A dinner conversation with Michael Ryan

In the first of a new series for The Journal, we sat down with The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and Dragon Bay developer Michael Ryan for dinner at Blue by Eric Ripert to enjoy fabulous food, wine and service while having a dinner conversation on a variety of topics. 

 

Michael Ryan slowly pulls the 35-foot Cuddy Cabin Intrepid away from his dock alongside his Patrick’s Island home, his dog doing its daily routine of racing up and down the canal edge as the boat heads for the North Sound. 

“This is the way we should all be getting around,” Ryan says. 

Indeed, this is the way he goes to and from work in his office at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman every day. 

Those who know Ryan know that he loves the ocean and that he’s particularly fond of Cayman’s North Sound. With Dragon Bay’s concept of little island neighbourhoods linked by a series of canals, Ryan hopes to “redefine life on the water” here in Cayman. 

But Ryan admits that unless he gets some cooperation from the government, the development might stop exactly where it is. 

 

Blue by Eric Ripert 

It is appropriate that we dine at Blue by Eric Ripert, probably Grand Cayman’s finest restaurant. Without Ryan’s efforts, The Ritz-Carlton doesn’t get built; Eric Ripert doesn’t bring his name and immense talents to the Cayman Islands; and the Cayman Cookout, the Caribbean’s premier food and wine festival, doesn’t happen – at least not in its current form. 

Blue Chef de Cuisine Luis Lujan has created a special five-course tasting menu for the dinner, with sommelier Kristian Netis choosing the wines. 

As usual, the greeting as we enter Blue is warm, friendly and genuine, with attention to details. 

“Hello Mr. Ryan, Mr. Markoff. Welcome to Blue.” 

We sit and moments later, Netis is there. 

“We’ll start with some bubbles,” he says, pouring Delamotte Brut Champagne. “It’s a belated birthday gift from us.” 

Ryan’s birthday, which he spent in Costa Rica with his wife Judy, was the previous Friday. He turned 48.  

An amuse-bouche of a poached shrimp with citrus sponge cake is served to invigorate our taste buds. 

“Mmmmmm,” Ryan says, tasting the unique citrus sponge cake. “That’s delicious; really interesting.” 

It’s a hint of things to come, both in the food, wine and conversation. 

 

Committees ignored 

Last year, Ryan sat with other key individuals from the private and public sector as a member of several committees, including the National Investment Council and Private Finance Initiative Oversight Committee/Big Four Committee. Ryan said he was surprised that there was some public resistance to the groups. 

“The classic negative response was ‘all these people are self-interested’. Of course we are; we all are,” he says. “If the economy is good it’s good for all of us. If that’s self-interest, then good on me. Good on everyone who is sitting on a board who says ‘I want the economy to grow so my kids can have a job in the future’.” 

It wasn’t public resistance, but government disinterest that thwarted the groups’ efforts. 

“The one that absolutely astounded me was we put together the PFI/Big Four Committee,” he says. “We had the chairmen of the Big Four accounting firms sitting around – never before – all sitting around one table, pro bono, offering all the support and work power of those firms to put together programmes to evaluate government, suggest to government, actually help to implement… and we have a civil servant who’s supposed to show up as a liaison and he doesn’t come – ever; just doesn’t bother to come. “It’s not like any of us had a lot of spare time, but everybody showed up, everybody put in the work in, and we go to a meeting and nobody comes. And this went on… for about 18 months.” 

Eventually, the group sent a letter to government saying it was happy to continue, but it wanted the government to show up to the meetings. There was response. 

“So a couple of months later, we… sent another letter saying on the basis that you never come and never responded to our last letter, we’re disbanded, unless you contact us.”  

That was eight or nine months ago, Ryan says, and there was no response. 

 

Wine 

Just before the first course is served, Netis approaches with a bottle. 

“I’m just so pathetically predictable,” Ryan says when he sees the back of the bottle. “Let’s see; a big, French Chardonnay to start?” 

Netis confirms the guess and admits he was taken somewhat by surprise himself by the chef’s creation of a special menu for us that evening. His wine-pairing choice for the first three seafood courses is 2008 Domaine Chavy-Chouet Puligny Montrachet ‘Enseignères’. 

