Like other top chefs, David Belknap had to venture out in the world before finding a home, which happened to be where he began.

The executive chef of AC Hotel Columbus Dublin’s Spanish tapas-inspired lounge and restaurant VASO was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, but his career trajectory and love of his family brought him back home to Dublin, a nearby suburb.

Belknap honed his craft at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, studying under celebrated chef Thomas Keller in New York City at the Michelin three-star PerSe before opening his own place, L&W Oyster Co., on Manhattan’s tony Fifth Avenue.

Other stops included Puerto Rico, Mexico, Denver and Naples, Florida.

“There’s something to be said for working for one hotel your whole career, but you’re not going to learn much if you don’t travel and learn different cultures, different cuisines,” Belknap said. This experience gives license for Belknap to take the traditional Spanish tapas formula and give it a substantial twist.

[Featured Recipe: Ceviche Amarillo (Yellow Ceviche) by Chef David Belknap]

“I take a very liberal view of the term ‘Spanish,’” he said. “I feel that when you stick with one type of cuisine it’s pretty restricting, so I focus on places that Spain has conquered, with a lot of Caribbean flavors, Mexican flavors, European flavors, and a lot of it I sort of spin into my own creations.”

The tapas theme fits in perfectly with current dining trends, according to Belknap.

“These days people are really on board with trying a bunch of things,” he said.

“Instead of trying three plates in your meal, try 10 plates,” Belknap added, mentioning that the small-plate trend allows diners to expand their cuisine horizons and try things they normally wouldn’t.

“It’s less risk to order a small plate, and a lot of times you find out it’s really, really good.”

The crowning jewel of the 150-room hotel is its elegant rooftop patio, which in spring, summer and late autumn can accommodate up to 250 seated and 500 for a standing reception. In winter, VASO can handle up to 110 inside and up to 250 standing. Buy-outs are available.

The hotel, part of Marriott’s cutting-edge AC Hotels brand, a design-centric offering that was founded in Madrid by Antonio Catalan, offers five event rooms and a total of 1,569 square feet of meeting space, so groups primarily use the property for off-site dinners and receptions.

Much of its corporate customer base draws from the global powerhouse insurance, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies near the property, such as Nationwide Insurance and Cardinal Health.

Belknap was originally hired for a different F&B outlet at the property, but when VASO’s chef left the day before Belknap arrived, he was thrust into the premier position.

This presented a number of challenges.

“The menus were pieced together by a bunch of different chefs, so it didn’t have a clear vision,” he said. “Within a couple of months I told the general manager that I needed to change the menu—get rid of it.

“I said, ‘If you want nice food, let me do my work,’ and the [General Manager] said, ‘absolutely,’” Belknap recalled. “We’re doing something here at the AC that Columbus hasn’t seen before.

"That’s pretty exciting for a kid coming back to his hometown trying to make a name for himself.”

Group Offerings at AC Hotel Columbus Dublin

Belknap stresses that meeting planners owe it to their guests to really push chefs to try out new concepts and customized menus—the best of the best will surely appreciate the challenge.

“The one thing that excites chefs is a challenge—doing things differently,” he said.

“It’s fun for us when I have a client that says, ‘I want something fun, I want something interesting that’s not on your banquet menu,’” Belknap added. “That’s when we get fired up and get excited.”

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