In July 2018, Vernon’s Restaurant in Ponte Vedra, Florida, launched a unique weekly brunch series with a different menu and theme each Sunday. Flash forward one year, and Vernon’s is mentioned in countless publications, recommended by popular foodies and named one of the United States’ best buffets by the Food Network.
Brunch creator, Chef Tanya “Mama T” White, celebrated her birthday and the one-year brunch anniversary decked out in 1970s attire to match the “Funky Brunch” theme.
“It was such a blast,” Mama T said after the brunch. “I had a really good time. Even now, people are still coming up to me and talking about it.” Mama T’s “Funky Brunch” was named after her 1970s disco-inspired theme, with 70s disco music, eclectic Tupperware and a nostalgic “goulash” station.
“Some people didn’t really get the goulash concept, but others did and really enjoyed it,” Mama T said.
Guests chose goulash ingredients as Vernon’s cooks prepared it before their very eyes, similar to Mama T’s memory of when her mom would use leftovers in the fridge to make a new pasta or stew dish; it was never the same twice because it always depended on what was in the fridge.
A Tennessee native, Chef Mama T is a Southern-style cuisine connoisseur and her dishes prove it. Buttermilk fried chicken was served, along with cornbread, scalloped potatoes, biscuits and gravy, green bean casserole with French onions and cornbread.
For dessert, bring out the classic Jell-O mold!
“I remember my grandma used to use them all the time and put fruit cocktail in it,” Chef said. “We did our modern-day twist of making it panna cotta, but you still see the molds and get the feel of it. You say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what that is, but it’s cool and I want to eat it.’”
Another attention-getter at Vernon’s is the elaborate children’s area decorated and to match the theme of the brunch. The 1970s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” played in the background as kids colored, ate finger foods served in mini 1970s Thunderbird cars and analyzed the questionable object on the floor, better known to adults as a Sit-and-Spin.
“The adults got more excited than the kids,” Mama laughed. “The kids didn’t even know what a Sit-and-Spin was. We had to teach them. I had to put an adult on it. They were like, ‘Oh, it’s a self-merry-go-round.’ Once they got the concept, they were all over it.”
A birthday brunch wouldn’t be complete without birthday cake, and the Vernon’s family did not let Chef Mama T down. An eight-tiered stand created by Marriott’s own Chef Thomas Allen held dozens of “Afro cupcakes” as they cascaded down from the main cake that had a photo of Chef Mama T’s face and a giant, shiny tiara to channel her inner (and outer) disco diva.
“I told him (Chef Thomas) I wanted my hair to flow down like Rapunzel,” she said. “He made that stand just for me. I didn’t see the cake until it came out, so it was awesome. I thought it was a fun play.”
It’s because of the kindness and ingenuity of her team that has Chef Mama T over the moon about her brunch and Marriott family. From Chef Thomas and his cake stand, to the Marriott recreation team that helps create the children's area every week, Mama said she’s been “blessed by the best from the very beginning.”
Executive Chef Joe Natoli has been a key figure from the start of the series and even mentioned getting goosebumps on the opening Sunday of the brunch. His optimism, determination and faith in not just Mama T, but his whole staff, is what keeps the creative juices flowing in the kitchen. “I can go see him and say something wild like, ‘Chef Joe, I want to be a mountain climber that serves burgers on top of a camelback.’ He’ll be like, ‘Really? Nobody’s ever done that. Sounds good, let’s look into it,’” Mama joked sweetly as she reminisced about how far she’s come since last July.
“He’ll push you and make you go further than your own expectations. He challenged me with this brunch and that’s what this brunch has done to me.”