A Real Taste of Cayman

by Caroline Hatchett
Caroline Hatchett
March 2014

When Christopher Columbus landed on Grand Cayman in 1503, the islands were inhabited by a fog of mosquitoes and a lively population of blue iguanas—but zero native islanders. More than 500 years later, this Caribbean paradise is populated by the good people of the United Kingdom (the Queen mother still reins here), Jamaica, Cuba, the United States, the Philippines, and India, to name a few contributing nations. Its culinary landscape and chef community follow suit with all manner of imported talent and flavors coming together in one glorious, tropical melting pot.

Just wrapping up its 26th year, Taste of Cayman Food & Wine Festival celebrated that diversity with 40 restaurants and chefs feeding more than 4,150 islanders and visitors. "Taste of Cayman offers us the opportunity to give back to the island community in many ways. The causes are always worthwhile, and it lets us present what [Rum Point Club] is all about in the largest gathering of its kind on the island," says Chef Kapila Kodituwakku.

Caja China Pork

Held in a field outside Camana Bay, the festival is one of the oldest events on the island and benefits the Cayman Islands Tourism Association. Warm, flawless weather, greeted the crowds, who descended on booths—serving everything from potent mojitos to pizza and three-course tasting menus—like those early swarms of Cayman mosquitoes. Most notably, among visitors and participating chefs, there was a great swell pride in the island's growing culinary scene.

"[Taste of Cayman] is great for the culinary community. It gives [the chefs] who work in the business a chance to interact with one another and get to know each other better. We all work so much that it's hard to meet and hang out," says Joe Mizzoni, chef at farm-to-table Brasserie.

What Is Heavy Cake?

One of the evening's first events was the Heavy Cake Competition. For the non-native, heavy cake is a local specialty that's traditionally made from island-grown cassava, coconut milk, brown sugar, and spices. Dense, with an almost gel-like texture, the gluten-free cake was born out of necessity and serves roughly the same role as a brownie does in the States. "Caymanians don't need a celebration to enjoy heavy cakes. It's usually a weekend-made dessert for the entire family to enjoy," says Ingrid Bodden, this year's heavy cake champion.

"I learned to make heavy cake about 12 years ago from my mother-in-law, who took the time to teach me the very old fashioned way, which I have significantly modified," she says.

The Best Bites

The best plan of action for the festival is to meander slowly, pacing out what can turn into a 15-course evening. This year, long lines gave away local favorites like Osetra Bay and Agua. Michael's Genuine—"Favorite Restaurant" Winner two years running—attracted crowds with its boisterous, cheering staff, not to mention its succulent lionfish sliders and pork belly-kimchi quesadillas. "Participating in Taste of Cayman is an excellent opportunity to showcase the importance of supporting local farmers and products on Grand Cayman in our dishes," says Thomas Tennant, executive chef at Michael's Genuine. "It feels great to see that fresh, simple, and pure philosophy translate to delicious food on the plate that is enjoyed and appreciated by the island through this great festival."

The dishes that stood out most showcased a mix of Cayman and international flavors and more than merited second helpings. Here are some of our favorites:

Caja China Pork
What: Caja China Pork 
Who: Chef Mike Fischetti of Ortanique
Why: "We get the pigs locally from Rankins Farm. Island-raised pigs have a different flavor because they aren't as fatty, so they take well to marinade. They have almost a gamey flavor to them that I love."
Yellowfin Tuna Coconut Ceviche
What: Yellowfin Tuna Coconut Ceviche 
Who: Chef Joe Mizzoni of Brasserie
Why: "Ninety-nine percent of this dish is sourced locally and prepared in its natural state. Beside the fish sauce and sugar, the whole recipe can be sourced from our garden, our local farmers, and our Brasserie fishing fleet. It is a simple and fresh yet complex dish that is a fan favorite."
Caribbean Tuna Frikkadels and Slaw
What: Caribbean Tuna Frikkadels and Slaw
Who: Chef Kapila Kodituwakku of Rum Point Club
Why: "Frikkadels are a South African/Dutch meatball. Cayman cuisine offers bits and pieces from all around the world, styles, infusions, ingredients—not only the major culinary styles but also French, Italian, Asian, American, and the like, so why not South African? We put an "island twist" on the frikkadels by incorporating locally caught yellowfin tuna and cooling it off with a little Caribbean Coleslaw for sweetness."
Smoked Zucchini-Burrata Ravioli
What: Smoked Zucchini-Burrata Ravioli
Who: Chef Stefano Attardi of Periwinkle at Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman
Why: Born in Naples, Italy, Chef Attardi brings his finely tuned pasta skills to Periwinkle. And for his winning ravioli, he packed creamy, luxurious burrata and smoky zucchini into a toothsome pasta packet.
Award: Best Food
Lionfish Slider
What: Lionfish Slider
Who: Chef Thomas Tennant of Michael's Genuine
Why: "We have been showcasing lionfish since 2011 to expose this great tasting fish to the public. Lionfish is an invasive species and is a serious threat to Cayman's dive industry, marine biodiversity, marine ecosystem, and our food supply. It only makes sense to cull these fish for consumption and increase demand. We couldn't have done what we have in the effort of culling lionfish if it weren't for the efforts of CULL, DOE, DOT, CITA, and Camana Bay."
Award: Favorite Restaurant

