Don’s Rambles: The Chefs of the Biltmore

An adventure in which a former mayor seeks the “soul” of his hometown. This month, he visits the Biltmore’s kitchens

How could I expect to find the soul of our community without including a visit to the Biltmore Hotel? Therefore, my most recent ramble has taken me to George Merrick’s crowning architectural achievement, located amid the Gables’ most historic residential neighborhoods — a couple blocks down DeSoto Boulevard from Venetian Pool and directly across the street from the Congregational Church (the very heart of 1926 Coral Gables).

There have been so many articles and books written about this grand hotel property that my focus was finding the “soul” of the Biltmore – its food services! We have all enjoyed the scenic beauty of this Tower of Seville replica, appreciated its World War II history, been captivated by tales of murders and ghosts, luxuriated around the gigantic pool, and played on the Donald Ross golf course. But the feature that makes the Biltmore so very special, in my humble culinary opinion, is its array of plentiful (and delicious) food choices.

The kitchen and serving crews produce over 35,000 meals “from scratch” every month across nine venues, including a full-service bakery and pastry shop. In addition, there is, of course, the monumental Sunday Brunch and afternoon “high teas.” Thus, I spent a day visiting with the culinary leadership team who make eating in and around the Biltmore something very special. Let me introduce you to the interesting and diverse roster of Biltmore chefs.

The Biltmore’s royal brunch on Sundays features over 10 food stations, including caviar and seafood.

Leading the way is the Director of Culinary Operations, Thomas Russo, a retired U.S. Marine who, at one time, was the private chef for the Commander of SOUTHCOM (when the official residence was on Granada Boulevard). He likes to say that he “transitioned from four-star generals to five-star hotels.”

Ciro Leoni is the senior banquet chef — a native of Rome and a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Martin Tennyson is the sous chef for Cascade Restaurant, who, along with his sister Rita, was principally responsible for the operation of the community’s favorite diner: Burger Bob’s. Fernando Guerrero is the head baker. A Chilean native, he has been kneading dough around the world for more than 30 years.

Sean Bernal is the chef de cuisine for the about-to-open Fairways Restaurant located on the golf course. He has been a participant in the Miami food industry for more than 25 years, starting with Robin Hass at the Grove Isle Hotel. Vladimir Blanes is the chef de cuisine for Fontana Restaurant — the unmatched tropical patio setting featuring Italian gourmet dishes.

Valentine’s Day at the Biltmore
Fontana Restaurant’s outdoor dining in the Biltmore’s tropical courtyard.

Rene Conte is the executive pastry chef and a U.S. Army veteran having served with the 101st Airborne Division. Bryan Intriago, sous chef for in-room dining, has 13 years of experience in places like the Florida Keys and, believe it or not, the Galapagos Islands. Of special interest is that Rene and Bryan were honored by their peers as the “best” leaders of the team for 2023. Jenny Lantigua is the Chef responsible for the cold food production critical to successful banquet and catering operations. She has been with the hotel for 16 years, originally from the Dominican Republic.

In talking with this incredible collection of disciples of the culinary arts, they consistently gave most of the credit for the Biltmore’s success to their cooks, servers, bussers, and maître d’s. Hopefully, this will give each of us who dine at the Biltmore a more comprehensive understanding of what makes the “heart” of this wonderful George Merrick creation tick.


This column appears monthly by Don Slesnick, who served as mayor of Coral Gables from 2001 to 2011. If you wish to reach him with suggestions on where he should next meander in search of the city’s soul, email donslesnick@scllp.com.