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Unearthed Potential

Don Splain redefines the role of a chef with a foraged catering concept, advocacy for hospitality workers and a focus on culinary education and sustainability.

BY February 1, 2022
Chef Don Splain 20211216-192 ©OmarCruz
(Photography by Omar Cruz/ Styling by Peggy Chase Jordao / Photographed at the Naples home of Beth & Scott Sherman)

There’s never a dull moment in conversation with Don Splain. On one encounter, the chef delves into the history of endemic Everglades tomatoes, name-dropping other species he likes to forage for, including sea grapes and wild persimmons. The next time you see him, he might mention his Susquehanna heritage or share mindful musings on his chef’s knife, which he designed with a rotating Egyptian-style blade and commissioned from an Oregon forge. He’s just as apt to talk about needed access to dental care for hospitality workers or the intersection of cuisine and culture (a topic that anchored his art installation at Naples’ The Think Box Gallery in November) as he is to chat about his wife and kids.

During his winding career—encompassing everything from rearing Montadale sheep on an island in Lake Champlain as an off-the-grid rancher to navigating New York City parties for Annie Leibovitz and her glamorous friends as a private chef—there isn’t much the 6-foot-10-inch-tall industry vet hasn’t seen. But 15 years ago, something he heard in a roomful of 5-year-olds left him speechless.

Joining his daughter’s kindergarten class for lunch one day, he’d brought a charcuterie board for them to share when a student asked: “Which Lunchables is that?” The idea that boys and girls from this well-to-do community only thought of food as coming from the supermarket—or worse, a mass-produced box—made him pause. The experience motivated him to educate people about the value of real food: sweet potatoes dug from the ground, juicy pineapples lopped off their sturdy stems and mangoes plucked from fruiting trees in Southwest Florida.

It’s a mission that has informed the work of Don Splain throughout his two-decade-long career. Locally, most diners recognize him from Food & Thought, where he presided over the self-described militantly organic kitchen for three years before leaving to establish brilliant but short-lived The Founders Bistro, a concept he spent years conceiving. There, he left no stone unturned to produce every element of the menu in-house, milling wheat onsite for pasta dough, growing hydroponic greens and slicing house-cured sausage and lardo tableside with a moveable slicer. But the timing was unfortunate: The ambitious endeavor launched only a few weeks before COVID-19 ravaged the restaurant industry and the project hit shaky ground. Unwilling to compromise his standards for the menus and restaurant culture he aspired to, Splain left the project.

As he navigated his next move, the chef started hosting guerrilla catering events, inspired loosely by the guerrilla gardening movement, where people plant in public spaces without permission. During these dinners, Splain forages and harvests ingredients from the same backyards, farms and nature sites where attendees later sit down for dinner. The project touches on critical issues for the restaurant industry. Namely, how can we make dining more varied, sustainable and location-specific? And, these days, is a brick-and-mortar restaurant even a requirement for top chefs? 

While foraging catapulted into the spotlight internationally over the past decade with the attention lavished on René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen and his disciples, it’s still rare among Florida chefs. But Don Splain and his wife, Sarah, have studied endemic edible plants everywhere they’ve lived since meeting at West Virginia Wesleyan College while he was studying prenatal and child nutrition more than two decades ago. The chef also earned a degree from The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he organized woodland expeditions for fellow students with mushroom experts. After graduating, Splain moved to Spain, where he spent six months living and working, primarily to see how New World foods, like the potato, made their way to Europe and influenced the cuisine for centuries. Since settling in Naples in 2003, he and Sarah have continued to spread their fascination with how things grow by planting community gardens at schools, including The Village School of Naples, Pelican Marsh Elementary and Grace Place. At home, his three daughters, who he calls free-range children, have been eating off the land since they were old enough to roam their yards.

Don Splain applies his encyclopedic knowledge of local flora to his catering menus. He can make a multicourse, swanky dinner for a private party in Old Naples, but it’s his foraged spin (available upon request) that brings a unique angle to the dinner party formula. Ingredients such as thumbnail-sized, super-sweet Everglades tomatoes; leafy chaya that tastes like a cross between spinach and kale; and katuk (everything from the berries to the leaves to the seeds is edible) might end up on the plate—and are not on menus elsewhere in town. For those who don’t want to host a shindig, Splain holds a limited number of ticketed affairs throughout the year at venues like The Wonder Gardens and Farmer Mike’s U Pick, which are bookable via social media.

Planning these elaborate dinners starts with a preliminary visit to the property, where Splain surveys the site, determining what’s harvestable to build the plant-forward menu. “If I’m going to Port Royal, there’s very little I can pull from the property, so I’ve done things like a sea grape chutney over pork loin,” he says. “I’ll make the chutney with allspice berries I’ve collected and honey from Blackbeard Ranch to keep it endemic. But there are some houses in [Golden Gate] Estates where I can incorporate something from the property in every course.” On the day of the event, he invites guests to watch and ask questions as he methodically makes every element by hand—filling and making a cream sauce for chaya-stuffed tortelloni or mashing garlic cloves into salt crystals to add to flash-fried pompano in hot ghee with Everglades tomatoes. “It often becomes very educational,” he says. “It’s more like a dinner party mixed with a cooking class.”

The approach mirrors Splain’s personal life. All family members are skilled in the art of foraging, and his eldest daughter, Echo, hopes to follow in Dad’s footsteps and attend the CIA. When the youngest of his children began to skip meals after breakfast, his wife worried she was suffering from an eating disorder. It turns out she was full from helping herself to the bounty in their backyard. “She actually taught me green strawberries have a culinary application,” Splain, who likes to shave the not-yet-ripe fruit into salads, says. “They have a tartness and sourness, but they taste kind of good. I wouldn’t have known that if it weren’t for her.”

Just as he cares deeply about food and where it comes from, Don Splain also aims to empower the people who make it. Last April, he founded Hope for Hospitality, a nonprofit that provides financial relief to people in the industry. During the early days of the pandemic, he knew colleagues who couldn’t put food on their tables, so he organized drives to serve nearly 6,000 meals to those in need. Once the world normalized, he shifted the nonprofit’s focus to create an emergency relief fund for restaurant workers, many of whom live paycheck-to-paycheck and don’t have insurance. He raises money primarily through social media campaigns. “It seems like whenever there is a need, people in Collier County will step up to meet that need. I get goosebumps thinking about it. The heart in the county is enormous,” he says.

What’s next for Don Splain? While he’s content with his guerrilla catering and running the relief fund, he concedes that he’d like to have another brick-and-mortar restaurant one day. He’s currently consulting at Farmer Mike’s in Bonita Springs, where he’s training the staff on executing inventive yet approachable farm fare. Skilled as Splain is in the kitchen, he’s equally proficient with running a restaurant’s big-picture and day-to-day operations. As such, he’s guiding the mom-and-pop business into becoming a full-fledged culinary institution. The farm’s sustainable methods dovetail with Splain’s ethos of living symbiotically with the land. He recently turned the uninspired snack bar in the market into ’N Season Cafe, which has a menu of health-centric dishes mainly made with produce from the farmstand. He’s also helping Farmer Mike’s relocate to an upgraded 30-acre permanent plot that will one day have a fine-dining space, which he may develop and run. “Why do I cook? I know an artist who says it’s the responsibility of an artist to take what is outside of the box and bring it inside for people to appreciate. I like doing that with food,” he says. “I want people to be comfortable and happy with what they’re eating but to experience new things—to try things they’d never tried. It’s my responsibility to push the envelope, both for myself and for the people sitting at the table.”