“The best thing to go with surprises is Burgundy because of its complexity,” Netis says, knowing, however, that it suits Ryan’s tastes. 

“I’m very much a sort of classic guy,” admits Ryan, “in that I like big French Burgundy.” 

Ryan likes that French Chardonnay isn’t as oaky as New World Chardonnay. 

“I find drinking American whites is like getting hit on head with a two-by-four,” he says. 

Netis notes that the wine comes from a vineyard in the area of some of the top Chardonnay producers in Burgundy. 

“The DNA in this area is pretty expensive, but this is about a third of the price.” 

 

Good guy, bad guy 

Ryan accepts he has had an up-and-down reputation in Cayman over the years. 

“The part I find very strange is… [first] I was Dr. Evil – fine. Then post 9/11 when the economy sucked and I was building and we started hiring a bunch of local people, then maybe I wasn’t such a bad guy. Then the hurricane comes and I do all this stuff, and then I was a really good guy… for a year or two. And now I’m back being a really bad guy. For what reason?” he asks. 

Over the years, he’s been a tremendous supporter of the Women’s Resource Centre and has also supported the Humane Society and other local charities. 

“But I’m the perennial bad guy,” he says, noting that even those who pretended to like him aren’t willing to back him these days. 

“Somebody who was busy pumping my hand and hugging me after I had done something for them after the hurricane, and a couple of years later is joining the crowd to yell and scream and throw stones at me, and you’re thinking ‘what is this’?” he says. “You look at this current administration, and they’re like ‘we can’t do anything with you’, and you’re saying ‘what, you guys were all quite happy when I helped your constituents, you’re all quite happy when I helped you out, but somehow it’s wrong to support me 

’?” 

Ryan says he finds it hurtful when one of his daughters – he has three, aged 12, 14 and 16 – comes home from school and says the other kids were saying he’s a bad guy. 

“It’s a bit sad,” he says. “I’ve been here 14 years. My kids have grown up here. I’ve delivered on everything I said and more.” 

Ryan has been dogged by certain media outlets in the past – in particular Cayman Net News and Offshore Alert – and critics who question how he was able to pull off getting The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman built. 

He says he was just a young, 31-year-old guy “trying to make something happen”.  

It started when he lived in Costa Rica and he got a call from the regional head of development for the Ritz-Carlton. 

“He… said ‘we want to be in Cayman and we can’t make it work. Would you come and put a project together and we’ll give you the brand and we’ll invest money’. That’s how it started, in 1997,” he says. 

Ryan says others then lined up to get on board, including the Royal Bank of Scotland, golfer Greg Norman and then Chef Eric Ripert. 

“That’s part of the reason it galled me to be so harassed… the reason this happened is that people of true substance and, I believe, credibility, all picked me, when I was a young guy and said ‘I like you, you’re a good guy, an honest guy, a capable guy, and we want to be with you’.” 

 

Unrivalled seafood 

The first course, Peruvian-style black snapper ceviche with aji pepper, cilantro and key lime is served in a sectioned glass globe, with the bottom filled with crushed ice. It is a delicious spectacle for both the eyes and mouth. 

Next served is Alaskan king crab “brulee” with cantaloupe and spicy mayonnaise and that is followed by poached halibut with artichoke foam, pistachio pesto and lemon-artichoke risotto.  

The halibut is exquisite. 

“This is really delicious,” says Ryan. “This is as good as anything you’ll find in New York.” 

He should know, having been to many of the great restaurants in the Big Apple, including Le Bernardin, Chef Eric Ripert’s Manhattan restaurant known as the Temple of Seafood, 
Ryan says the food in Blue might even surpassthat of Le Bernardin. 

“You know why? Because our fish is fresher,” he says. “Eric has always said that. You know that snapper that was in the black snapper ceviche, that came out of the water this morning. You can’t beat it.” 

Getting Ripert to agree to establish Blue at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman wasn’t easy; and it wouldn’t have happened if not for Ryan’s efforts. 

“Two parts to the story,” he says. “Chapter one: the reason Eric is here: We looked around. Obviously seafood is what you want to do in the Caribbean for food. Who’s the best seafood chef in the world – Eric. Everybody wants him but he won’t go anywhere.” 

