Returning to the region’s culinary roots has become a passion project and priority for chefs.
Speak to any chef who has spent time cooking in the islands and you’ll inevitably hear the words "hotel food." It is easy to blame the ‘60s tourism boom for the prominence of bland continental cuisine in the Caribbean: These were islands deeply steeped in their own unique food cultures before multinational hotel groups landed on their shores.
Somehow, even with an enviable array of seafood, produce, herbs, and spices, the hotels, resorts, and restaurants catering to tourists opted to source ingredients from the states and populate their menus with, for lack of a better term, hotel food. According to Caribbean food historian Candice Goucher, as of 2010, the Caribbean is the seventh-largest export market for U.S. foods. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that Caribbean nations currently import $4 billion worth of food annually, a number that’s growing. Goucher points out a heartbreaking example, citing the Courtleigh Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica, which phased traditional saltfish and ackee off of its breakfast menu in favor of eggs and bacon.
But for some chefs, the idea of maintaining those traditions has become a passion project and priority. At St. Lucia’s Ladera Resort, chef Nigel Mitchel of Dasheene, considered one of the islands’ most well-loved restaurants, has cultivated relationships with nearby farmers for more than 18 years, making a concerted effort to keep both his food and his staff local. By utilizing native ingredients, his menu is packed with only-in-St. Lucia plates, like yam gratin with coconut rum sauce, green banana and saltfish salad, and a palate-cleansing soursop sorbet. Using native ingredients insures the restaurant’s longevity by cutting the cost of importing ingredients — and inviting guests to experience dishes that can only be found in this particular island.
More and more, chefs are following Mitchel's lead, returning to the region’s culinary roots. They’re tapping into the Caribbean’s bountiful supplies of seafood, produce, and herbs and spices, instead of placing massive orders for goods from the mainland. These chefs are working in and out of the kitchen, cultivating gardens and menus that aim to give visitors a real sense of place, at the same time creating a sustainable system that benefits both the islands’ resources and guests alike.
CuisinArt grows 60 percent of the produce used in its restaurants during a long season that runs from October to July.
"We have an owner who is invested in the name on the door," says Jasper Schneider, CuisinArt Resort’s head chef, referring to Leandro Rizzuto Jr., whose portfolio also includes kitchenware producers Waring and Conair. When he took over as head chef, Schneider made strides to strengthen the resort’s relationship with the island, tapping local fisherman to supply seafood and expanding the resort’s on-site gardens and 18,000-square-foot greenhouse to increase variety of produce and lessen the need to order in.
"We have nine kinds of tomatoes, shiso, Scotch bonnets, chrysanthemum, red veined sorrel, mizuna, pumpkins, Tokyo scallions," Schneider says with a real sense of pride. "The farm is incredible." Currently, CuisinArt grows 60 percent of the produce used in their restaurants during a long season that runs from October to July. These days, the fruits of CuisinArt’s farm provide everything from a petite herb salad accompanying local spiny lobster to eggplant-filled gyoza and freshly picked tomatoes tossed in a strawberry infused vinegar. Although CuisinArt’s restaurants lean towards Italian and Japanese fare, Anguillan staples like mahi mahi, snapper, and delicate crayfish make appearances on menus.
Before arriving to CuisinArt, Schneider worked with another chef who has deep ties to the region, Eric Ripert. Even before Ripert opened Blue, his restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman, Ripert was smitten with the islands. "I had a lot of experience enjoying and eating in different parts of the Caribbean," he says. From inception, Ripert was very clear that this new venture was definitely not Le Bernardin by the sea. "We wanted to be a restaurant from Cayman, not a copycat."
With the tourist population’s endless hunger for cold-water seafood like salmon, tuna, and shrimp, it’s not surprising that a number of resort restaurants import off-island fish. According to the FAO report, the Caribbean imports approximately $182 million worth of fish a year, a staggering figure for a region with such bountiful seas. Ripert was set on keeping things as local as possible. These days, the restaurant works with a rotating crew of 15 independent fisherman who bring their catches from the dock to the restaurant’s back door, ending up on plates like Ripert's signature crusted snapper, served here with romaine and briny bouillabaisse (Le Bernardin’s version is paired with pickled Persian cucumbers and curried goat yogurt). Elsewhere, incorporating island flavors into Ripert’s fondness for fish leads to bright menu combos like hamachi with local mango and cucumber, and desserts made with muscovado, a molasses heavy sugar native to the Caribbean.
For many chefs, these relationships are a two-way street, benefiting the local economy on a deeper level and securing a pristine supply of fish. At Mi Casa, his restaurant in Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Puerto Rico, José Andrés is similarly building a symbiotic sourcing system that works equally well with the hotel’s clientele and the island itself. "Jose and I like looking for the freshest ingredients," says Victor Rosado, Mi Casa’s chef de cuisine. "It helps local agriculture and it helps the producer."
At Dorado Beach, that means pressed juices and breakfast fruit plates are filled with freshly picked pineapples, tart starfruit, and dragonfruit. Sofrito, the mirepoix used in Portuguese, Spanish, and Latin American cooking gets a Puerto Rican spin with smoky, island-grown aji dulce peppers. Lobster tanks are filled with spiny crustaceans from the nearby waters of Vieques. The menu blends Andrés’ Spanish fare with Puerto Rican flavor, so that yuca gnocchi with hearts of palm and Puerto Rican pesto sit comfortably alongside crab-stuffed piquillo peppers; even the botifarra, a Catalan sausage, is made by an on-island purveyor.
The concept of sustainability and identity resonates with Xavier Arnau Gili, a Barcelona-born, Michelin-restaurant-trained chef who works as the executive chef in Guana, a resort on a 850-acre private island just north of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Owned by Henry and Gloria Jarecki, the couple have made it their mission to preserve the island’s flora and fauna, as well as the three coral reefs that encircle it.
Gili’s goal is for the island to achieve full self-sufficiency, at least when it comes to feeding guests and staff.
During his four years on Guana, Gili has developed a symbiotic relationship with the island, citing locavore pioneer Dan Barber as an inspiration. Working with the resort’s staff, Gili sources the majority of his produce from a lush orchard growing breadfruit, mangos, coconut, and limes. The orchard itself stays hydrated through a combination of rainwater and leftover water from guest rooms, and from gardens fed with compost made of seaweed and kitchen scraps.
This year Gili is growing 25 percent of Guana’s produce, and hopes to increase that number to 50 percent by next season. His goal, and it’s a lofty one, is for the island to achieve full self-sufficiency, at least when it comes to feeding guests and staff. Working towards the end game, Gili has chickens on site for morning eggs and baking, and has figured out a way to do away with importing dairy. Three years ago, he decided to swap out milk, heavy cream, and half and half for coconut milk sourced from the trees that grow in the island’s orchard. These days, the property only brings in cow’s milk if a guest specifically requests it.
Gili’s initial impression of the Caribbean is one that the region's best chefs share. "I saw the really wild side of the Caribbean," Gili recalls of his early days on the private island. "There’s so much potential: the people, the beauty of the island, and all of the products we can get."
Lead photo: Mi Casa/courtesy of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve.
Caroline Russock is the editor of Zagat Philadelphia and the founder of Beach Graze, a new site devoted to exploring the best of Caribbean cuisine.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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