After the beaches, the sunsets and the friendly, laid-back atmosphere, the dining scene is one of the main reasons to come to Grand Cayman. From handmade pasta to gourmet tacos, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the Island. And that is in no small part thanks to the world-class chefs who call Grand Cayman home. They hail from across the globe, but they are all driven by one common interest: creating good food.
Vidyadhara Shetty, Blue Cilantro
“My father owned five restaurants when I was growing up,” says Vidyadhara Shetty, chef and owner of Blue Cilantro. “If you go to Mumbai and you say ’Shetty,’ people think you own a couple restaurants.” But becoming a chef was about more than just falling into the family business.
“My mom is a very good cook, and I helped her a lot in the kitchen,” he says. “That’s how I got cooking into my blood.”
After getting his professional training working at a Mumbai hotel called Sun-n-Sand, Shetty spread his wings.
“I always wanted to travel, so I joined Carnival Cruise Lines in 1987. I worked for five years. The ship went to the Caribbean and Mexico. And it also came to Cayman — and that’s how I came here.”
And here he stayed. For 17 years, Shetty helmed the kitchen at the Hyatt Grand Cayman. Finally, in 2011 he opened his own restaurant, Blue Cilantro.
“The Island has a lot of restaurants, but they don’t have one that infuses French, Mediterranean and Asian,” says Shetty. “In Spain and Europe they use cumin and coriander, and then other countries like Turkey, they also use a lot of cumin, like we use in India. So I thought an infusion of these three would blend well together. And it does, because we get a lot of good feedback from the guests.”
But whilst his cuisine may offer guests an international flavour, Chef Shetty has found his home. “I’ve been here 25 years. I am a Caymanian now. People are friendly. Life is good. I am the president of the Cayman Culinary Society. My daughter grew up here since she was nine months old. The Island has been very good to me,” says Shetty. “Most of the time we go to the beach and have a good time and enjoy ourselves and cook and invite friends. That’s just what you do here. That’s what it’s all about.”
Dylan Benoit, Yara The Global Steakhouse
Dylan Benoit is a thoroughly modern chef. He has his own website, dylanbenoit.com, where he refers to himself not only as a professional chef but as a content strategist. With his rugged beard and man bun, he reminds one more of a head beer brewer than a head chef. On his blog, the Canadian-born Benoit journals about his travels from Mexico to Cambodia, books he’s read, canyons he’s climbed, Lucha libre wrestling and the many meals he’s eaten along the way. He’s a chef for the modern age and he has settled down — at least for now — on Grand Cayman to head up the kitchen at YARA The Global Steakhouse.
The new steakhouse at the Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman is the perfect fit for a wanderlust chef coming off 10 months of travelling.
“With YARA being a global steakhouse, the possibilities for food exploration are almost endless,” he says. “My team and I are free to be incredibly creative and playful with ingredients and cooking styles. I’m really excited to bring this menu to the diners of Cayman; it’s always been my belief that dining should be an experience, and presenting familiar dishes or ingredients in a wholly unfamiliar way is one of my favourite things about being a chef.”
Benoit is not a newcomer to Cayman. Previously he worked as sous chef at Osetra Bay Restaurant and Lounge before going on to oversee six different concepts as head chef for the Market Street Group.
Now Benoit is focusing his recent international experiences on developing YARA’s globally minded concept.
“YARA, meaning the ’place‘ in the Caribbean’s native Taíno language, will be a welcome addition to the Island’s already dynamic dining scene,” Benoit mentions. “The first and only concept of its kind in Cayman, the debut menu at YARA has a heavy Nikkei influence, a cuisine that has evolved from the Japanese influence in South America, centred around the highest-quality meats, freshest produce and local seafood. With a focus on excellence in every aspect, YARA is the place guests will want to visit again and again for its dynamic atmosphere and incredible food.”
