A dinner conversation with Sherri Bodden-Cowan

In the next segment of the Journal’s series of interviews with Cayman’s movers and shakers, we sat down over dinner at Camana Bay’s Ortanique Restaurant with Caymanian attorney Sherri Bodden-Cowan, who has been an integral contributor to the country’s immigration policy for more than a decade. 

For many people in the Cayman Islands, immigration is a word that evokes strong emotions, whether it be hope, fear, anger or dread. In the end, however, immigration in Cayman is just a creature of law and for attorney Sherri Bodden-Cowan, it is one of the most fascinating aspects of law. 

“Immigration is my passion,” she said as we talked over dinner. 

Just hours before, Bodden-Cowan chaired the first meeting of the committee tasked by government to conduct a comprehensive review the controversial provisions of the Immigration Law that call for term limits for expatriate workers, better known as Cayman’s rollover policy.  

The recommendations of the review committee will likely have a significant impact on the Cayman Islands’ future. Bodden-Cowan’s passion for immigration will undoubtedly play an important role during the review. 

Cuisine of the Sun  

From early childhood, Chef Cindy Hutson had a passion of her own: Cooking.  

Originally from New Jersey where she was exposed to Italian and Portuguese cuisine, Hutson moved to Miami after high school. It was there that the self-taught chef embraced the flavours of the tropics and began creating her own style of cooking that was branded as ‘Cuisine of the Sun’, the tag line of her Miami-based restaurant Ortanique.  

In November 2010, Ortanique opened up a second location in Cayman’s Camana Bay.  

Although Hutson is still based in Miami while her partner Delius Shirley runs things at the Camana Bay restaurant, she comes to Cayman regularly. The night we dined, Hutson was there, preparing for a big event two days later: The Camana Bay restaurant’s first anniversary celebration. 

In the kitchen, Executive Chef Sara Mair along with Sous Chef Mike Fischetti are the ones leading the food preparation this evening, but Hutson took some time to welcome us and explain a little about the menu for the night, which highlighted a number of tropical ingredients. 

“We wanted to show a spectrum of things,” she says. “So you’ll see the different ways in which we utiliseour products.” 

After a word of welcome by Ortanique’s General Manager Mike Finnerty, we were ready for our six-course meal. 

Need for suspension  

On 14 September, Premier McKeeva Bush made a surprise announcement in the Legislative Assembly that the rollover policy for expatriates would be temporarily suspended while the provisions of the Immigration Law pertaining to term limits were reviewed. The suspension gives those facing rollover right now the right to obtain a special work permit that would allow themto remain in the Cayman Islands during the review of the law. 

The decision to suspend and review the rollover policy caused controversy and objection from the Opposition People’s Progressive Party and independent legislator Ezzard Miller.  

Bodden-Cowan said up to 6,000 expatriate workers could face rollover in the next two years, which, if it happened, would cause a major blow to Cayman’s already weak economy. 

The expatriates now facing rollover came in the two years following Hurricane Ivan. Initially after the hurricane, a large number of people left the Island, but then an even larger number of new expatriate workers subsequently came to Cayman during the rebuilding process.  

Although some businesses never came back after Ivan, many others were created during the rebuilding stage, and a large portion of the staffs of those companies are now facing rollover, which is one of the reasons Bodden-Cowan supports the temporary suspension of term limits. 

“One of the things Ezzard [Miller] has said is never has he ever seen a law suspended before; it was reviewed,” she said. “But never have we seen… the Cayman Islands population grow by 10,000 within 12 months. So Ivan was a unique situation. It caused a mass exodus followed by a massive hiring in the 12 months after Ivan.” 

Bodden-Cowan said she is aware of the arguments that contend that employers should have prepared for the realities of losing their staff to rollover, but she said the answer can’t be to effectively tell employers now that they have to shut down their businesses. 

“Is that responsible?” she asked, adding that she knows of a large farming operation that is now facing losing half of its farmhands because they were all hired just after Hurricane Ivan. 

“With the economy the way it is, are you really going to hire two people and have an understudy for every job you have on a farm?” Bodden-Cowan asked. “It’s not possible; economically it’s not possible.” 

