes me very happy.
What are the most rewarding parts about your job?
The most rewarding part for me is to create a unique experience through our food. People dine in restaurants for nourishment but mark special occasions and special life experiences with special dinners, and special wines are shared with loved ones.
But just being in Florida, that’s a special occasion for a lot of people who’ve traveled from great distances to be here. I want to share my passion for this locale and its flavors, putting creativity into each and every dish. Sharing it with our guests and inspiring new culinary talent in our kitchens, that’s success to me.
I also love working on festive season menus for the resort. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, to the New Year’s Black & White Gala, our holiday meal celebrations are something that generations enjoy, and it makes me pleased that they think enough of us to share in their milestones.
My love for festive menus actually resulted in an appearance on The Today Show where I demonstrated our Butternut Squash Soup.
What are some of the aspects of the industry that are more challenging that you have to account for?
Our industry encountered a major shift during COVID. Restaurants face the confluence of two difficulties, labor shortages and inflation, from the price of equipment and ingredients to labor.
As an institution, The Ritz-Carlton has always brought up chefs through the ranks with a lot of mentorships, but the precarious nature of the industry was exposed during the pandemic.
Working in a kitchen feels like family. We work long hours at something we’re all very passionate about. There are good days and challenging days, and if you don’t feel the love for your work and trust your colleagues, you don’t last long in this business.
I think there’s work to do in opening up opportunities for people to see how great of a career this is and the opportunities that exist in hospitality in or beyond the kitchen. I’m also working with area high schools to encourage students to consider careers in culinary.
Is there a certain approach you take when creating a dish to be offered? Does it allow your creativity to come into play?
Creating new dishes is the best part of the job! This is where all the fun and creativity comes into play, and it’s the part all chefs love.
From concept, I focus on seasonality, taking into account what style dish I am looking for, which ingredients are local to the area and what ingredients contrast or complement, being careful to balance flavors in every dish.
A single ingredient should never overpower a dish. It’s like a song- the drums don’t drown out the guitar and the guitar solo doesn’t take over the song.
I also ask myself, “What story do the ingredients tell?” Travel is also an essential part of inspiration, keeping things fresh and creative. My travels inform my cooking.
How would you describe the culinary culture of the First Coast area?
I love how the First Coast embraces all types of cuisines. It’s genuine Southern hospitality meeting the country’s best ingredients from land, sea and marsh. From Lowcountry to Caribbean to Filipino to the Eight Flags influence of Amelia Island, you can find flavors from every corner of the globe.
The First Coast’s real treasure is its cuisine and of course our rich tradition with shrimp dishes.
What do you enjoy most about living in the north Florida area?
There’s no other place on earth that has everything that north Florida has. It’s beautiful beaches, iconic sunrises over the water, deep blue Atlantic, incredible history, talented people, rich marshlands, boating, fishing, outdoor dining, amazing culinary scene and its relaxed Southern hospitality, barrier island beauty. A Florida lifestyle that’s relaxed but serious about its food.
I’m also inspired by the potential, as north Florida is a genuine culinary destination.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Amelia Island has everything going on year-round, you never really have to leave the island.
I enjoy hanging out with my family and riding the miles of trails on our bikes, enjoying the beach, skate park and of course fishing.
Either surf fishing, exploring back waters or on my paddle board. Of course, if I’m not in the kitchens of the resort, I’m always cooking with my family.