With people from more than 120 different countries living in the Cayman Islands, it should not surprise anyone that the food served on the island reflects a wide array of cultures and a cornucopia of flavors and techniques.
The temperate climate, the inherent beauty of the island and multi-cultural make-up of the population attract expatriate workers from all over the world, and it is no different with chefs, who started coming to Grand Cayman long before the island earned its “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean” moniker.
Having well-known celebrity chef Eric Ripert open a restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and having famous chefs and personalities like Daniel Boulud, José Andrés and Anthony Bourdain appear at the annual Cayman Cookout food and wine festival, has created a culinary mystique around the island.
As a result, culinary professionals from around the world now grace Grand Cayman’s restaurant kitchens, and while it’s true that certain aspects of island living have stubbornly resisted globalization here, the same can’t be said for the cuisine.
Grand Cayman Magazine spoke with four of the island’s top chefs who come from different places about their careers, what brought them to the island, and what inspires them about their profession.
Chef Thomas Seifried
Austrian-born Chef Thomas Seifried has the restaurant business in his genes; his parents owned a restaurant when he was growing up.
“My grandmother and my mother were together in the kitchen, so it was a family business,” he said. “So when I was 13 or 14, I decided I wanted to become a chef.”
In Austria, becoming a chef means either going to culinary school or starting a work apprenticeship in a hotel. He chose the latter.
By the time he was 20, he was working a Michelin-star, fine dining restaurant in Vienna, and he advanced quickly up the ranks. Before he reached 23, he was the chef de cuisine at another hotel restaurant in Vienna.
He then joined the Ritz-Carlton group, working at a hotel restaurant in Hainan, China. After being there two years, he read a notice sent out by The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman to all Ritz-Carlton chefs looking for a chef de cuisine at Blue by Eric Ripert. Knowing that Eric Ripert was involved and that the restaurant specialized in seafood – which is also his specialty – Seifried jumped at the opportunity.
“Blue – after the three-star Michelin restaurant [Aqua] in Germany – is the best restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton company,” he said.
A year and a half later, Seifried has no regrets.
“I have a great package,” he said. “I’m happy to be here. You live on a beautiful island, first of all. I work for a three-star Michelin chef, which is based in New York, and I’m able to go to New York for six, seven weeks a year to work [at Ripert’s restaurant Le Bernardin] when we close here… in September, October.”
Seifried likes the fact that the Blue kitchen has a multi-cultural make-up.
“We have six or seven nationalities in the kitchen,” he said, rattling off people from Turkey, Mexico, Chile, France and even Nepal. “The great thing about all the nationalities is everybody has a different perspective of food. If I put a snapper on the table and I put leek and something else, everybody has a different way to think about it. Everybody grew up different. I think differently from Austria about cuisine than the Turkish guy or the French guy. There are really [good] chefs from everywhere in the world. When we think about a new dish to put on the menu, the best idea that comes out, we do it.”
Of course, everyone in the Blue kitchen ultimately has to reflect Eric Ripert’s vision of cuisine
“We have certain dishes – three or four – which have to be the same like in Le Bernardin,” he said. “The rest are different. Of course at the beginning, [Ripert] is looking close at you to figure out if you understand his vision and understand his cuisine… but if he sees that you understand that, he gives you a free hand, and tells you, as long as you’re staying in this line, you can do whatever you want.”
It wasn’t difficult for Seifried to adapt to Ripert’s vision because he agrees with it.
“What he is focused on, and I always supported that in my life, is doing a great dish out of [a minimum number of] ingredients,” he said. “That’s what I most like about the cuisine from Eric Ripert. You’re a really good chef when you can do that. Because if I give you a plate with, I don’t know, 25 different ingredients on it, you have no idea what you’re eating.”
A classic example of this “less is more” – at least if done well – philosophy is Ripert’s “tuna foie gras” dish that is a mainstay menu item on both the Le Bernardin and the Blue menus.
“There’s the baguette, there’s the foie gras and there’s the tuna,” he said. “And lemon juice. Obviously, it’s a lot of work to do that, but it’s cuisine like that that I love.”
