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Caribbean culture

Todd Pitock takes us on a gastronomic tour of Grand Cayman – the culinary capital of the Caribbean

When I arrived in Grand Cayman in January, I had one thing in mind: food. These islands — three dollops of land just south of Cuba and west of Jamaica — may be best known to the outside world as a haven for offshore wealth, but to food lovers, it is the culinary capital of the Caribbean. Of course, food and money aren’t entirely separate things. It’s hard to make one without the other, and Caymanians, with a living standard on par with Switzerland, can afford to important the raw ingredients and hire the talent to transform them.

Grand Cayman — the largest island, measuring all of 76 square miles — has more than 250 restaurants, many of them splendid spaces. Now, though they continue to import most food from the United States, the trend is to use what the soil will grow, and work with Caribbean bounty like breadfruit or coconut, or sour sop, a tropical fruit that tastes like a combination of pineapple and mango, or to fashion cocktails with fruits like sea-grapes.

My weekend coincided with 9th annual Cayman Cookout Food Festival, a 4-day food event of a rarefied culinary level, settings and imagination. Its first event was a get-away on a private jet to Le Soleil d’Or Resort in the Cayman Brac, one of the two smaller islands, with Chef Eric Ripert, of New York’s acclaimed Le Bernadin Restaurant, and New Zealand winery Craggy Range owner Terry Peabody. My personal opener was Friday evening, where, on a slash of beach, barefooted enthusiasts moved between food stalls manned by some of the planet’s great chefs, among them Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, the chef and CNN star, and Jose Andres, the Spanish-American chef who often gets credit for bringing the “small plates format,” a.k.a. tapas from Spain. A fanning breeze fanned grill flames as kitchen teams sliced, diced and plated. Here brisket and tongue mixture on a Vietnamese banh; there a surf and turf of scallop with strips of cured Spanish meat; a kielbasa with American cheese, jam, and chicharones.

“In 2008 chef Eric Ripert hosted the inaugural Cayman Cookout, roping in his friends Bourdain and Andres, and rotating in other A-list chefs.”

The celebrity brought as much panache as the food. Bourdain, pinching a bottle of beer between his thumb and index finger, acceded to requests for photos but seemed not quite prepared to go so far as to pretend to like it. José Andrés visited a colleague’s massive grill where great hunks of beef blackened above raging flames. It was how a pack of maniacs would cook, roasting whole dismembered parts rather than cuts of beef, and yet his crew cut it into bit-size pieces that were uniformly perfect and exquisitely tender and delicious. And Andres was loving it. Heavy swords, the kind of weapon pirates who once raided the island would have carried, were stuck in the sand, and Andres pulled them with the look of a good-humoured lunatic, held one up, and handed the other to a woman who requested a picture together.

Ripert is partly why Cayman is the Caribbean’s culinary centre. The island had a fairly robust food scene going back even to the 1960s, the same period as its financial services industry took off. But in 2005, Ripert opened Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, raising the bar of contemporary haute cuisine. And in 2008 Ripert hosted the inaugural Cayman Cookout, roping in his friends Bourdain and Andres, and rotating in other A-list chefs. Now, there are many more fine restaurants than one could reasonably visit on a long stay. And I was there for just a short one.

The key to these things is, of course, pacing yourself, in food as in drink, and not to fill up too quickly nor so completely that you wake the next morning, or in the middle of the night, asking yourself what you have done.

They should run public service announcements: Eat Responsibly.

But then again, who ever does that?

The next morning a strong wind from the northwest battered both surf and turf, washed through palm trees, whipping up the sea, cancelling plans of snorkelling to the island’s stingrays. It blew out the candle I held for golf. It had no effect, however, on my desire to explore, or on my appetite, so I rented a car and drove along the highway that bends along the island’s perimeter looking for another kind of food experience. Half of Cayman’s population comes from 135 other countries, which is really a remarkable statistic, and yet there are things of the place, including food. Traditional Caymanian dishes include cow foot, turtle and iguana, whose taste can be inferred by its local name — tree chicken.

