Chef Cory Garrison started working in kitchens at the age of 15 out of necessity and never really left. He found his passion as a chef by working his way through corporate kitchens and fine dining restaurants before focusing just on hotels in 2011.
Initially, the Dallas native had no real plans to move to Alabama, but he fell in love with the scenic area, and after visiting The Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa, Autograph Collection in Point Clear, Alabama, in 2015, he never left.
Since then he has been transforming the resort’s culinary program, focusing on coastal Alabama cuisine and the breadth of technique and product that goes along with Southern-style food.
Garrison oversees all six food and beverage outlets on the property, from the casual Bayside Grill with wood-fired pizzas and plancha cooking to the Southern-style tapas and cocktail lounge at Bucky’s Lounge and the recently opened Southern Roots, the chef-driven concept with an ever-changing, locally sourced menu.
Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Garrison to learn about his inspiration, creative approach and how he continues to elevate the cuisine at The Grand Hotel.
Though you’re not originally from Alabama, your menus successfully focus on local cuisine. How did you find inspiration to create your menus?
When you move to a new area, you reach out to local chefs — start[ing] with the most recognizable. I looked at Chris Hastings’ menus, reached out to chefs in the region to see what they are doing. Now, with social media, it’s easy to follow someone to see how they are cooking and what they are doing.
So much of it is with the team that you build, as well; so many of [my staff] are Alabama born and raised. It’s about knowing and paying attention to what people are doing at home, learning stories of what their grandparents did, etc.
We heard you have quite a garden. Tell us a little about that.
When I came on property, we had built a garden with raised vegetable beds, but we weren’t utilizing it to its fullest. During the renovation we built a better garden — a 9,000-square-foot garden.
We hired a culinary gardener who makes it a focus to keep our kitchens fed with herbs and vegetables. We now grow 80 percent of the herbs we use and 40 percent of the specialty vegetables.
We also have a couple of beehives on property, and we use some of the honey from there, other honey from local purveyors.
And where do you source your meat and fish?
We have a whole animal program — we bring in a whole pig every week and butcher it right in the kitchen. We bring all fish in whole as part of the Gulf Wild program — fish are tagged, and we can trace back to captain, boat and location caught.
All of the seafood on property is from the Gulf; you won’t find Chilean sea bass or Maine lobster here. We also use underutilized fish species that used to get caught and would get thrown back in because they weren’t the targeted fish. It’s been fun to learn about new fish like Kitty Mitchell grouper, queen snapper and tripletail grouper.
What other innovations set your culinary program apart from others in the region?
We started making our own yogurt about two years ago in-house. We can use whey from the yogurt, as well, and control how thick and how tart we want it.
We also make our own homemade pepper hot sauce in-house. We ferment it in a bourbon barrel for 90 days. We recently started fermenting in a Dettling bourbon barrel, the first bourbon produced in Alabama.
In addition to what’s on your menus, of course, what are some of your favorite, must-eat foods in Alabama?
Some of my favorite things are lunches on the beach because I have never really been able to do that anywhere. Special things like blue crab claws — tiny crab claws with meat still attached — are served almost everywhere, usually fried.
Crab is a big industry here, and fresh crabmeat is pretty amazing; some of the Gulf shrimp are really great, too.
Farm-raised oysters have come into their own in the last two years, so that’s really a nice thing. And there is a focus on an oyster recycling program, collecting oyster shells and creating reefs to grow more oysters and try not to deplete oysters in the Gulf.
Celebrate Alabama’s 200th birthday in 2019 during the ALABAMA 200 bicentennial festivities. From the Shoals to the shores, ALABAMA 200 will present educational programs, community activities and statewide initiatives aimed at teaching, inspiring and entertaining visitors and locals alike.