Interview with Chef Alex Ewald of La Tapa - Cruz Bay, US Virgin Islands

April 2009

Heather Sperling: What is your clientele like? What are they looking for?
Alex Ewald: St. John—and Virgin Island restaurants in general—are very low-key. When people come down here on vacation, they want simple things. They don’t want gourmet food; they want barbecue or something like that. We cater to locals. Obviously tourists are welcome, but if you make people who live here happy, then you get a good reputation.

HS: When is high season?
AE: The season starts right before Christmas and goes through the end of April. May and June is wedding season, so we still have a lot of people then, and July and August have been good in recent years because of the Euro being so high. So people come here instead of going to Europe or islands that use Euros.

HS: Do you close for a chunk of time each year?
AE: I usually close August, September, and part of October, but this year, due to the economy, I want to play it safe and make sure everyone has enough money, so we’re staying open until August 15th.

When we re-open in October and November, it’s really all local people coming in. It’s a nice slow beginning to re-train everybody—that’s the time that we change things and get it tight before the crowds start.

We are open six nights a week. In high season we do seven nights a week. Right now I'm trying to keep the staff happy and rich, so I’m staying open seven days.

HS: How big is your staff, and who are they? Any locals?
AE: It’s all people that live here who have been here for several seasons. I had native, local people at the beginning and there was a little issue there. That’s a general problem in the Viring Islands, which is that people aren’t trained for the service industry. I’m not biased—my son went to a West Indian school—but there’s just not that sense of urgency that comes from training in a fast-paced restaurant environment.

I have 15 to 20 staff total, depending on the time of year, and right now the kitchen has two interns from the New England Culinary Institute, three cooks, and everybody knows how to do everything. I don’t have room or time for anyone who needs too much training.

I’m very lucky in that I’ve never placed an ad to find staff, ever. I’ve had employees who have worked in the kitchen at Babbo, at Daniel, and they are able to teach me things because I never went to school.

HS: What does the staff do while you’re closed?
AE: The staff knows in advance because I’ve been doing it every year. So I tell them they better start saving. They usually help out other restaurants that are open. The front of house staff will go to other restaurants on the island and some of the kitchen staff will go to restaurants in the states or try to get stages somewhere.

HS: What local products are available?
AE: It’s mostly fish: tuna, wahoo, mahi, yellowtail snapper, fresh lobster. And there’s Josephine—she organically grows all her greens in Coral Bay. She grows lettuces, different herbs, sometimes yard-long beans. We get all our other products from a purveyor on St. Thomas who flies things in. Those products are pretty good, but sometimes things get 86’d for weeks on end.

HS: What’s your biggest splurge?
AE: Sometimes I treat myself to a little order from Chef’s Garden. I have them FedEx two boxes of miscellaneous products down, and it’s just outrageous. I pay probably $300 in shipping for two boxes. It’s not even to make money—it’s just to have something on the menu that’s a little bit different and special, especially for special occasions like Valentine’s Day.

I keep on trying to get other people down here to order with me to decrease the shipping costs, but nobody down here is willing to go to that extreme. So you kind of have to make it with what you have—you have to make something out of nothing. I’ve always thought that if I was to open a restaurant in the States, it would be so easy!

HS: Are there any local fruits?
AE: There are tropical fruits, mangos, avocados, papayas that are grown in the area, but they’re not in full season until August and September, so we still have to order things from the purveyors.

St. Croix does a little bit of growing, like Josephine does, but due to the fact that we don’t have seasons, and a lot of vegetables require a frost period, we don’t get many local vegetables.

HS: What are rents like in Cruz Bay?
AE: Rents are fairly high—I'm lucky because I’ve been very good friends with the landlord for a very long time, so mine hasn’t gone up too much. It’s around $6 to 8K per month in town, and $10 to 12K per month on the waterfront.

HS: And you’re a small, independent restaurant without a big resort behind it. What’s your secret? How do you make due?
AE: You really have to be creative with what you’ve got. When I go to Spain, I see products like boquerones—white anchovies cooked and preserved in vinegar—and I think, “You can do the same with wahoo.” You go and travel and see what other people do, but you don’t have to use that exact same product. You just make it happen. It’s a challenge in the best possible way.