A dinner conversation with… Joey Hew

After the government’s surprise announcement that it intended to implement a payroll tax on work permit holders, Joey Hew was one of the Caymanians who openly spoke out about the plan on the Facebook page that was launched in protest. The government abandoned the ‘expat tax’, but Hew has decided to become more involved in national matters as a result. He discussed some of Cayman’s pressing issues during a conversation over dinner at the Blue Cilantro restaurant on West Bay Road.  

As a former Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce president, the former president of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman and the former deputy chairman of the Trade and Business Licensing Board, Joey Hew has been in the spotlight before. 

But he had been fairly quiet in recent years, concentrating instead on matters pertaining to his family’s businesses. That changed in late July when Premier McKeeva Bush suddenly announced the government planned to impose a payroll tax on work permit holders to help balance the budget. Hew was one of the outspoken voices to appear on the ‘Caymanians and expats united against taxation’ Facebook group. Not only has he started speaking out, he doesn’t intend to stop. 

“Everyone of us in business has always, in the end, found the excuse that we’re concerned about our government contracts, we’re concerned about our business,” he said. “What I have seen recently, and particularly with this attempted introduction of tax, made me realise that I can no longer use that excuse because I honestly felt that had [the expat tax] gone through, I wouldn’t have a business to worry about. I can no longer use that excuse and I can say from here on, I personally will be involved and will be very active this political season in one way, shape or form – but I have no idea what that will be at this moment.” 

 

Blue Cilantro  

There is significance in the choice of Blue Cilantro as the restaurant venue for our conversation. The business in his family’s group of companies that he runs – Hew’s Hotel and Restaurant Supplies – provided the equipment in the restaurant, as well as other service.  

“After doing Michael’s Genuine [Food & Drink in Camana Bay], I started to market myself as a consultant and offering full-service consultant design services, sales, and installation,” he said. “This was the first restaurant we did from the ground up, including everything. I’d done a bit of design before, using a designer; we’d done a lot of supply and installation before; but on this one we were involved before the floor plan was ever done.” 

With a modern, chic décor and an award-winning executive chef/owner in Vidyadhara Shetty, Blue Cilantro opened its doors late last year, becoming Grand Cayman’s latest fine-dining restaurant. It positions itself as an East-meets-West fusion restaurant, with Chef Shetty drawing on the influences of his native India as well at the international cuisine he prepared during his many years as the executive chef of the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman and the Grand Cayman Beach Suites. 

The décor is themed with dark woods and shades of azure blue, lending a tropical ambience. The cut-stone back wall of the open bar complements the organic wood elements supporting the clean, natural feeling of the interior. 

Instrumental jazz music plays in the background; Blue Cilantro is unmistakably cool. 

The restaurant boasts a good selection of premium and super premium rums. We start with a shot of rum, which we sip by the bar while talking about the weather. Tropical Storm Ernesto is passing a couple of hundred miles south of Grand Cayman and it’s pouring outside.  

 

Upbringing  

Sitting down at the table, Hew talks about his family history. His mother is originally from Cayman Brac. Before she met Hew’s father, she was married before and had three children. Her first husband was killed on the Brac when he was stabbed trying to break up a fight. After that, his mother moved to Grand Cayman where she eventually met Hew’s father, an immigrant from Jamaica who came to Cayman in his early twenties. Hew’s grandfather was born in China and immigrated to Jamaica, where he married a Jamaican woman. 

Hew spoke about at his colourful and diverse family background. 

“I joke and say I got the worst of it all. I’m Cayman Bracker, West Bayer, Jamaican and Chinese,” he said, laughing. “In today’s environment… I have a piece of all evils.” 

He might have a diverse bloodline, but his individual roots are firmly planted in the Cayman Islands. 

“I grew up as a Caymanian,” he said. “This is home. I know nothing different.” 

The Hew clan grew up in the Northwest Point area of West Bay, first in a rented apartment and then in the house the family bought in 1969, the year Hew was born. He was youngest of the seven children and a full 20 years younger than his eldest half-sister. 

Like many Caymanian families, especially large ones, Hew had a modest upbringing, which included sharing a bedroom with his brothers Chris and Richard. His parents worked two jobs and still tried to find time for family dinners. The close-knit family made do with what it could afford, living off the land when possible. 