Federico Destro, Bàcaro
“A bàcaro in Venice is a small wine bar where they serve small-size foods, tapas and wine by the glass,” says Bàcaro’s chef and co-owner Federico Destro. Like so many professionals who devote their lives to the kitchen, his introduction happened early in life. “[My mother] had a restaurant with my uncle, and I started working there in the kitchen with my uncle, who was the chef until I was 14. Then I enrolled in culinary school for about five years, and in the summers I worked in different restaurants around Venice and in Tuscany.”
Destro first came to Cayman in 1999 to work at Italian concept, Ragazzi.
“I worked there for about seven years,“ he says. “The owners then opened Luca, which is more upscale, and I was there for about nine and a half years as head chef. Then in January, I teamed up with my partner Barney [Bako] and we opened Bàcaro.”
Bàcaro is not a traditional Venetian bàcaro, most of which don’t even have tables, says Destro. Bàcaro offers proper seating and full service, as well as medium plates in addition to the tapas-size plates. The décor is contemporary-rustic, complete with hemp ropes on the ceiling and Venetian tiles on the bar.
“Most of our seating is outdoors. It’s at the West Bay Yacht Club, so we are surrounded by water, fishing boats all around. It makes it pretty cosy.”
Despite his 18-year tenure on the Island, he ended up here almost by accident.
“I always wanted to travel the world, and I thought this was the starting point. I thought I would come here for six months, and 17 years later I’m still here,” says Destro. “Life is pretty good here. It’s easy-going. It’s close to everything: Central America, Cuba, the States. The beaches are beautiful; the people are so nice. There’s a big community of ex-pats from every corner of the world. There’s a mixture of culture and languages and people. It’s a lovely, happy bubble.”
Massimo De Francesca, Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa
As a first-generation Italian-Canadian, Chef Massimo De Francesca was always around good food.
“My mother would cook from early hours to late night,” he says. “Everything was handmade or hand rolled. My father was an excellent cook as well. But they had very different palates. She would make pastas and gnocchi and these wonderful gravies and ragus. My father was more of a gamesman: fish, wild game meats, pork skin, pork belly. Back when no one really knew what that was, he was boiling pork skin into jelly and spreading it on Italian bread.”
With that kind of influence, it is little wonder that De Francesca enrolled in culinary school in Toronto at 17. He apprenticed under renowned Toronto chef JP Challet before embarking on a career that took him from the Adriatic Coast to Manhattan to Sedona and, finally, to Grand Cayman.
But this is not De Francesca’s first time on the Island. His travels brought him to Grand Cayman in 2004, where he stayed for nearly five years. Returning, he says, felt natural. Like he was coming full circle.
“Why did I choose this little rock? There’s a strong Caribbean influence in Toronto, and I really found a love of their lifestyle. We’d always eat their foods in Little Jamaica. Toronto is one of the best food towns, and in Little Jamaica you have really authentic meats and curries. I always loved it. You add that to some cold winters, and you say, ’Lets get out of here and head to the tropics.‘”
He returned in January 2016 as executive chef at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa. He oversees both Coccoloba — Kimpton’s Mexican street food spot — as well as the multi-conceptual Avecita with its chef’s tasting table, cocktail bar service and catering arm. He is a busy man, heading up a team of culinary players.
“Every time I put my whites on, it’s like putting on a game jersey and we’re on the field. And I’m still playing the game, though it’s more of a coaching level. But I’m still involved, still rolling up my sleeves. It’s still a great passion.”
“Punch on the Island is not optional,” says Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa’s beverage manager, John Stanton.
“Not having one on your menu would be like walking into a restaurant without clothes on: It’s just not done. When sitting next to the ocean in the hot sun, a cold beverage featuring island fruit is A must.”
Cayman Airways has been carrying on this cultural tradition for decades by offering in-flight complimentary rum punch. Start your next trip with Cayman Airways off right by sipping a glass of this grand old Caymanian tradition.
Photographer: Jim Gates