Jason Washington removing the spines from a lionfish

Jason Washington removing the spines from a lionfish

Chefs Steve Shienfield and Ron Hargrave with their lionfish dishes

Chefs Steve Shienfield and Ron Hargrave with their lionfish dishes

Eat 'Em to Beat 'Em

Following in the footsteps of island visitors Anthony Bourdain and José Andrés, the morning before the festival, the StarChefs crew went on a lionfish hunt with Jason Washington of Cayman United Lionfish League (CULL). Lionfish are an invasive species that have no natural predators in the Caribbean and pose a major threat to the islands' coral reefs and aquatic ecosystem. Unlike several Caribbean islands, Cayman and CULL took early measures to reduce the lionfish population, but complete elimination is next to impossible: females spawn 30,000 to 40,000 eggs every four days. "Even if we got rid of every lionfish in Grand Cayman, there are hundreds of thousands swimming toward us," says Washington.

Luckily for chefs and diners, lionfish are delicious, and more than a dozen island restaurants have started to serve the fish. "When Michael's [Genuine] came on board, it changed everything," says Washington, who worked with CULL members to gather enough lionfish for Taste of Cayman.

At the festival, the crowd let up the cheer "Eat 'Em to Beat 'Em!" as Chefs Ron Hargrave of Tukka and Steve Shienfield of Mizu Asian Bistro competed in a Lionfish Cook-off. Shienfield won the contest with his Seared Lionfish, Potato Hash, and Mango Salsa— made with a good glug of Caybrew beer. Lionfish is comparable to grouper or snapper, almost a cross between the two, according to Shienfield. "Its flesh is firm and white, which lends well to pan searing, frying, sautéing, and blackening; it also makes a great ceviche," he says.

 

Bartender Simon Crompton of Agua mixing in Seven Fathoms Rum Mixology Competition

Bartender Simon Crompton of Agua mixing in Seven Fathoms Rum Mixology Competition

Angel Robledo's winning Snow Capped Cocktail

Angel Robledo's winning Snow Capped Cocktail

The Rum Point

The last competition of the night—the liquid finale before ABBA Mania and fireworks—was the Taste of Cayman Mixology Competition, supported by Seven Fathoms Rum. Ten island bartenders selected from Seven Fathoms aged and coconut rums, as well as its Gun Bay vodka.

"Seven Fathoms is the only rum truly made in the Cayman Islands," says competition winner Angel Robledo. "It is aged at seven fathoms (42 feet) under the ocean! This gently rocks or agitates the barrels, which enhances the aging process. This mimics what used to happen when barrels of rum were taken to sea. The rum on the boat would age better than the rum on shore, because the barrels are always in motion."

Robledo faced bartenders like Ortanique's Ram Maranan and Agua's Simon Crompton, but ultimately, the judges fell for Robledo's cacao-coconut cocktail. "I often pick coconuts that fall from a Coconut Joes tree and make a coconut milk, turning it into a homemade, local product," says Robledo. "I made syrup with coconut milk, fresh chile pepper, 100 percent cacao, and sugarcane." A sweet ending to an exceptional celebration of Cayman's culinary community.