Hew, who is a member of Grand Cayman’s Slow Food Group, said he pretty much grew up with a Slow Food philosophy.  

“Back in those days, you used whatever you had, you shared with everyone and everyone shared with you, so there was very little store-bought stuff back then,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I realise too that they probably couldn’t afford to buy too much from the store with so many kids in college.” 

Hew’s father grew vegetables, although not to the extent he does today on a much larger property than he had then.  

“We would fish,” he said. “We’d go fishing as a family, which is something I think is missing right now. But we’d go out and catch yellow tails as a family, in a little boat.” 

His brother-in-law at the time, Paul Bodden, was one of Cayman’s largest cattle farmers, so the family got fresh beef. 

And then there were the chickens, an idea Hew brought into the family. 

“I also used to have a lot of chickens, in a very small back yard, so we always had eggs,” he said. “I would sell eggs. When my sister Vicki came back [from university] and was teaching during my last year of high school, she was selling eggs for me to all the teachers.” 

The chickens weren’t a hit with his father, at least initially. 

“My father used to complain about the chickens, when I had them, all the time,” he said. “When I went off to college, I got rid of all the chickens. Then just before he retired, the first thing he did when he purchased [an additional acre-plus of land] was he built this huge chicken coup and now he keeps 50 or 60 chickens at all times. I get eggs from him and my sister Vicki is still peddling eggs.” 

 

Starters  

Blue Cilantro General Manager Markus Marth, who presented all of the dishes during the event, served bread first. Drawing on Chef Shetty’s Indian roots, it was a type of naan bread that is prepared in a clay tandoori oven, which Hew’s company supplied. When made, bubbles caused by expanding air in the dough form in the bread and the sound of these bubbles popping could be heard from time to time throughout the evening. Some of Blue Cilantro’s breads are stuffed; others are just flat breads. We had two of each, including one stuffed with kalamata olive and pepper jack cheese. The breads are served with three homemade chutneys that the restaurant changes from time to time. On this evening, the selection includes pineapple mango, jalapeño and tamarind chutneys. Although the breads aren’t complimentary, unlike those served at many other restaurants, Blue Cilantro’s breads become an integral part of the dining experience. 

Marth also served an amuse bouche – a spoon of smoked marinated salmon with a light tomato salsa on the side – and the first wine of the evening – Wild Rock Wine Company’s ‘The Infamous Goose’ Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region. 

“It’s a nice, easy drinking Sauvignon Blanc,” said Marth.  

Hew isn’t a big fan of white wines: He prefers big red wines. But he enjoys this one because it’s not the typical fruit bomb Sauvignon Blanc. 

“I find the wine extremely refreshing,” he said. “For a white wine… it’s pretty good.” 

Marth poured enough of the wine to get through the amuse bouche and the first course. Unlike other restaurants that had hosted dinner conversations with The Journal, Blue Cilantro served Hew and me different dishes with three of the courses. For the first course, Hew was served wahoo carpaccio-style ceviche topped with fried jalapeño slices, pomegranate seeds, shiso leaves and homemade lemon-lime sorbet. 

“This is fresh wahoo,” Marth said. “We always get it in the morning. We don’t use any frozen fish.” 

My dish was black pepper-crusted seared tuna with a wasabi aioli over a plank of sliced cucumber, with a cabbage and beet root coleslaw on the side. 

“Strange that they’re giving us two different dishes,” Hew said. “They both look delicious.” 

We shared, both trying each other’s dishes, something we continued to do for most of the night. 

Although he loves to cook himself, Hew and his wife Cynthia lead very busy lives running businesses, so they eat out a lot, at least a couple times a week. Hew and his wife also vacation in other culinary destinations, so he knows what good restaurants are like. He thinks Cayman’s restaurants can hold their own in comparison with other noted culinary destinations.  

“A lot of [Cayman’s] restaurants stack up,” he said. “We attend some of the dinners of the Cayman Cookout, and even some at our [Bon Vivant] store, and the overseas guests are just elated and excited about the taste of the food and the presentation,” he said. “And you can get that in several of the restaurants on this island, all within a five-minute drive of each other.” 

