By Drew McArthur
A whole new tradition of cuisine has emerged in Cayman and it’s only getting started. Eating healthy and sustainably has never been made more easy and accessible thanks to the Islands’ culinary pioneers who have paved the way for farm-to-table dining. Here’s what’s cooking — and growing — in Cayman.
The idea behind sustainable dining is to create better tasting and healthy food whilst having little to no impact on the environment. When talking to some of the Islands’ leaders in the culinary field, it becomes clear that a big part of this means steering away from imported produce wherever possible and, instead, looking at what is available in our very own backyard.
Transporting food requires energy and subsequently leaves a carbon footprint. For us as consumers, however, it means something a little more. Before transportation, food is treated with chemicals that are toxic to our health. Due to a lack of arable land, the Cayman Islands rely almost entirely on imports to keep the resident and visiting population fed. Because produce has to be frozen for transport, it can hinder its flavour, whereas produce that is grown in our backyard tastes as it’s supposed to taste.
A prime example of the success of eco-conscious dining in Cayman can be found at The Brasserie, which has been instrumental in the farm-to-table movement since the term was introduced to Grand Cayman. The restaurant’s seasonal menu allows for the freshest possible food. “It’s a communal dining experience that celebrates what’s being grown at the time,” explains chef Thomas Tennant. “We harvest what we can from our own garden, talk to the farmers to see what they have and then design a three-course meal based on what’s available.”The garden that Tennant refers to is actually located directly on the grounds of The Brasserie. In addition to its lush green vegetable patches, the relaxed seating areas help create a real connection to the food that’s being enjoyed. One of The Brasserie’s most popular dishes is the yellowfin tuna tartare served with island crisps, local cucumbers and avocado.
Since the opening of The Brasserie in 1997, the infrastructure for sustainable dining on the Island has flourished. Not only have farms increased their crops and are able to sell more to the restaurant trade, but they also now have more outlets to make their produce available to the masses, like at The Farmers & Artisans Market in Camana Bay and the recently established The Market at the Cricket Grounds. Local crops like breadfruit, callaloo, coconut, ackee and basil are made more accessible and have allowed households to fill their home kitchens with more fresh flavours than ever before. “What’s grown nearby travels less and tastes better,” says Tennant.
The latest addition to Cayman’s dining scene is VIVO Café and Restaurant. The eco-friendly menu offers organic, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. From sourcing local food to using environmentally friendly cleaning products, plates made of acacia wood and cutlery made from bamboo, the restaurant’s entire mission is based around living in harmony with the environment.
“I chose to open VIVO because I wanted to live completely sustainably,” says owner Michele Zama. “I previously worked for restaurants that profited from using animal products and I wanted to remove myself from this. VIVO is my opportunity to encourage healthy and eco-friendly living within the community.”
VIVO is located inside Cayman’s first eco-development that is powered by wind and solar. Even their drinks are made as sustainably as possible, and they only stock locally made beers. In addition, for every bottle of wine they sell, they give a donation to Sustainable Harvest International, a non-profit organisation that addresses the tropical deforestation crisis in Central America and provides farmers with sustainable alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture.
Zama has not only provided a new sustainable dining hub for Cayman’s increasing eco-minded consumers, but also caters to the Island’s ever-growing vegetarian and vegan community. “You have to try our coconut ceviche, it tastes amazing and our customers can’t believe that it doesn’t have fish in it,” recommends Zama. “We make it entirely with local produce, and we love using coconut in our recipes, because not only is it healthy but it’s delicious too.”
In the short time since its opening, Zama’s venture has proven wildly successful. So much so that in less than a year, VIVO has been ranked as the Island’s number one restaurant
on TripAdvisor. “It’s about demand. The public is starting to become more aware of their diet and now associate vegetarian and sustainability with good health,” says Zama.
When it comes to meal time on Grand Cayman, there’s no shortage of sustainable dining options to choose from in Camana Bay. Sustainability is of prime importance here. With environmental initiatives including an extensive glass recycling programme, as well as recycling drop-off points, solar arrays, electric vehicle charging stations and LEED design elements in new developments, Camana Bay aims to stay on the cutting edge of all things green. This filters down to its culinary scene, also, where the weekly Farmers & Artisans Market provides local farmers and artisans with the chance to share their wares with visitors. It’s also where Camana Bay’s chefs pick their ingredients to prepare a dish for that evening’s Flavour Tour, a culinary tour celebrating local flavours in the signature styles of each restaurant. At each stop, the chef or manager from the restaurant visits the table to introduce that evening’s dish and explain the source of each of the ingredients.
Abacus, which has been in Camana Bay since 2007, has remained popular with visitors thanks to its commitment to diner favourites served in a cosmopolitan, modern atmosphere. Abacus offers an ever-changing menu of ocean-to-table and farm-to-table delights, which are curated by head chef Will O’Hara. “The ingredients truly make the dish, and with a bounty of goods available right here in Cayman, why would we go elsewhere? We always look for ways to incorporate seasonal ingredients into our everyday menu and look forward to seeing the growth of farming in Cayman as demand increases within our restaurant industry,” says O’Hara. The bar gets in on the act, too, with garden-to-bar cocktail offerings that differ depending on what ingredients the chef sources from farmers.
Over at Jessie’s Juice Bar, the philosophy is “let your food be your medicine, not your demise.” Jessie’s offers sustainable practices in large ways — working with local farmers like Clarence McLaughlin to source many of their ingredients. In smaller ways, for example, selling KeepCups and encouraging customers to bring them back for discounted refills. They have also repurposed a lot of their décor, which adds to the ambience.
If you haven’t heard of the lionfish problem yet, then you’re sure to do so whilst in the Cayman Islands. This invasive species, which has no predators other than humans, are destroying local fish populations as they continue to overpopulate our fragile reefs. To help mitigate the problem, innovative chefs have started using lionfish as an ingredient in their dishes. In addition to providing a new option on the menu, offering lionfish helps control the population.
“It was a challenge, but one that I decided to accept,” says chef Tennant, who was one of the first in Cayman to start cooking with lionfish. “The fish are small and can only be caught by divers one at a time, but they taste amazing.”
The method of catching lionfish is complicated and risky, largely due to their venomous spines and how they live in the reef. As a result, one of the main issues restaurants face is maintaining a reliable supply chain. “I demanded it, but the supply wasn’t there,” says Tennant. “So I put the word out that I would pay divers for lionfish, and that created the supply. Unfortunately, it is still never enough.”
As the lionfish population continues to boom, it is up to the consumer to help stop it. If you eat lionfish, then the indigenous fish stocks get a chance to reproduce again. Every bite of lionfish you take whilst in the Cayman Islands plays a small part in helping the environment. Lionfish are delicious, too — with meat that is light and buttery in flavour, it would please the palates of even the pickiest eaters.