Local ingredients  

Ortanique’s menu demonstrates a fusion of sorts of Western Continental cuisine and tropical ingredients. 

“The flavours come together and Sara and I have cooked together for many years in the Miami restaurant. She and I really have a great connection. We have a connection to thinking out of the box, a little different, like the breadfruit tacos… and the breadfruit hash.”  

The crispy breadfruit tacos, which served as the first course for our meal, were definitely an example of thinking out of the box. Local breadfruit was sliced thin and then laid over a taco shell form and baked until crisp.  

The tacos were filled with yellow-eye snapper and what Hutson calls – for lack of a better word – black bean compote, cilantro crema and Pico de Gallo with fresh seasoning peppers, which all come together to create a dish that looks and tastes delicious. 

The out-of-the-box thinking extends to the beverage pairing as well. 

“We kind of thought with tacos, we’d pair that up with a little bit of Red Stripe beer,” said Hutson.  

Bodden-Cowan was amazed at the creativeness of the breadfruit taco shells.  

Many of Ortanique’s dishes draw on local ingredients used in unique ways. Mair is from Jamaica, so Caribbean ingredients are something she’s very familiar with. But Fischetti is from New York and although he worked in Ortanique in Miami, Hutson said he’s coming into his own here in Cayman. 

“Never… has he embraced the Caribbean as he has now,” she said. “So when I’m not here, he and Sara are definitely the pair that pull this together.” 

One example of Mair and Fischetti working together creatively with local ingredients is the beer-battered slices of sweet plantain that are deep friend and topped with a cumin aioli, a recipe they invented to be served as an hors d’oeuvreduring their monthly pig roasts.

This twist on Cayman’s traditional fried plantain shows how local ingredients can be reinvented into a modern dish, something Ortanique does extremely well. 

Rollover or not  

Even though Bodden-Cowan agrees that a review of the rollover policy is now needed, she still believes there needs to be some sort of method of keeping anyone who wishes from staying in the Cayman Islands long enough to gain security of tenure. 

As the principal architect of the rollover policy in the first place, she freely admits she was the driving force behind it becoming part of the Immigration Law in January 2004.  

“They talked about it for 20 years, but I’m the only person who was actually able to achieve it, and not only achieve it, but get unanimous support in Legislative Assembly, as well as support from the private sector,” she said. “So obviously, I’m not opposed to it.” 

However, Bodden-Cowan said things happened subsequent to term limits for expatriates coming into effect that could not have been foreseen when the original Immigration Review Team met from 2001 to 2003 to develop the rollover policy. 

“You have to understand; this law came into effect the first of January 2004,” she said. “We had [Hurricane] Ivan in September 2004 and then in May 2005 the [People’s Progressive Party government] were in. We had no chance to implement the rollover policy the way we saw it being implemented.” 

In addition, Bodden-Cowan said Cayman never experienced an economic crisis like it has since 2008. 

“Could we could have foreseen in 2001 to 2003 that our Island would be destroyed nine months after the rollover was put in place by a Cat 5 hurricane?” she asked. “Could we have foreseen that by 2008 we were going to be in a global crisis? Of course not.” Now, with five years of history in living the effects of the rollover policy, Bodden-Cowan agrees changes are needed. 

“We could say we put a rollover in place to project the future for our children so that they’re able to compete and have their own businesses,” she said. “But if we find that the effects of the rollover… have actually affected the economy to the stage that businesses are leaving and people are leaving, then we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face. If in trying to protect Cayman for our children, we’re actually destroying the incentive to have new business, then we are achieving the opposite of what we want.”  

While Bodden-Cowan still believes all expatriates cannot be allowed to stay in Cayman indefinitely, she said the solution must look forward, not back.  

“People want to go back to that old system,” she said.

“If they’re honest, that’s what they want.” Under that old system, expatriates remained in Cayman indefinitely, without the ability to ever freely change employers and without, in most cases, a real opportunity to acquire the rights of citizenship. Bodden-Cowan said that some employers just wanted to keep their expatriates until they were “too old and too tired” and then send them back home. 

“All the employers would love that,” she said. “The problem is, no civilised country does that.” 