Although Seifried is only 30 years old, he’s been cooking professionally long enough to have seen various trends come and go. One trend he is glad to see in the rear view mirror is that of molecular art cuisine.
“I was never a fan of that,” he said. “Nothing against Ferran Adria because he was genius in what he did, but he was a genius also to close his restaurant because he was the first guy who recognized, it’s over.”
These days, Seifried is seeing a back-to-basics trend.
“Right now it’s all ocean-to-table or farm-to-table, which is great, because it all goes back to basics,” he said, but even that can go too far sometimes.
“Take Noma,” he said, referring to the famous restaurant in Demark. “Rene Redzepi is a great guy and what he’s doing is amazing, but I don’t need live ants on my plate. Even if you say it gives you a flash of acidity… use lemon skin. I don’t want to eat the ants with my beef tartar. I haven’t had the dish; maybe it’s amazing. Maybe. But sometimes he goes a little bit too far.”
Chef Laurence Herbert
Born in the East End of London, Chef Laurence Herbert grew up in a household of Asian flavors. Although his father was English, his mother was from Malaysia, and a very good cook.
Like many chefs, Herbert started at the bottom and worked his way up, learning mostly on the job, but also taking a one-year professional cooking course along the way.
Having been a good student in both science and art, Herbert said the various aspects of cooking came easy to him. More importantly, he enjoyed doing it and the camaraderie that came with the job.
By the time he was 20, he was the sous-chef at a brasserie-style restaurant, but what he really wanted to do was work in a fine-dining restaurant. At the age of 22, he started working at a restaurant in London under a Michelin-star chef named Stephen Black.
“I went from sous-chef to demi-chef de partie and I was working 16-hour days, every day a double, one day off – it was a complete lifestyle change,” he said. “So from having it semi-easy in a good position, I went down to pretty much the bottom. But everything was a lot more refined. For the first three months it was a brutal, brutal lifestyle change.”
After doing that for a year and saving some money, Herbert traveled to Malaysia to explore his maternal roots for the better part of a year, and venturing through Southeast Asia while he was over there, and trying a variety of different foods.
While traveling, he learned about Asian cuisine and about ingredients and techniques that his classical French cuisine training didn’t cover.
“It’s completely different,” he said. “I really love Asian food and if I could go anywhere and get something to eat right now, it would be right there, at a street stall, not even at a fancy restaurant.”
Upon returning to London, Herbert worked for a chef called Philip Thompson at a fine-dining restaurant named Auberge du Lac for four and a half years, advancing from chef de partie to senior sous-chef during that time.
“After two years we gained the rising star from Michelin, by the third year we’d got the Michelin star and the year before I left, we had retained it as well.”
Even though Herbert calls being part of the team that earned the much-coveted Michelin star “the most important thing that’s ever happened” in his career to date, he was looking for new challenges as 2009 came to an end. After another, shorter, trip to Malaysia, he accepted a job offer on Grand Cayman at the Kaibo restaurants, starting in February 2010.
What he found was a typical beach grill and a restaurant with what he calls “a semi-bad reputation for being a Cajun fry-house” upstairs. On a good night, the restaurant did 15 to 20 covers.
Changing the reputation was easier said than done.
“You can have publicity and tell everyone on billboards everywhere, but it takes people to come and eat and then go out and tell their friends, and then they come and eat and tell their friends,” he said. “It’s a slow process that happens organically.”
One of the keys in improving was developing consistency.
“You have to think about what you’re capable of doing 100 times over, rather than five times over,” he said. “If you can’t do it 100 times over the same way, then you’re not doing what you need; it’s all about consistency. Slowly but surely we improved.”
Three years into his stint, Kaibo Upstairs had risen to #3 in the Trip Advisor rankings of restaurants on Grand Cayman. By 2014, it had reached #1 and stays around #1 or #2. With the improvements has come increased business and on many nights, the restaurant is packed, attracting people who are seeking a true fine-dining experience.
In addition, Herbert oversees the bar and grill restaurant downstairs.
“Obviously my main priority is upstairs, but when you have 300 people at a barbecue on a Wednesday, you have to make sure they’re doing it right,” he said.
