Block, now the executive chef for The Swan at the Inverness Hotel, was nineteen when he went to work for Turnberry Isle, a hotel in North Miami Beach that runs a little boat off the coast for rich, important folks hosting parties. Kitchen employees were required to spend three weeks on that boat, handling whatever catering needs might arise. Block was taking his turn in early 1987 when the boat, named the Monkey Business, was booked one night by a large party that seemed to be drawing quite a bit of attention.
"There was so much going on in the kitchen, and we were so busy, that we weren't entirely sure of the deal," says Block, who today oversees not only the Swan, but the hotel's more casual spots, the Garden Terrace and the Pub, as well as room service, catering and banquet operations. "But we knew what we saw. And when I got off the boat the next day, 20/20 was sitting by my car, and they shoved a microphone in my face and wanted me to confirm what was going on. Which I did."
What was going on, of course, was some monkey business between Donna Rice and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, and while everyone knows what happened to Hart, no one's ever heard what happened to the guy who told 20/20 everything he'd seen.
"I got fired," Block says simply. "You sign something when you're hired by hotels like that saying that you won't talk to the press. And they used my name in the story."
Fortunately, Block's loose lips didn't hurt his chances with the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, which hired him soon after the incident. "I made it clear that I had learned some very serious lessons and that hotel work was what I wanted to concentrate my efforts on," Block says. "I think they saw that I was very, very serious and that I really was ready to make the commitment that's required for top-level hotel dining." He went on to enhance that experience at a few more well-known hotels, including the Registry in Naples, more Ritz establishments in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and La Mansion del Rio in San Antonio. Nearly three years ago, the seasoned chef was hired by Destination Hotel and Resorts, which owns the Inverness as well of dozens of other hotels throughout the States and one in London.
Destination hired him because of his extensive hotel background, Block says, which is completely different from what you learn at a regular restaurant. "In places like the Ritz and here, you're talking about what is usually a unique clientele," he explains. "They're mostly from out of town, and so they have a more sophisticated food background. They don't want to have to worry about where they're eating, and they're hoping that what's closest and most convenient -- namely, the hotel's own restaurants -- will at least have some good food. And here at the Swan, it's even more unusual than the typical hotel, because this has become such a special-occasion place for locals as well, and so we very much have to keep that in mind."
During my recent special-occasion visit -- an annual gathering of seven moms, sans kids and looking for trouble -- the Swan was also hosting a Denver couple celebrating the birth of their son two months earlier, a 25th-anniversary party for six, a one-year anniversary party of two, and four groups of what were obviously business folks staying in the hotel.
Our group didn't find trouble -- we couldn't even get the waiter to sit on our laps for a photo -- but we did find an excellent meal. In fact, the repast was perfect from beginning to end, flawlessly executed, accompanied by lovely but not-too-loud guitar serenades, and served by truly gifted professionals (coordinated by general manager John Wagner) in a dining room that's exquisitely tasteful. Conservatively accessorized with fresh flowers on the tables, funky, brassy doodads on the walls that looked sort of like hieroglyphics from the future, dark lighting, streamlined modern fixtures interspersed with rustic accents, and seats upholstered so tightly you could bounce a quarter off of them, the room's decor was calculated to meet many needs. As a result, the ambience was not so romantic that business guys would feel out of place, but not so sparse that a couple would feel awkward making goo-goo eyes at each other.
The food, too, was exquisitely tasteful, and clearly designed to please. You can credit Block with the 15,000-square-foot kitchen's incredible competence, although he also gets some help from his eleven sous chefs and 53 cooks. "Being an executive chef in a hotel is odd, because you get to the top through your cooking skills, and then you're not supposed to use them anymore," Block says. "I don't get to do as much hands-on stuff as I'd like, but I try to dabble as much as possible. This is one of the few hotels in this town that has a full garde-manger [a cold-food pantry], as well as an in-house butcher shop and a pastry shop, and each of those is run by someone who specializes in it. So my day consists of ordering, scheduling staff, creating menus, working with the catering side. But working with the staff on the menu at the Swan is sort of one of my guilty pleasures."