Simple is the New Sophisticated

Simple is the New Sopisticated

Cayman Chefs are bringing innovation back to the basics in a most palate-pleasing way. get a taste of the latest culinary trend of simple, honest, delicious food. Read on for insights into how the Islands’ Chefs are working to ensure you know what’s in your food, where it comes from and how it's produced.

Article by: Mahreen Nabi

Over the past 15 years, dining in Cayman has taken immense strides. Both triumph and frustration have marked the rapidly evolving food culture of the Islands with a number of restaurants closing, fashionable new venues opening, and other island staples taking a slow but steady approach to moving away from elaborate menus and hard-to-find ingredients, in favour of a more local, artisanal offering.

Setting the Stage: The early 2000s were marked by culinary fads: cryogenic cooking (the use of liquid nitrogen to transform food), molecular gastronomy (transformation of basic foods technically or artistically – i.e. avocado, salmon, and egg foams), and deconstruction (breaking down the elements of a traditional dish and serving the items separately in a unique way).

The popularity of these theatrical displays of culinary fancy was short lived, soon to be replaced by a starkly different approach. Many customers started to prefer a simpler dining experience, where upscale comfort food was served in unfussy restaurants. “You were finding that some Michelin Star dining establishments were letting go of the starched linens and stuffy dining rooms,” Chef Dylan, executive chef at YARA Global Steakhouse, observes. “Instead, restaurants with honest, unpretentious food focused on the quality of the product rather than being worried about what people thought if they didn't have valet parking."

Culinary capitals around the world began seeing a large group of diners who were searching for upscale comfort food – thus the work began for chefs to find a middle ground between traditional cuisines (classic French, English, American and Caribbean) and the trending expectation for refinement to go no further than the plate’s edge.

This global shift was also evidenced by the Michelin Red Guide. Europe’s oldest and most elite restaurant guide began awarding stars of excellence to establishments that trended towards the casualisation of good food – places that offered quicker, cheaper dining options without sacrificing quality. Two notable examples are the noodle cart located in Singapore’s Chinatown Complex that was awarded one Michelin Star for its $1.50 plate of noodles, and a sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station, owned and operated but Chef Jiro Ono, which was awarded three Michelin Stars in 2008.

Here & Now: This shift continues today, as talented local and expatriate chefs continue to focus on Cayman’s fresh seafood, simple unique flavours and the importance of, and respect for, food in Caymanian culture. 
An increased awareness of healthy eating, coupled with a preference for home-grown, sustainable food continues to gain traction. The Brasserie’s Chef Dean, a culinary pioneer in Cayman, was one of the earliest adopters of a philosophy he describes as “better local produce, for a better product on the plate, at a better price."

The era of importing exotic delicacies to show chefs' innovation shifted to using fresh and delicious local produce to let the food shine in a simple and refreshing way.  In essence, they were taking things back to the basics.

Back to Basics with Food Philosophy: Every chef knows that great food begins with quality ingredients. But great ingredients need not be incredibly expensive, imported or rare. The use of locally grown, raised or caught ingredients are supported by the presence of robust offerings at two weekly farmer’s markets: The Market at the Cricket Grounds and Camana Bay’s Farmers and Artisans Market.

It’s a win-win all round: the ingredients are fresher and therefore taste better; it’s a more environmentally responsible choice; farmers and fisherman are valued and respected; consumers have healthy and affordable options; and chefs gain the creative freedom to experiment with ingredients at various stages in their life cycle (from seed to full bloom). As Chef Dylan notes, it allows one to create something unique that is true to the season and culture in which it is served.

Back to Basics with Relationships: For chefs and foodies alike, knowing who their food comes from is now often considered just as important as knowing where it comes from. Chef Dean says “Getting to know the farmers and fishermen, their histories and personal beliefs, helps us understand how they reel in their catch or grow their food. And yes, it’s a little more work, but it’s worth the investment in time and resources because what you end up with is mutual encouragement to push the envelope."

The menu planning process in Cayman is moving away from the classic vision of executive chefs huddled around fluorescent kitchen lights scratching ideas down on a pad of paper. Rather, it now often begins before the seeds are even planted. For chefs and farmers, the relationship has evolved from buyer and supplier, to a more collaborative effort. “I listen to the farmer. I ask them what is in season and what is coming soon. Sometimes farmers need to know if there is going to be a market for their product before they invest in the infrastructure like raising goats or breeding ducks and harvesting their eggs. They need to know someone is going to be ready to purchase before they go through all the trouble to produce the product. This dialogue is paramount to the success and sustainability of both the farm and the restaurant,” says Chef Dylan.

Back to Basics with Production: Inspired by Chefs Cindy and Delius, of the former Ortanique Restaurant (famed for their use of the greenhouse in Camana Bay) many of Cayman’s restaurants have started to produce as well as provide. One such example is YARA, whose charcuterie plate includes sausage that has been ground, spiced, cased and dried in-house. In addition, Chef Dylan is experimenting with in-house cheese production, working with local farmers to get fresh goat’s and cow’s milk.

The Brasserie has managed an organic garden since 2010 where the kitchen’s staple vegetables are grown. As well as supplying the kitchen, the garden is used as an experimental breeding ground for ingredients not traditionally grown in Cayman, thus saving local farmers the risks involved in trying new crops. This year, Chef Dean has had success with turmeric, ginger, civil war peas, dragon fruit, broccoli and bok-choy. The vegetable garden, however, is only one part of their commitment to using locally produced ingredients.

“We’ve grown our brood of chickens from 15 to over 200, have 24 of our own beehives, and own two boats with local fishermen who go out daily at 5am for fresh tuna, wahoo and snapper,” Chef Dean points out.

In becoming producers as well as providers, restaurants can not only serve fresh, local, seasonal food, but they can also keep ethical diners fully informed about exactly where their food has come from.  

As the culinary metamorphosis in Cayman continues, food-lovers have moved past the idea of innovation for the sake of innovation, and instead have found themselves gravitating towards un-staged, simple, honest food. Fortunately for islanders and visitors, Cayman chefs are equally passionate about bri
nging culinary innovation back to the basics in the most palate-pleasing way. The culinary capital of the Caribbean will not disappoint!

"Getting to know the farmers and the fishermen, their histories and personal beliefs, helps us understand how they reel in their catch or grow their food, And yes, it’s a little more work, but it’s worth the investment in time and resources because what you end up with is mutual encouragement to push the envelope" - Chef Dean Max