Now 33 years old, Herbert gets a lot of satisfaction from the strides Kaibo Upstairs has made with him an integral part of the team. He’s working in the kitchen six days a week, so there’s not much time to hang out on the beach, but he doesn’t mind as long as he can help bring an enjoyable dining experience to the customers.
Chef Sandy Tuason
At the age of six, Sandy Tuason left his native Philippines with his family and moved to northern New Jersey.
Even though food is an important part of Filipino culture, as a teenager, and even a young adult, Tuason didn’t think about cooking as a career.
“I went to college at Rutgers, studied English literature, got my degree there,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a college professor.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the lectern. While going to school, Tuason worked summer jobs in various restaurants and he found he liked it. After college, he had to decide what he wanted to do with his life and suddenly cooking seemed like a more attractive option than teaching.
“I just kind of got hooked,” he said.
In the late 1980s, he went to the French Culinary Institute and started working in restaurants in New York. Eventually, he ended up at Le Cirque, working for Daniel Boulud.
“I got my butt kicked for two years; it was great” he said. “I was the saucier. It killed me, but it was great – the best thing that ever happened to me.”
While at Le Cirque, he worked six days a week, 14 hours a day, getting up at 4 a.m. to go to work for Boulud, who was a tough taskmaster.
“Arguably back then, in ’88 or ’89 when I was there, [Le Cirque] was known as the toughest kitchen in the entire country to work at,” he said. “But that’s the whole thing with the French; [Boulud] got his butt kicked when he was learning. You got plates thrown at your head. They hated you. But you know what they did? You get your butt kicked all day long, you go home, the next day you come back in… and they go to everybody, every cook, every dishwasher, and say ‘good morning, bon jour ‘ – so it’s always a new day. You still get your butt kicked again later on, but it’s a great tradition.”
Tuason said his years at Le Cirque were both the best of times and the worst of times.
“I hated [Boulud], but after I was done with it, I couldn’t have been more grateful to him for what he did.”
Eventually, Tuason made the decision to pursue a culinary career in the hotel industry and took a position at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York.
“I even went back and started as a line cook again because I just wanted to get my foot in the door,” he said.
Over the next nine years he was promoted often, first to sous-chef, then to chef de cuisine of a restaurant, then to the banquet chef, then to the executive sous-chef. Then in 2007, an executive sous-chef job at the Four Seasons in Nevis opened up and Tuason made the move. Two years and one bad hurricane later, Tuason found himself in Hawaii as the executive chef of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. It was while he was in Hawaii that Tuason really embraced the “farm-to-table” culinary concepts.
When he heard about a job at the Westin on Grand Cayman, he did some research and was surprised to learn about the island’s reputation as “The Culinary Capital of the Caribbean.” He took the job.
What has surprised him most is the talent he found in the Westin kitchen.
“I have a really outstanding staff,” he said. “I told them the other day, this is the best staff I’ve worked with in 25 years. And I’m not kidding them. They’re very talented; they’re very dedicated.”
For some, becoming an executive chef means the end of their practical cooking. Not for Tuason.
“I don’t cook on the line per say, but I’m not an office chef. I hate that. It’s not what I do,” he said. “Yeah, I have to be in the office a little bit to do the necessary paperwork, but I like to be around. During the Christmas season, I was out [at the beach grill] cooking French fries and flipping hamburgers and making cheese steaks, and I didn’t mind. I love it.”
Tuason believes being a chef is about cooking, but also about planning, preparation, and cleaning.
“It’s not theory; it’s work,” he said. “This isn’t art; this is a craft. I don’t like when people say ‘you’re an artist,’ or that there’s a piece of art on the plate; no it’s not, because it’s going to be gone in a minute. It’s a craft, and you have to learn your craft, and do it properly, and respect your profession, respect your kitchen, respect your team. That’s what it’s all about.”
Whenever he can, Tuason uses fresh, local ingredients.