She said there was both a legal and moral obligation not to go back to the old system, with the legal obligation stemming from the European Convention of Nationalities, an international treaty that states that countries that allow foreigners to stay for 10 years must give those people security of tenure.“ 

Even if we were a standalone independent country, do we want to have an immigration policy that wouldn’t want to be respected by the first world? You can’t go back,” she said. 

A good egg  

With outdoor seating on the Camana Bay Crescent next to the harbour, Ortanique has become a popular spot for its ala carte Sunday brunch. Although it was a little unusual for dinner, Hutson was keen for us to try Ortanique’s Eggs Benedict, a Sunday brunch favourite. 

“It’s awesome,” she said without a sense of bragging, but merely a person who really loves the taste of the dish. “The sauce is wonderful.”  

The dish, which Fischetti served, truly had a Cayman flair with local callaloo, lump crab meat and East End eggs. 

The sauce that Hutson likes so much was called ‘Mike’s Really Good Hollandaise’. “It’s not a traditional Hollandaise,” said Fischetti. “A lot of Hollandaise is made with lemon. I make this one with vinegar because it’s a little more sharp, which you need because the callaloo is a little bit bitter.” Hutson pointed out one other distinguishing feature of Ortanique’s Eggs Benedict:  

“We don’t use an English muffin, we use hardough bread,” she said. The dish was paired with Taittinger Brut Champagne.  

“We were going to put orange juice in for mimosas,” said Hutson, adding that since it was dinner time, they decided to keep the orange juice out.  

For Bodden-Cowan, it’s the lump crab meat under the egg that really makes the dish. It’s hard to argue with that. 

The review  

The first meeting of the rollover review committee went well, Bodden-Cowan said, with the committee being made up of a group of people who represented a wide cross section of viewpoints in Cayman. One challenge with the committee  

is keeping it focused on the rollover policy review specifically, as opposed to immigration policies generally.  

She said it would be divided up into three groups that would have specific tasks, with one group asked to look at the legal aspects of the law; another to meet with stakeholder groups; and one other gathering statistical data from various sources. 

Bodden-Cowan knows the latter is important. “(Objectors) will challenge us because they’ll say, ‘where is the empirical evidence that the rollover was causing the problem?; Where’s the justification for suspending it’?” she said. “And I totally agree that we need to get that evidence. We need to be able to show people.” 

The review will have to deal with several misconceptions about the rollover policy, particularly one that suggested that its goal was to make sure Caymanians got the jobs vacated by those rolled over.

“The idea was never that the rollover was supposed to be a succession plan for Caymanians,” she said. “The rollover was only effected to give [expatriates] a break in stay.” Bodden-Cowan pointed out that expatriates who were rolled over were always supposed to be able to come back if their employers needed them.  

She believes the data, once gathered, will show that the rollover policy might have had some unintended effects. 

“What I think you’re going to find is that when professionals left and when managers left, they didn’t come back,” she said. “Domestics will go back to Jamaica, take a year’s break, make what they call rollover babies – that’s what the helper tells me – and then come back.”  

Bodden-Cowan thinks stats will show that the higher the expat person was in terms of professional and managerial level, the fewer of them returned after a year away. She also thinks the committee will find a number of other negative statistics during its review.

“I think you’re going to find that unemployment has actually gone up during rollover, not down,” she said. 

There are a number of other economic changes that have occurred during the rollover policy, including decreases in government revenue from work permit fees and import duties, she said, in addition to less trickle down economic effects for Caymanian landlords and businesses that cater to the local population. 

Bodden-Cowan also believes that when some people have left Cayman for other jurisdictions, they took the job with them, meaning no one, Caymanian or expatriate, was hired to take their place. In addition, she said jobs are being out-sourced to other countries and that she knows of a local architect who has been out-sourcing his drafting working for some time. “ 

If you can have plans drafted in India and e-mailed back to you the next day, why would you bring a draftsman down on a work permit?” she asked.

“What people don’t understand is people don’t have to be in Cayman. They seem to think that everyone is beating down the bush to get here. What gives them that fallacy?” 

