Long before I sat in a bistro chair at Calypso Grill, a laid-back seafood restaurant with a resplendent patio overlooking Morgan’s Harbor. in Grand Cayman, I know what I have for dessert. I’ve heard the raves.
“Lots of people come back, from across the island, from America, from England, just to eat the sticky toffee pudding here,” my waitress enthuses, detailing a menu that has stayed pretty much the same since the place opened in 1999. .
A bijou British Overseas Territory, the Cayman Islands prides itself on being “the culinary capital of the Caribbean,” though not without some stiff competition: more than a few rivals in the region claim the same title.
So this fall, I took a four-hour flight from Toronto to embark on a fact-checking mission to see what makes the destination distinctive, beyond its snowy bird-baiting stretches of sand abutting turquoise waters. (the famous Seven Mile Beach), vibrant coral reefs, and appeal to the wealthy (this is not the place to go if you want all-inclusive resorts or budget travel).
Tradition calls for starting this waterfront institution with the dessert so popular, a small lane nearby was named after it: Sticky Toffee Lane. The finish arrives as two angular slabs of sponge cake, drenched in a puddle of luscious sauce. It’s over the top, too much and enough.
How did a classic British invention end up as the unofficial local dessert of the Cayman Islands? The answer is simple: via another import from England, longtime Calypso Grill chef George Fowler, who won the Cayman Culinary Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
As I soon realized, the cuisine of the Cayman Islands is too diverse to be reduced to clear generalizations. But one common ingredient is the wide range of outside influences that shape the culinary scene, from the flavors of Jamaica (the Cayman Islands’ southeastern neighbor) to the countless chefs who have come from far away.
The Cayman Islands are home to more than 70,000 people; the vast majority live on Grand Cayman, with about 2,000 on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman (the little sister islands popular for snorkeling and scuba diving). Despite such a small population, residents come from 135 different countries, giving the territory an international flavor.
Over breakfast at Ave, the signature Mediterranean-Caribbean restaurant at the Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, I met one of the many Caymanian expats, Massimo De Francesca, the hotel’s executive chef. “I was going to wear my Raptors cap,” he says, greeting me warmly and explaining his Toronto-born roots. De Francesca first moved to Cayman in 2004, when the island’s food scene was in its infancy. “It was really limited in terms of the quality of the restaurants and the quality of the ingredients,” he recalls.
The “tipping point for the island” came in 2005, De Francesca adds, with the debut of the island’s largest hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. More specifically, the property’s flagship restaurant, Blue by Eric Ripert, brought star power from its namesake chef.
“He helped start the evolution of the culinary scene,” De Francesca explains. “Just by having Eric Ripert here, he allowed other chefs to say, ‘Hey, what’s up with this island? Maybe I should go check it out.’”
Ripert also kicked off the prestigious annual Cayman Cookout, which will return to the newly renovated Ritz-Carlton from January 9-15 after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Attracting a who’s who of culinary talent, this year’s luminaries include Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn and José Andrés, to name a few, it’s the liveliest food festival on the island.
Of course, Cayman cuisine is more than fine dining, and my next stop brings me to Tomfoodery Kitchen & Bar, a fast-casual Caribbean-inspired spot in Camana Bay, where I order my first ever “beef of the Cayman Islands”: slow. -cooked until tender, seasoned with Scotch-bonnet and crumbled, served with coconut rice and peas, and fried plantain.
The classic dish is a favorite of Miami-born Tomfoodery chef Thomas Tennant, who moved to Cayman in 2010. “In my opinion, we make our food much more for ourselves and the residents than we do for the tourists,” he says. Tennant when asked how Cayman sets itself apart in the Caribbean. “You come here and you can have almost anything, almost any cuisine.”
You can have just about anything, even though farming in the Cayman Islands can be challenging. The soil tends to be low in nutrients, the ocean air is salty, and the tropical sun is scorching, creating inhospitable growing conditions. But the territory’s proximity to Miami means that what you can’t get locally can still be easily obtained.
Ask about the farm-to-table innovators, though, and the islanders will inevitably steer you toward the Brasserie. Opened in 1997, the pioneering restaurant strives to cultivate its own herb and vegetable garden, source organic eggs from its own chicken coop, and produce honey in its own apiary.
At dinner, my coconut water mojito is garnished with freshly plucked aromatic mint and a latticework of coconut meat fresh from the restaurant’s 205-palm plantation. My grilled grouper topped with microgreens, on top of garden sweet potatoes and roasted long beans, was reeled in one of the restaurant’s deep-sea fishing boats that day.
One of my last stops in Cayman brings me to the new spot opened in June by Barrie, Ontario-raised chef Dylan Benoit, host of Food Network Canada’s “Fire Masters,” and his brother, chef Lucas Benoit. On the second floor of a nondescript office plaza, I find San Si Wu Noodle Co.’s tiny alley kitchen, along with a handful of outdoor tables and wooden stools.
As I sample the cumin goat noodles (the meat, sourced from a local farm, braised until tender and served over freshly made noodles) and chili pork dumplings with soy sauce, Dylan tells me that Chinese cuisine in the Cayman Islands has historically relied on the level of authenticity of “sweet and sour chicken balls”.
“I’ve lived here for 13 years, and every time you wanted to go get a noodle dish, it just didn’t exist,” says Dylan, explaining his inspiration for starting this casual joint.
Still, he’s seen the island’s food scene diversify in his time here. “When I first got there, it was all traditional Caribbean grill,” says Dylan. “Every year it gets better and better.” Those who want an insider’s guide to the local flavors—Jamaican chicken, braised oxtail, and even turtle stew—can book a dinner experience in town with Dylan through his other company, Prime Food Tours.
Handmade noodles inspired by regional Chinese dishes, served in a restaurant by a pair of Canadian brothers, opened in a hidden location in the Cayman Islands, are not exactly what I was expecting on this trip.
But with the international flavor of the country, it seems appropriate. Come with an appetite and a taste for the unexpected.
Wing Sze Tang traveled as a guest of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourismwho did not review or approve this article.
If you go
How to get there: WestJet operates seasonal nonstop service between Toronto and Grand Cayman (about 4 hours and 10 minutes).
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, unveiled a major $50 million (US) renovation last year, giving its 369 rooms a new contemporary feel. In addition to Eric Ripert’s Blue, sip rare rums at the Silver Palm Lounge, eat sublime sushi (and fresh, grated wasabi tableside) at Taikun, or retire to the luxurious La Prairie Spa.
What else to do: Visit the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, a small museum showcasing everything from nostalgic realistic paintings to contemporary art. Stroll through Camana Bay, the trendy shopping and dining district, and grab a waterside table at charming Italian-Peruvian-inspired Agua for dinner.
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