“For me, it is important to support the local farmers and the local businessmen,” he said. “The food tastes better, it’s not traveling from Miami, and it’s just good karma to support the local community and the local farmers. This whole “farm-to-table” thing, I’m not calling it cliché, but it’s more mainstream now, and it should be.”
Tuason also loves the fact that his kitchen is full of people from different countries, something he got used to working in kitchens in New York.
“I love it,” he said. “We play off each other. I’m the executive chef, but I’m still learning stuff from these people and I’ll always keep learning. You don’t stop learning in this business.”
Chef Gilbert Cavallaro
Chef Gilbert Cavallaro was born in Toulon, France to Italian parents, so he was brought up with the idea of multi-cultural cuisine. During his childhood, many of the meals cooked by his mother were pastas and other Italian dishes. He also spent two months every summer in Calabria, Italy, from where his parents came.
He trained in classic French cuisine as a young adult, but has never forgotten his Italian roots.
“You can see on my menus that I love raviolis and gnocchis,” he said. “I always have this influence coming out; I can’t get away from it.”
After a decade of working in restaurants in England and France, he decided to buy his own restaurant in Provence. However, he and the owner couldn’t agree on a price and he decided to come to the Cayman Islands with the idea of saving some money and eventually returning to France to buy a restaurant. That was in 1999, and he’s never left.
“Plans change,” he said, with a laugh.
Like many chefs coming to Cayman, especially those who come to work in a hotel, Cavallaro started at the bottom at the Hyatt Regency, working his way up at several of the hotel’s restaurants, including Rum Point Club, Hemingways and the Garden Loggia.
After Hurricane Ivan destroyed the main Hyatt property in 2004, he stayed on at Rum Point Club until an opportunity arose at the new Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, where he worked as a sous-chef in the restaurant Seven. While at Seven, Cavallaro was given freedom to create new menu items on a weekly basis for the brunch.
“This is where I developed a lot of ideas that I used when I went to transition to the Cracked Conch,” he said.
When he came to Cracked Conch in 2009, it had the reputation of being a local food eatery, but he immediately began changing it into a fine-dining restaurant. He had some restrictions when he started, like keeping the signature cracked conch dish on the menu in some form, but he also had a lot of freedom to be creative, which is what he likes the most about his current position.
“It’s about being able to be creative with no real boundaries,” he said. “If I’m working on a menu, I’m thinking about it all the time. This is what I like to do more than anything else.”
In 2013, Cavallaro had a chance to work on yet another menu, that of the George Town Yacht Club in George Town, which is owned by the same owner as Cracked Conch. Even though it is a casual eatery, a lot of effort went into making the dishes as tasty as possible. For example, for their signature burger, ground beef short rib was added to ground beef to add flavor.
“For me, I can enjoy a great burger as much as beef tenderloin if it’s done properly,” Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro continues to evolve as a chef, gaining knowledge and influences from the many chefs he has worked with over the years in Cayman, and the ones he’s working with now. He said he wants his kitchen staff to make suggestions, which has several benefits.
“I think you make them more interested in work, and happier as well,” he said. “Every opinion matters. Some people don’t care. They just like to cook and go home. But if you’re more passionate, and you like to share what you can do, I’d like to see what you can do; just show me.”
Describing the Cracked Conch’s cuisine as having an international flair with local ingredients, Cavallaro said he has become particularly interested in the local fruits and vegetables. If there’s a trend he’d like to see in restaurant dining, it would be a greater emphasis on vegetables.
“It doesn’t have to be about the meat or the fish,” he said. “If I design a dish, a special or something on the menu, the most important part for me it what’s on the bottom – the vegetable, the sauce. The whole difficulty of creating a dish comes with the vegetables, with the sauce and what you do with it to make it interesting.”
Whether it’s burgers or beef tenderloin, meat remains an important part of Cavallaro’s menu, but he wishes diners would be more receptive to vegetable-based dishes. When they do choose meat, he thinks they should splurge.
“That’s the idea people need to go back to,” he said. “We don’t have to have meat every day, but when we do, have the good one. Spend the money. It’s ok; treat yourself.”
Chef Vidyadhara Shetty
It was love at first bite when a young chef named Vidyadhara Shetty first visited Grand Cayman while working in the kitchen on a Carnival Cruise Lines ship.
