Farming in Fantasyland
Nathan Hardin, chef de cuisine at Highball & Harvest — the acclaimed modern Southern restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes — has a pedigreed background. The Tampa native has worked with Michelin-starred leaders and headed up staffs of more than 30 in the production of high-quality, exceptional local and seasonal cuisine.
It’s quite a surprise to learn that Chef Hardin was raised in a family of mediocre cooks; most of his childhood dinners, from mashed potatoes to hamburger meals, came from a box. But in fact, it was these early culinary disappointments that became the inspiration behind his love of and commitment to locally grown, seasonal ingredients — a sensibility that served him well as a sous-chef at Miami’s buzzy Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and now at Highball & Harvest, where an astonishing array of produce is available right on the property and at hand-selected purveyors not much further away. We chatted with Hardin to find out how he uses bountiful fresh produce and local meats to forge what he calls an “emotional connection with food.”
What’s the relationship between Highball & Harvest and producers?
The relationships we have built over the years with our local producers and purveyors is one that we cherish and grow, each and every day. There is a constant flow of information and ideas being exchanged. We want to stay relevant and progressive, so we must have fresh ideas and conversations about how we can innovate and use the best ingredients.
We have the opportunity to source ingredients from a 7,000-square-foot farm, right here on our own property. The farm is managed by a group of gentlemen who are as passionate about sustainable and responsible produce as we are about the final plate. This allows for an open relationship that focuses on the best product, during the peak of its existence, and how we can do this in the most environmentally responsible way.
What’s the secret behind the famed Highball & Harvest Chicken and Waffles?
Chicken and waffles has become a new Southern American classic. Our variation features half of a Joyce Farms “Naked Bird,” a corn-infused waffle, Fresno-spiced watermelon and bourbon maple syrup. Where we differ from most is the process in which we prepare our chicken. Instead of just marinating the chicken in buttermilk and hot sauce, we actually sous-vide the bird in this bath of buttermilk. This process allows the flavors to marinate, but it also creates the perfect texture for fried chicken: juicy and tender on the inside, light and crispy on the outside.
The dish introduces a lot of great flavors and textures that surprise the palate: crunch from the chicken, spice from the watermelon, savory warmth from the waffle, and bright notes of mint picked from our garden. All this is brought together with the perfect pour of the bourbon maple syrup.
Any other star players on the menu?
Our best-kept secret is our new pickle-brined wings. Pickle brine? Yes, we actually take the wings and brine them in our house pickle juice for 8 hours. We then apply our house BBQ rub and place them in our resident smoker, “Smokin’ Maggie.” The wings are fried to order and served alongside our secret sauce, which is reminiscent of the old Southern American comeback sauce.
highball is also a train conductor’s signal to depart at full speed. It was how Central Florida’s abundant harvests moved from field to table, an iconic symbol of the region’s agricultural might. Highball & Harvest pays homage to this legacy, with menus featuring ingredients from local farms, as well as their own green-growing efforts.