Main courses  

Ortanique served three small main courses all focused around fish or meat. The local pan-roasted snapper was served over an ackee and salt fish brandade, the latter a reflection of Mair’s Jamaican roots. Topped with vine ripe tomato thyme nage and served with Louis Jadot Pouilly Fuisse, the dish was a good example Ortanique’s Caribbean/Continental fusion, one which you could imagine being served in a posh French West Indies restaurant.  

The Black Truffled Short Rib Crepe seemed less Caribbean than the other dishes at first glance, but the addition of butter beans with the braised meat made it a bit reminiscent of local oxtail stew and the escallion that topped the goat cheese whip certainly gave the course a Jamaican slant. Rich and delicious, the dish was paired well with a hearty Enamore Malbec/Cabernet Franc blend from Argentina. 

For the final savoury course, roasted Australian lamb chop was served with a delicious breadfruit and white yam hash. An Amarena cherry demi glace helped make the dish’s pairing with Chateau Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Papeeven better. 

The future  

Premier Bush has said he would like the review committee to finish its work within six months if possible, so the soonest any recommendations will be made with regard to the rollover policy is next May or June. 

One possible recommendation could be something that Bodden-Cowan suggested in 2009 in the first meeting Bush had with the private sector after the general elections in May of that year. 

“He called [the private sector] to the Westin to tell them we were in a financial state and he was going to have to raise fees and they said, what about immigration?” said Bodden-Cowan.

“He didn’t know what I was going to say, but I got up and said I would suggest two five-year work permits. If you don’t get permanent residency after the last one, you leave. Wayne [Cowan, Bodden-Cowan’s husband] has always said it’s too simple to work. But why do we have to make it so complicated?” 

With a system of just two five-year work permits, the work permit board would no longer have to deal with yearly renewals or key employee applications. For the one renewal after five years, Bodden-Cowan said. 

The permanent residency board, however, could face a daunting task if a lot of people choose to stay for at least eight years and apply for permanent residence.

However, Bodden-Cowan believes that Cayman would have the right to pre-qualify permanent residence applicants either electronically or administratively to sift out those who don’t have a realistic chance of qualifying and reduce the number of applications.  

Eliminating the key employee designation would be a benefit of the two five-year permit system. She said Caymanians don’t like the key employee system because once someone is designated as key, there’s no hope of ever getting that job. 

“So Caymanians don’t like it,” she said. “The expats don’t like it. Employers don’t like it. Nobody likes it. The boards don’t like dealing with them. It is the single most unpopular part of the whole policy.”  

Bodden-Cowan thinks there’s a lot of fear of change, but she say change is inevitably coming. 

“This country isn’t going to stand still; it’s going to evolve,” she said. “I would like to hope I see my grandkids eating fish and eating rundown, because that’s traditional, but I wouldn’t want them to have to go out and catch the fish because that’s how they make their living,” she said. “I want them to come back from college and eat rundown.” 

Some people want the old traditional Caymanian ways, but they also want the benefits of the Islands’ success over the past 50 years. “ 

You can’t have it both ways,” Bodden-Cowan said, noting that no one really wants to go back to the hardship of earlier days in Cayman. “The problem is we want to have our cake and eat it, too.” 

Clouds and stars  

After five courses, there was very little room for dessert, but Ortanique’s pastry chef Nicole Martienez came through with sweets that couldn’t be resisted. 

“This is my signature coconut dish that I make here in-house,” she said of the Coconut Cloud and Chocolate Star dessert. 

Although the chocolate mousse-filled almond tuile was divine, it was the coconut cream cake with fresh grated coconut that really impressed. Simply put, the cloud was heavenly.  

“It’s really light, isn’t it,” commented Bodden-Cowan. 

It was served with 100 per cent Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee made in a French press. 

Isolation and segregation 

There was a time when most Caymanian men became very well acquainted with the rest of the world because they went to sea. These days, mostly only young men and women who can afford to go off to college abroad get the experience of living elsewhere. 

Bodden-Cowan lived abroad from the time she entered high school until she was 23, spending only summers back in Cayman during that time. She says the experience of living abroad was important to her development, as well as to the way her clients – many of whom are from overseas – relate to her. 