Despite the high quality, some residents still complain about Cayman’s restaurants.  

“Because we’re so spoiled, we complain about the least little things with our meals,” he said. “We’re very critical here in Cayman. It’s tough to run a restaurant here because everybody’s a food critic on the Island. But as far as the food is concerned, we are spoiled. People pay a lot of money to go to restaurants or dinners to try dishes like this, where you get fresh wahoo that hasn’t hit the freezer yet.” 

 

Changing career path  

The academic bar was set high by Hew’s siblings who preceded him in school, particularly by his older brother Richard, the sibling Hew is closest to in age. 

Hew said he was a little more free-spirited than the rest of his siblings.  

“I always seemed too busy and eager to move on to the next thing to worry about school and academics,” he said. 

But after going through Cayman Prep – which didn’t have a high school in those days – and then the government middle school and high school, Hew did go on to Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida, with the intention of studying course work that would allow him a career working with large farm animals in some capacity.  

Hew eventually got a government scholarship and came back home and worked for the Department of Agriculture for a couple of summers. One summer, however, he worked for the family business, which was called Commodity Marketing at the time. 

“When I went back to school, I just could not get the family business out of my mind,” he said. “I decided I didn’t want to do veterinary medicine or animal science… and I came home the following summer, went back to work for the family and just got entrenched in it and never left, and never went back [to finish college].” 

Many people told Hew he would regret his decision not to finish college. 

“But I think the timing was right for me,” he said. “My father and uncle deserve a lot of credit for where they took the company, from starting off selling paper bags and cash register tapes and stuff and then starting the janitorial company. When I came in, what I saw was the beginning of the food service side, which we didn’t cater to. 

“I think that I had waited and not done that at the time, some of the major manufacturers that we now represent, we would have missed out on. So I have no regrets on that end of it.” 

Hew immersed himself in the food industry, working by day doing sales and developing brands and by night with a part-time job bartending and waiting tables. 

Hew said he actually loved bartending.  

“And because I loved it and my personality, I made so much money in tips,” he said. “It was amazing. If someone needed a bartender, I was happy to do it. There was no embarrassment to me. I met some of the coolest people and made some real good money at the same time.” 

Hew eventually took over the running of Commodity Marketing, which changed its name to Hew’s Hotel & Restaurant Supplies. He’s been the driving force behind the evolution of that company, which now includes two subsidiaries – Restaurant Depot and Bon Vivant. 

Recently, Vulcan, the high-end kitchen equipment manufacturer, sent Hew a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. 

“It was called ‘The Big Hitter’s Award’ and it was awarded to Hew’s Hotel & Restaurant Supplies for Latin American and Caribbean,” Hew said, adding that given the small size of Cayman’s market, this was a notable accomplishment. 

Hew takes pride in the fact that his company played an important role in planning and equipping Blue Cilantro. 

“It reinforces the fact that I made the right choice and this is what I wanted to do.” 

 

Intermezzo  

For the next course, I was served two scallops flavoured with Asian spice, roasted Cayman mango and a sweet and sour tomato chutney. 

This was definitely an East-meets-West dish that transformed an ordinary scallop into something exotic.  

It was paired with Kung Fu Girl Riesling from the Charles Smith Winery in Washington state, a dry Riesling that goes well with Asian cuisine. 

Hew was served two homemade lobster raviolis with pumpkin chorizo sauce, paired with Patz & Hall Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast area of California. Marth said a wine with some power was needed to balance the rich dish, and he was right; when Hew and I swapped plates to try the other’s dish, my 12.5 per cent alcohol Riesling couldn’t stand up to the strong flavours in the ravioli.  

Before our main courses, an Intermezzo to cleanse the palate was served – raspberry sorbet in a bath of rosé sparkling wine, topped with a fresh raspberry. 

It was probably the best palate cleanser course I’ve ever eaten. 

 

Work ethic  

In addition to Hew’s Hotel & Restaurant Supplies and its subsidiaries, the Hews’ stable of companies includes Hew’s Janitorial, Hew’s Pool Supplies, Hew’s Pool Services, the MacDonald’s restaurant and The Office Lounge. Individually, all the companies are small-to-medium-sized businesses, but combined, the Hew’s Group is a major employer on Grand Cayman, providing jobs for well more than 200 people.  