One day while visiting Grand Cayman, he disembarked and made his way to the old Landmark Restaurant on the harbor front, where Breezes by the Bay is now.
“I sat by the window and I had conch fritters, by myself, and I’m like, ‘Wow. This place is so great,’” he says. “So, with the first conch fritters I ate, I fell in love with the island.”
Chef Shetty continued to work on the cruise ship, but he couldn’t get the idea of working on Grand Cayman out of his mind. He eventually went to the Hyatt Regency hotel and asked for a job.
“The chef was Richard McCreadie, a Scottish guy; very strict,” Shetty said. “He said, ‘I have a position for you as a breakfast chef, if you want to start at the bottom.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you doing? I’ve been already on the ship five years, I run the show.’ He said, ‘This is all I have; you take it or leave it.’”
Shetty turned down the job, but six months later called McCreadie to see if it was still available.
“He said, ‘Yeah, it is available; you can come any time as a breakfast chef.’ I joined on August the 12th, 1993.”
When Shetty started at the Hyatt, he was cooking breakfast for 150 to 200 people every morning, and doing brunch on Sundays at the Garden Loggia Restaurant. He was 28 years old and the job was below his training and experience level, but it’s how he gained his culinary career footing in the Cayman Islands, even if he hadn’t always wanted to be a chef.
“Actually, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
However, his father owned five restaurants in India, and Shetty grew up in kitchens, spending a lot of time there with “the best cook,” his mother.
Eventually, flavors won over flying, and Shetty attended culinary school instead of flight school.
He attended The Mumbai Institute of Hotel Management and Catering Technology, which Shetty said was one of the best schools in the city at the time, where he learned all aspects of hospitality and how to prepare many types of cuisine, including classic French.
“The school was so strict,” he said. “Once you get into the school, you can’t go out until you finished school. It was more military based.”
After three years in culinary school, Shetty worked in flight kitchens in Mumbai, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before joining Carnival Cruise Lines as a junior sous-chef, working mostly in pastry and bakery. After several years of cooking breakfasts and brunches and then working in the Hyatt’s banquet kitchen, Shetty was allowed to spread his culinary wings at the hotel’s many different restaurants, including Hemingways, Rum Point Club, Britannia and Bamboo.
“I moved up the ladder from cook, to supervisor to sous-chef and eventually executive chef,” he said, noting that the last promotion happened after the Hyatt left Cayman following Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. “I was running the show from 2007 to the end of 2010.”
Eventually Shetty wanted the dream of most chefs: to own his own restaurant. In December of 2011, he opened Blue Cilantro in the Fidelity Financial Centre on West Bay Road. Given that Cayman, and the world, was still feeling the effects of the financial crisis, it wasn’t the best timing for a new restaurant.
“Actually, I didn’t even know it was a difficult period,” he said. “We just opened because it was my passion to open a restaurant. It’s been three years now and so far it’s going very well. There have been ups and downs, but that’s normal for business.”
Of course, owning a restaurant requires a lot of time and commitment.
“We’re open seven days a week and I work eight days a week,” he said with a laugh.
Blue Cilantro is unlike any other restaurant in Cayman in that it offers a fusion of cuisine that Shetty admits is “hard to describe.”
“It’s a fusion of French, Mediterranean and Asian,’ he said. “It works well actually.”
The restaurant’s cuisine draws on Shetty’s life experiences in cooking, from the Indian food of his childhood, to the classic cuisines of culinary school, to the Caribbean flavors he’s learned to love in Cayman.
In addition, over his years in Cayman, Shetty said he’s picked up ideas from chefs he’s worked with that come from all over, and that’s it’s natural to do so. One of those chefs, Englishman Keith Griffin, has become his good friend, and someone from whom he’s learned a lot.
“I’ve picked up quite a bit from him,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t notice, but I have picked up things from him. Like he does a nice banana dessert, and his goat cheese soufflé, and a couple of other things – his sauces and techniques of cooking. I don’t know if he does from me; I’m sure he does, but we don’t say so.”