I passed fish fry stalls and barbecue stands before pulling into Over the Edge, in Old Man Bay on the north side of Grand Cayman that looked anonymous enough, a bar and a dining room with a fine sea view, where I contemplated goat curry and jerk chicken before settling on the conch steak, a hearty mollusc whose former residence, a marvellous shell large enough to hold in two hands, I’d seen for sale by roadside vendors. The meat came pounded, breaded and fried, a Caribbean schnitzel, and managed to be both typical and exotic, in that everything breaded and fried tastes similar, but still, it was a large conch

I ate nothing more in preparation for my weekend’s main event, a pairing dinner at Avecita, the signature restaurant at the Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa, a 266-room hotel that opened in November. The dinner was a kind of joint debut, pairing the grape of Dominique Lafon, the Burgundian grape-maker, and Larry Stone, the master sommelier and owner of Lingua Franca, the much-anticipated Willamette Valley, Oregon, which has created variations of Burgundy style Chardonnays and Pinot Noir.

Moreover, it announced Avecita as a heavyweight contender in the Caymans. At Cayman Cookout, executive chef Massimo De Francesca and signature chef Remy Lefevbre had set up the evening’s only all-vegetarian (nay, vegan!) stall, highlighting locally grown bounty into spectacular bites, charred baby eggplant with burnt eggplant-saga sauce, whole grilled baby marrow with smoked romesco and roasted butternut squash with pumpkin-seed pesto.We were far from the beach now, though, under the high ceilings, at a high table on high chairs with a few of the wood-fired oven and exhibition kitchen the restaurant was built to feature. Avecita’s focus is progressive, contemporary Spanish, including Mediterranean Spain, and culinary techniques de rigeur in Spain with Mexican influences.

Now, the evening began with amuses bouche. A cube of lamb tartar, the loin diced and lightly folded into a classic tartar dressing with egg yolk emulsion, shallots, brandy, cilantro, then kicked up with espelette pepper, a pulverized and aromatic red South American chili. A quail egg slowly cooked and seasoned with dried basil and raspberry flaked on top, soft to touch and bite, the yolk like cream. Two fishes: a queen snapper tartar diced with citrus, olive oil and fresh herbs, then battered with tempura and flash fried; and smoked salmon with tarragon vinaigrette served on a saffron cracker.

The first dish was Spanish cod: salted and reconstituted in water, lightly blanched and poached in almond milk, served on a chilled black plate with the petals of a caramelized white onion and sprinkled with dehydrated olives and salt flakes on a liquid base with a red bell pepper infusion from peppers that were roasted and infused with anchovy. For me, the real essence of the meal began with the second course, a hen and truffle cannelloni with Manchego cheese on a delectable and delicate broth of smoked, roasted lobster shells with saffron and fresh herbs. The layering of pure and clear flavours, which were discernible and yet worked together like instruments in a song, was marvellous.

And yet, the featured dish, the piece de resistance — it seems mandatory to introduce the moment in menu French — was still to come: Squab, a popular Spanish bird, tender and tiny, here slow-cooked at a low temperature, or souveed, then finished on the plancha to crisp up the skin on both sides, and served in a shallow bowl over a molé, Mexico’s answer to India’s curry, a base of cocoa with nuts, seeds and chilies, and in this case the cocoa was teamed with a veal stock-based demi-glace with seeds, without nuts, and roasted chilies, the outer part of the plate drizzled with a hibiscus jam reduced into a coulis, the plate a flavour wheel, the bird a bulls-eye whose only drawback, and it was a serious drawback, was that there weren’t two or three, or maybe even six or eight, of them, and with just one, and even with dessert still to come, as the almost-clean plate was removed from the table, I was left feeling teased, even a little mournful. Either from lack of courage or enough good taste, I did not carry my plate to the kitchen and beg for more.

I consoled myself with the remains of Lingua Franca’s bold and lovely Mimi’s Mind, and considered whether I’d just have to come back next year.

WORDS BY: TODD PITOCK

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