Before seven-year term limits for non-Caymanian workers was instituted, the group had nearly 300 employees, Hew said. After it lost about 40 employees to the rollover policy, Hew’s Janitorial hasn’t been able to grow and it even struggles with accepting new business as a result, Hew said. 

“A lot of times if we win a bid, we’ll have to say to the client we don’t have the manpower at the moment and we’ll need time to get the work permits,” he said, adding that it’s difficult getting new work permits through even then. 

“As of recently, I hear complaints from HR that the paperwork demands are increasing more and more and more,” he said. “On the Hew’s Janitorial side, if we could get the employees, we could get the work.” 

Hew said the company has reached its unofficial-but-real quota of Jamaican and Filipino employees so it has looked elsewhere in the region – St. Lucia, Nicaragua and Honduras to name a few – for workers for Hew’s Janitorial. But despite higher-than-normal unemployment figures here, the company can’t attract many Caymanians to the lower end jobs. 

“We will hire Caymanians if they come in the door,” Hew said, adding that Caymanians make up “nowhere near 20 per cent” of the company’s labourers. 

“In the office, we’re predominately – I’d say 98 per cent – Caymanian or married to Caymanian,” he said. “We try [to hire Caymanian labourers] but it’s very hard.” 

When he took over Hew’s Hotel & Restaurant Supply in late 2001, one of Hew’s goals was to ‘Caymanise’ the company.  

“It almost killed me,” he said. “There was a point where I was out delivering myself and where we didn’t have technicians to do the work and it almost crippled the company. What I did in six months to a year trying to Caymanise the company took me two years to recover from.” 

The problem he had is a familiar refrain from Caymanian business owners: Too many of the Caymanians he hired showed poor work ethic or were unreliable.  

“I’ve had everything from them ending up in jail for stabbing somebody in a nightclub to them telling off their supervisor and walking off, to… simply not showing up,” he said. “In particular, we are in the hospitality supply industry. We’re sitting in this beautiful restaurant tonight. The people in here really don’t care about any excuses why the dishwasher isn’t working and the glasses are dirty. And the chef or the owner certainly doesn’t care about my excuses about, ‘well I hired a Caymanian and he didn’t show up to work today’.” 

Although he was disappointed that he couldn’t completely Caymanise Hew’s Hotel & Restaurant Supplies, Hew said about half the total staff is Caymanian or married to a Caymanian. He said that he still tries to hire Caymanians and when he needed to replace an important store clerk position last year, he decided it had to be a Caymanian who replaced the expatriate that had held the job.  

“It took me a year and three employees later [to get] what I think is a great employee,” he said. “She’s Caymanian, but it took us a year to get her.” 

Hew said the job had a lot of career potential and was a great way to come in and learn the food service industry. 

“First we advertised and it took four rounds of advertisement,” he said, adding that most of the applicants were young women. “If I received 12 to 15 applications from young ladies, I received one or two from young men.” 

Hew said the demographic of most of the applicants was women between the ages of 18 and 20, many of whom had a baby and were taking courses at the college to get an accounting or computer science job. If hired, none were planning to stay long. 

“I’m looking for someone who’s looking for a career,” he said. “And that was the problem.” 

After each of the first three rounds of advertising, Hew said the best applicant was hired each time. Each time, the hired person didn’t last long. 

“The work ethic isn’t there,” he said. “If they even show up, with some of them everything is an issue. The feeling I get [from them] is ‘you should be grateful that I came to work for you, so I need this, this, this and this’. I would like for once to have the feeling where someone says, ‘thank you so much for the job, what can I do’?” 

 

Entitlement  

Hew’s parents both had to work hard to put all of their children through college. Back in those years, most Caymanian families worked hard. But somewhere along the line, the work ethic changed.  

“Let’s go straight to the crux of the matter,” Hew said. “There is a major entitlement issue in this country. I have expatriates working for me because I need them. I am willing to hire a Caymanian if he wants to learn that trade and take that expatriate’s job. But that is not how our young people look at it. Our young people look at it as if I should just hire them and have the expatriate do all the work; they don’t need to learn. When you get an after-hours call; they shouldn’t go, the expatriate should go. I don’t know where that comes from, but that is definitely a real issue.” 