But Ryan gets him to come to Cayman for a visit. 

“We pick him up at the airport, put him in one of the Intrepids, go out to Stingray City, get in the water, have a glass of Champagne in the water and when we’re riding slowly back as the sun is setting and we’re talking about food and wine and life and our passion for excellence and what we’re trying to do,” Ryan recalls. “Then we take him over to Morgan’s Harbour and have dinner at Calypso Grill.” 

After a good meal and some wine, they made their way back across the North Sound. 

“[Ripert] looks over at me and says, ‘I like you. I like your passion. I get what you’re doing. I want to be part of this. I’m with you’.” 

Getting Ripert to agree turned out to be the easy part, though. 

“So we… go to open the restaurant, and Eric is going out to meet all the local fisherman and doing all this good stuff and the Ritz-Carlton says, well, we can only use Marriott-approved vendors.” 

Ryan says the Marriott International-owned Ritz-Carlton brand had a policy that required they buy from specific approved vendors and the local fisherman were not allowed to supply the restaurant. They were told they’d have to use the frozen seafood shipped from the approved vendors in the US. 

Ripert refused, saying he was backing out. 

“The way I solved it is I had to personally sign a piece of paper to absolve the Marriott of any liability,” he says, adding that he also had to indemnify the Marriott because they needed to pay the local fisherman cash, something else that wasn’t allowed by the corporate office. 

“[Former General Manager] Jean Cohen and I worked through that stuff with Eric and that’s why he’s here.” 

 

High end tourism 

From the beginning, his idea was to create the best Ritz-Carlton in the world, Ryan says. 

In addition to getting Ripert on board, getting Greg Norman to design the golf course and La Prairie to establish a spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman were other major coups for Ryan and his team. 

The efforts paid off; in October of last year, for the third year in a row, Condé Nast Traveler readers rated the resort the best resort in the Caribbean. This happened in spite of the financial crisis. 

“The reality is this… our deliberate strategy to be No. 1 enabled us to survive the recession better than anybody else,” Ryan says. 

It wasn’t easy, though, because Ritz-Carlton International wanted the resort here to reduce staff and cut rates in response to the financial crisis, Ryan says, adding, however, that he was adamant that the resort needed to maintain its high standards and prices during the financial crisis.  

“We fought with Ritz,” he said. “When the market crashed, they wanted to throw rate and quality out the window. Not because of us; they make brand-wide decisions. We said ‘we don’t [care] about the rest of the brand’. We said we are No. 1 in the Caribbean; we will hold our rate. I actually had to write a letter to the Ritz, saying as ownership we realise our strategy could result in a loss, but we’re willing to do it.” 

In the end, the strategy worked. 

“We’ve done quite well,” Ryan says. “We’ve held on.” 

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s success has also helped the Cayman Islands in general, something Ryan would like to see leveraged better. 

“We have something extraordinary, but it’s not exclusive; it can be a catalyst for everybody,” he says. “I’ll give you an example: The Hotel de Paris in Monaco – that’s why Monte Carlo is Monte Carlo. Somebody went and built the Hotel de Paris… and then Edward VII and his entourage showed up and it became ‘The Place’, and 100 years later, it’s the wealthiest jurisdiction in the world. And you know what?  

“We built this, the best in the Caribbean bar-n 

one – everything – and it can be a catalyst for change. Instead, we’re trying to bring more Carnival cruise line guys.”  

Ryan would rather see Cayman move in another direction. 

“If there is any modicum of courage, recognising both the danger and opportunity we’re all facing, Cayman could be absolutely magical.” 

He gave some examples of what he’d like to see. 

“You build a marina in the North Sound for mega yachts – me, Dart, it doesn’t matter [who builds it] – because the Americans are opening up Cuba. Suddenly, everybody wants to cruise the south coast of Cuba. You’re not going to want to leave your (yacht) in Havana… or Cayo Largo.” 

Ryan says Cayman could step up and fill the need and attract “big, big money”. 

He doesn’t think Cayman should stop there. 

