Caribbean Cuisine Grows Up

The Caribbean heats up for incentive groups

Frozen drinks or Coronas might first come to mind when you think of the Caribbean, but the food portion of F&B has come into its own at the region’s resorts.
Sea to Table
For one group that stayed on property recently, Wolfgang von Wieser, director of food and beverage operations for the Grace Bay Club on Turks and Caicos, created a lollipop menu—smoked salmon lollipops, prosciutto and provolone lollipops, watermelon, goat cheese, and balsamic lollipops—and used unique serving components like a conch shell with holes in which to display the bite-sized morsels. 
Having spent time in the kitchens of the Dorchester Hotel in London, the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and the Kulm Hotel in St. Moritz and most recently helming culinary operations at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, von Wieser carries with him a flair for the unexpected and an appreciation for local ingredients.   

One touch that hits on both elements is von Wieser’s affinity for the salts of Turks and Caicos; he experiments with tomato salts, porcini salts, and even chocolate salts in desserts and salt tastings. “It’s something I’ve done before, but this destination is a great place to put the knowledge together,” with what the environment offers, he says. 

He notes that local fare has a lot of starch in it, so he has worked to create menus that reflect the area’s cuisine, only skewed lighter and healthier. “Considering the climate, you need to rethink [menus] a little bit,” von Wieser explains. “You want lighter fare with less cream and butter; you want a lot of grilled items, chutneys, fresh fruit, and seafood.”

“The dishes we do are crisp, clean, and light,” adds Thierry Grandshire, general manager of the Grace Bay Club. “They fit very well with the surroundings.” 

The updating of traditional dishes is the name of the game around the Caribbean. 

“My goal is to take indigenous products and enhance them with the flavors, techniques, and style that our customers can relate to,” says Executive Chef Devin Johnson of the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort in the Bahamas. “If, in the States, you would have a blackened fish, I would give you a blackened conch and add more flair with peppers and spices.”

He brings the same philosophy to the property’s “Island Style” cooking classes, in which he might teach a group to make conch salad and fritters or the tempting-sounding guava duff—a local favorite that is essentially guava dough that’s steamed and topped with a brandy butter sauce. 

Johnson oversees menu planning for the hotel’s six restaurants and lounges; the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort has 694 rooms and suites and 25,000 square feet of meeting space and sits of a 1,000-foot stretch of white-sand beach that it puts to good use with fish fry events in the sand for groups—complete with fire dancers and festive local Junkanoo bands, which will bring a lively Carnival element to your evening, if you so desire. 

Johnson notes that guests have become more open to trying dishes they might have passed on a few years ago. “Red snapper is a big mover,” he says; he prepares it with a saffron essence on wilted greens, garnished with mussels, and shoestring potatoes. 

Another surprise has been the broad appeal of suckling pig. “I thought it wouldn’t be a big seller, but a lot of people request it on buffets,” he says, adding that the team usually serves it with a “boil up” of sweet potatoes, okra, and other healthy fare. “We’re trying to get a feel for what the market wants.”

Garden to Table
What the market seems to want is the ability to play with menus. “What I love to do is to stay away from the packages and the booklets [of F&B programs],” says Chef Miguel Santiago, a native Puerto Rican and executive chef at the El Conquistador Resort and Las Casitas Village, both Waldorf Astoria Resorts. “We need to stop this. We bring the client here and I sit down with them; I need to get to know them in order to create the menu.”

During his career, Santiago has spent time at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, FL, the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach, and Rosewood’s Acqualina Resort in Sunny Isles. His favorite local ingredients include cilantro (“our cilantro is amazing”), mangos (“so sweet, so good”), and the guanabana fruit, but he is also inspired by the work of local farmers who have cultivated arugula, romaine, and other produce on the island that was previously difficult to grow. “I never saw that before,” he says, and it encouraged him to work on developing a farm on property. “I want to bring the clients in and show them what they can eat. I want them to see a plantain and what the tree looks like.”  

One resort that has taken farming to an entirely different level is the CuisinArt Resort & Spa in Anguilla, which is home to the first hydroponic farm at a resort. The half-acre farm produces 90 percent of the fresh herbs and vegetables used at the property and yields everything from tomatoes, cucumbers, and parsley to bok choy, broccoli rabe, and chervil. A hydroponic farm cultivates plants in water and fertilizer, but without soil. The farm is overseen by Dr. Howard Rush, whom Executive Chef Daniel Le Guenan calls the “godfather of hydroponics.” 

“The interest for me was to combine a hydroponic farm with my style of cooking, which is really Mediterranean,” explains Le Guenan. The result has been the introduction of ingredients like eggplant. 

“Eggplant is a really beautiful product, really healthy, and it’s a product you can do a lot with,” he says.

Le Guenan’s career has been largely based in the south of France, as well as Cyprus, Barbados, and Scotland, and he joined CuisinArt as executive chef in 2009. And he has been taken by the freshness of area ingredients. 

“I’ve been in different islands in the Caribbean, but in Anguilla, we have a beautiful product because all of our fish—grouper, snapper, mahi mahi, tuna—come from our waters,” he says. “It comes in during the night and we get it in the morning; you can’t get more fresh than that.”

Groups visiting the property can enjoy a variety of unique dining and reception options, including a chef’s table experience for groups of up to 16. One recent group on property developed an agenda for the evening in which the chef would present a course and then the president of the company would discuss something pertinent for a few moments to interject business into the meal while keeping it fun. Other activities include tastings of flavored rums (banana, ginger, and pineapple, among others), wine tastings in the 3,600-bottle wine cellar, and a five-course dinner on a catamaran for groups of up to 20 people. 

Because, in the end, nothing says “Caribbean” quite like a cocktail on the water.