“I was sent away when I was 13,” she said.

“I wasn’t hardly a teenager yet. And I went to stay with a family that cooked boiled kidneys for dinner. I was like, ‘what is this – there are veins sticking out of it?’ I lost like, two stone in the first year. They checked my hair for nits and I didn’t even know what nits were because we didn’t have nits in Cayman when I was growing up. It was completely foreign.  

It was a very, very eye-opening experience.” 

In addition to broadening experience, Bodden-Cowan said studying abroad helps young people in another way, too. 

“One thing that I find is that the kids that go abroad do tend to see what it’s like on the other side and realise that we have to compete,” she said.

Caymanians who don’t go abroad to college tend to have narrower viewpoints. Compounding a sense insularity is the fact that Caymanians are now often segregated from expatriates here on Grand Cayman because of an immigration policy that requires expatriate children to go to private schools. 

“What it’s actually done is segregate a large section of the Caymanian population,” said Bodden-Cowan, noting that the segregation creates some animosities.  

“My son, when he was in sixth form at Catholic school, saw it. He said they were fine while he was in [high] school. But they had four students from John Gray come across to the sixth form and they started this thing about expats taking their jobs. And this is at 16. I really think we have to take another look at that policy… and see if there is a way we could integrate them, with the new schools that we have once their opened.” 

Having school children, who don’t see difference the way adults do, exposed to other nationalities while in school would help alleviate some of the fear of expatriates. “ 

My Caymanian kids happened to have the opportunity to being exposed to kids of all nationalities because I can afford to send them to private school,” she said. “If I couldn’t afford to send them to private school, they wouldn’t know any expats.” 

Diversity  

Bodden-Cowan clarified her previous statement about her kids not knowing any expats if she couldn’t have afforded to send them to private school.  

“Except their dad,” she said with her signature hearty laugh, speaking of her English husband. She noted that most of her friends are married to people of different nationalities. 

“When you look at our kids, they look like the United Colours of Benetton,” she said. 

Bodden-Cowan thinks Cayman will continue to look more and more diverse as time goes by. 

“You’ll have everything from black, to brown, to Chinese, to redheads – such an amazing mixture,” she said. “But they’re the new Cayman.” 

She thinks the younger generation can deal with the change better because they don’t see difference the way older generations do. 

“Their whole horizon is so different because their perspective of the world is so different,” she said.  

There’s still fear that expatriates are trying to take something away from Caymanians, but the solution to that problem won’t be found in immigration policies. 

“I think for too long immigration has been asked to do too many things,” she said. “Back in the old days, immigration was asked to solve matrimonial problems; we got over that. We still get letters though. Almost every week I sit on the board, we get letter saying don’t let so-and-so stay because she’s having an affair with my husband. Or we get letters from the men saying this girl is texting me and pestering me because I had an affair with her, but I don’t want my wife to find out so can you throw her off the Island? We still get all of that.” 

Bodden-Cowan said immigration can still serve important functions, including helping make employers accountable so that Caymanians get fair opportunities for employment.  

“But it can’t solve all the social problems that we have,” she said. “Education is a large part of the solution, more than immigration.” 

She looked at the food that was prepared for our dinner that night. “Look at this restaurant and all the cultural connections they had in the meal,” she said. “This is an expat restaurant, but they’re not looking to destroy the culture.” 

Although she believes there needs to be a rollover policy of some sort, Bodden-Cowan realises that if Cayman is to be successful economically, there needs to be change and that the change will lead – over time – to an evolution of the make-up of the people who live here. 

“The trouble is if there’s more of them and too few of us, they will win, because this is a democracy,” she said. “You just hope that the silent majority will understand. There’s no point saying ‘I told you so’ when your country’s destroyed.” 

Sherri Bodden-Cowan, second from right, along with, from left, Ortanique’s Sous Chef Mike Fischetti; Executive Chef Sara Mair; and owner/chef Cindy Hutson.

Sherri Bodden-Cowan, second from right, along with, from left, Ortanique’s Sous Chef Mike Fischetti; Executive Chef Sara Mair; and owner/chef Cindy Hutson.

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