“Why wouldn’t you have a little bit of creativity… and let’s float a giant wind turbine in the middle of the North Sound on a giant platform, and we don’t need CUC anymore,” he says. “Imagine if you ran your whole business with no electricity bill, and we were totally green. And we went for electric cars for the whole island. [Then] we’re the greenest island on the planet; what a marketing tool that could be.” 

Despite the importance of The Ritz-Carlton to Cayman’s tourism product, Ryan says he’s shocked that the government doesn’t try to tap into their tourism expertise. 

“We’re not on any committee, and we’re not ever consulted,” he said, “[Cayman has] endless tourism conversations and discussions… and the elephant’s not in the room. Come on… we represent 50 per cent of the hotel stock, and I think the last time Deloitte did a study, we represent 55 per cent of the hotel revenue for government – and they never talk to us. We’re dysfunctional. 

 

Service 

Getting Ripert to agree to start Blue helped attract other people in the fold. 

“Chef Eric… he’s a magnet,” Ryan says. “People who really want to be a high-end service professional, will gravitate for the chance to work in a restaurant that’s associated with him, so you’re able to attract them.” 

The high-end service professionals are everywhere in Blue. 

Netis unobtrusively stops over to pour the various wines during the evening, sensing whether we wanted to chat about the wines or just continue our conversation.  

During the course of the evening, Martin Hoetzl, the manager of Blue stops by to say hello. When Ryan excuses himself for a couple of minutes, Hoetzl, seeing I’m alone, comes over for a friendly chat to help fill the time. When Ryan returns, he quietly goes back to his station.  

It is the attention to such details that allows Blue to stand out when it comes to service in the Cayman Islands. 

Marc Langevin, who was part of the resort’s pre-opening management team and returned in June to take up the general manager post, also comes over to chat for a few minutes during the evening. Having been with the company for many years, Langevin says Cayman’s Ritz-Carlton created trends within the hotel chain and he credits Ryan for getting Ritz-corporate to “think out of the box”.  

Ryan rattled off some of the trends the hotel here started. 

“The Ritz used to do their own fine dining. The Ritz used to do their own spa. Ritz used to do their own kids’ stuff. Ritz used to do their own tennis. Ritz used to do their own golf,” he says. “We were first to partner and now they partner all over the place. We were the prototype.” 

Also during the evening, a young Caymanian intern named Sean Broderick comes to the table to help serve one of the courses. After being introduced by our main server, Ryan asks him if he’s enjoying his time at the hotel, and the young man says yes. He asks if he would 

like to continue on in the industry, and the young man says yes. He asks if his ultimate goal would be to become general manager of the hotel, and the young man says yes. 

“Good; you’ve got to shoot high,” Ryan tells him.  

 

Catering to the new guys 

Ryan’s plan was always to develop 

more than just the hotel and the beach front condominiums known as The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, although they are central components to the Dragon Bay development. 

Exclusive Island and The DeckHouses followed. Then in 2007, Ryan’s company bought 220 acres of adjoining land that was known as SafeHaven, giving Dragon Bay some 360 acres total.  

Future phases of the development would involve a number of waterfront features with names like Dragon Bay Estates, Dragon Keys, Harbour Village, Dragon Bay Beach Club, Dragon Bay Country Club and Dragon Bay Boutique Hotel & Spa. 

But unless Ryan gets some cooperation from government, it won’t happen. 

“We cannot go forward on the current paradigm,” he says. “We said to government, ‘look we’re sitting here, funding is in place; permits are in place; we’re ready tomorrow to go out and start doing some stuff that will put people to work… for months to come. But not under the current [situation]’.” 

Ryan says he really only  

needs two things: to be allowed to produce his own water and for the government to sell him the freehold rights to the property, which is currently held leasehold. 

With regard to the latter, he’s said he’s had a $10 million cheque ready to give the government for the freehold rights – the sale of which was recommended by the independent Shaw-Miller report commissioned by the government – but that the government has said they’re worried about the sale to freehold being politically sensitive.  

“Creating an oil refinery is politically sensitive,” Ryan says. “Selling freehold; monetising a lease that you’ll never get the land back…[isn’t] and you’ve got this resort that is pumping money into the economy.”  

Ryan says The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman generates about 10 per cent of Cayman’s GDP, but instead of the government helping him go forward, it is resisting him. 

