Tourism and agriculture are the top two industries in Florida. To blend the best of both worlds, the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau has created Restaurant Week.
The 10-day sensory extravaganza will feature special three-course prix fixe menus highlighting local products at scores of restaurants from Sanibel to Bonita Springs and Bokeelia to Fort Myers. Additionally, a limited number of seats are available for planned "Culinary Experiences" that include tours, seminars, cooking classes and goodies dished up by local chefs.
A HUNGRY ECONOMY
Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson was on hand for a recent media preview of the festivities, which included a tour of Rabbit Run Farm, a producer of hydroponics vegetables and strawberries in the rural Buckingham area of Fort Myers. He and his wife, Lori, own the Survey Café, so he is no stranger to the food business. But to him, it's about more than tasty fare.
If you go
What: Special prix fixe meals and "Culinary Experiences" that include tours and cooking classes, and more
When: Oct. 5-14
Where: Various restaurants throughout Lee County, see website for full details
Cost: Free-$105, Culinary Experiences (tickets available online); $15-$90 prix fixe meals
"When it comes to economic development, this really is the engine that drives our community," he said.
Nelson said he planned to issue a proclamation to officially mark the first Restaurant Week, and he urged all the other Lee County mayors to do the same. One of the Culinary Experiences is a tour of downtown Bonita Springs with Nelson acting as guide, followed by lunch at the Survey Café at its Old Florida-style setting in the historic district.
At press time, that establishment was one of 29 participating restaurants. However, Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau, expected the number to climb as high as 40 by the official start on Friday, Oct. 5.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Several years ago, the VCB undertook a re-branding initiative to encompass all of Lee County as "The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel." While its job ostensibly is tourism development, another focus is sustainability, a major theme for Restaurant Week.
"The natural assets that brought each one of us here as residents is what brings people here as visitors," Pigott said.
To that end, guest chef Barton Seaver is slated to appear at no fewer than four of the 10 Culinary Experience events. The Washington D.C. chef, speaker and National Geographic fellow is also author of "For Cod and Country." Besides its pun-infused title, the book contains a collection of recipes for seafood that is sustainably harvested and emphasizes seasonality and ecological consciousness.
Appearances for Seaver include a book signing at Sanibel Bookstore, a talk titled "Speaking of Sustainable Food" at Edison State College and a dockside chat at Parrot Key Caribbean Grill near Fort Myers Beach.
He is even the featured guest for Restaurant Week's finale at Sweet Melissa's Café on Sanibel Island. Each of four courses will be paired with a different wine while guests converse with him about ocean-friendly practices and observe chef Melissa Talmage and crew prepare the meal.
LIVE AND LEARN
Other learning opportunities include a Rabbit Run Farm tour and culinary class, where visitors can discover heirloom plants such as Dixie speckled butter peas, chidori kale and Okinawan purple sweet potatoes. Owner Denise Muir will explain the mechanics of her hydroponic systems and discuss the unique challenges and benefits of farming in Southwest Florida. Local chef Kristina San Filippo will provide a cooking demonstration using the freshly harvested produce.
At Bonita Springs-based A Table Apart, chef Jeff Acol will discuss sustainable seafood choices and the reasons the menu reflects those choices. The Hawaii native, along with his wife, Jessica, will also present a multicourse dinner complemented with a wine pairing.
The Sandy Butler in Fort Myers Beach is offering something like a culinary scavenger hunt. Guests will shop for ingredients at the gourmet market, then take them next door to the Shoals Restaurant & Wine Bar. There, chef Michael Ragusa will work with guests to make a delicious lunch.
The remaining Culinary Experience happenings include an event by Tarpon Bay Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort, which will offer a four-course meal featuring sustainably harvested seafood and local produce, and a bottle of wine.
Also, to indulge all the senses, join Paul Cullen and chef Brian McCarley at the Twisted Vine in the River District of Fort Myers. The former Bad Company bassist is now a wine purveyor, and Cullen will be pouring out some funky jazz along with a wine dinner, "Unplugged and Uncorked."