“There’s a ton of opportunity for us to do stuff, but the reality is we just need some basic support from government,” he says. 

The fact that the government is catering to new investors instead of the already-established developers here irks Ryan. 

“I get calls on a monthly basis, if not more often, from other jurisdictions… saying would you come do a project. People look at what we’ve done here and they say, wow, that guy can do stuff. And they’re throwing [offers] at me,” he says. “Our [government] is throwing stuff at guys who are getting off of airplanes, who they’ve never met, and have no clue whether they’re real or not. And yet when we go in as a proven guy, the same way Dart goes in as proven guy – both of us have been here 14+ years, delivered on what we said, put hundreds and hundreds of millions into the local economy, created thousands of jobs – and you’re treated like a pariah. But if I were Bob Smith who got off an airplane last afternoon with a shiny suit and a good patter, I should get the whole immigration policy rewritten for my benefit.” 

 

Finale 

Blue is a seafood restaurant, but it does serve meat.  

With an award-winning wine list, it’s important for Blue to have some meat on its menu to allow for red-wine lovers to pair their dishes well. 

But Blue has also embraced the relatively new trend of serving bigger red wines with fish, pairings made possible by the sauces used on fish and other seafood. 

For the final savoury course this evening, two medallions of grilled Wagyu hanger steak with red wine jus are served with butter-poached lobster. What the steak and lobster lack in size, they make up for in taste. The dish is delicious with 2004 Chateau de la Font du Loup Chateauneuf-du-Pape. 

After dinner, there’s a pre-dessert, dessert and petits fours. The dark chocolate ganache with lime sorbet and chili salt is divine. But the Cascina La Ghersa Monferrato comes up a little short and Netis, sensing the we have switched into big red mode, comes over and pours us something big, red and Spanish. Life is good. 

Before we leave, we pop into the kitchen to thank Chef Lujan. 

“You really outdid yourself tonight,” the ever-gracious Ryan tells him. 

 

Future 

Ryan still believes Cayman can flourish, but he thinks the government and people have to accept a new paradigm. 

“What has changed is that the world is  

a different place now, and… it’s either time for everyone to get on board or it isn’t,” he says. 

He says he’s prepared to walk away if he doesn’t get some support from government and he can’t make the Ritz sustainable. 

“If no one wants to go down the road with me, I’ve done a great accomplishment… and I will leave it and it will be what it will be. 

“I’d be proud of what I’ve done; I think it’s been a great success. I think it’s been a good thing for Cayman. But you know what? My kids are getting older in a real hurry and I have basically been in cash debt for a decade.” 

He says the government is happy to bask in the glow of successes of The Ritz-Carlton, but doesn’t want to help make it sustainable. He thinks the government needs to embrace investors, old ones and new ones, for Cayman to flourish. 

“If you’re looking for me and/or Dart and other people keep pumping money into the economy, get on board. If you don’t… it’s OK. If… the only way I’m going to be here is you’re going to continue to poke me in the eye… 14 years is enough.”  

Ryan notes that he is currently paying about $100,000 per month to keep North Sound Club Golf Course open. He says he’s paying $150 per night per room for electricity. He says the current business model is simply unsustainable and that he has no obligation to continue. 

“If I decide to go home to Patrick’s Island and sit and drink beer on the porch, it’s not going to hurt me, but it’s certainly going to hurt the Island and its reputation,” he says. “Everyone is talking about these… new hotels. If I walked away from this, there are no new hotels. It will never happen. They’ll say, well, the No. 1 rated hotel in the region couldn’t cut it in Cayman; why would I put money there?” 

He admits he’s been “uncharacteristically pessimistic” this evening. 

“I don’t need much,” he says. “I need minor changes. It affects nobody in the pocket. No voting guy is affected negatively by what I’m asking for. And you’re fighting me? Yet you’re willing to line up behind an oil refinery… come on; give me a break.” 

Back in his boat for the trip home, Ryan is comfortable again, behind the wheel, moon shining on the water, wind on his face. He’s enjoying the ride and is in no hurry; what should be a 20-minute trip takes about 45 minutes. Whether or not Dragon Bay will grow to redefine life on the water is still in question. Regardless, how Mike Ryan defines his life is quite apparent.  

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