Hew said that he had an opportunity to speak with some young Caymanians after the proposed payroll tax on work permit holders was announced.  

“There was a lot of chatter amongst my Caymanians saying that it was going to open up jobs for people; it’s not going to open up jobs for people,” he said. “I would hire any Caymanian right now who I could rely on to work in my middle management positions.” 

Hew noted that some Caymanians think all they have to do is get a college education to get a big office, even though they don’t have a lot of working experience. 

“You can’t jump out of college and say ‘OK, I’m an expert’. You can’t work for six months and say ‘OK I’m an expert,” he said, adding that even though he believes he knows his end of the food service industry very well, he still learns something new on every project he does. 

“I think that you’ll find the majority of Caymanians that you’ve seen return from college and just really excel through their careers are the ones that came from an environment where their parents made them work during the summers or the maybe were involved in family businesses and understand the commitment and sacrifices that are be made to be successful in business,” he said. “The only advice I can give people is never expect anything. If everything were easy, then everybody would be a professional, everybody would be at the top. You’ve got to work at it, you’ve got to stick with it and you have to find something you love and you’re passionate about. If you don’t love it… and you’re not passionate about it – and you have to be honest with yourself – then you’re in the wrong place. If you get up every day and got to fight to go to work, you’re in the wrong career.” 

 

Entrées   

Perhaps because Marth knows Hew prefers red wine, he was served the seared beef tenderloin with porcine jus over a blue cheese stuffed potato cake. 

My main course is freshly caught yellow-fin tuna, grilled medium rare, over mushroom risotto and white and green asparagus spears. 

The fish was paired with a flute of Veuve Clicquot Champagne; Hew had a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

I like good steak, but the fish was extraordinary. This was the only course that Hew and I didn’t share, mainly because the wine pairings would not have worked very well. But Hew noticed my plate. 

“I have to tell you,” he said. “That looks very summer, very refreshing and I have to agree with them, a glass of Veuve looks perfect with it.” 

As with most fine dining restaurants, good service means getting to know repeat customer and Marth knows Hew. 

“I was in here recently having lunch with friends and one friend insisted we try this rosé. I said, ‘OK, we’ll do the rosé’. They poured the glass and I had a few sips out of it; then a couple more and I kind of struggled. Then I looked around and saw [Marth] and he was already decanting a nice bottle of a big red and he looked at me and said ‘are you ready’?” 

 

Community Service  

When it comes to community service, Hew takes after his father. The elder Hew has been a long-time member and former president of the Grand Cayman Lions Club; was a founder of the Islands’ first drug awareness programme; and was very active in supporting local sports – particularly football. 

Eventually, Hew decided he wanted to join the Lions Club, but his father encouraged him to check out the other service clubs first before deciding which one he wanted to join. 

One of the people he knew in the food service industry, Larry Chomyn, was a member of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman and invited him to attend a meeting as a guest. 

“I have to admit, I was told that Rotary Club of Grand Cayman was for expat rich people only,” he said. What he found was a diverse group that included some prominent Caymanians as well. 

“When I walked in, they were like, ‘we’ve been waiting on you. Come on’.” 

More than a decade later, Hew is still very active with Rotary, having served as president, then as the Club’s country manager for disaster relief for two years. Next June, he’ll become the assistant district governor for the Cayman Islands. 

One day, he hopes he can become the district governor for Rotary District 7020 

“I hope my life affords me the privilege to do that,” he said. “Rotary is one of the most fulfilling things. It’s not only just what you do locally.” 

Unlike some other service clubs, Rotary is restricted by the by-laws of Rotary International. 

“We can’t use club funds to assist an individual,” he said. “Whatever we do has to be to the benefit of the community overall. So we can’t put a wheelchair ramp at one person’s house, but we could put wheelchair ramps and public walkways at public buildings where it benefits everyone.” 

However, since Rotary is part of a network that works globally, it has the ability to make an even bigger difference, both here and abroad, Hew said. 

“The beauty of Rotary is that you have the ability to participate in programmes all over the world. But you also have, as we’ve done here many times, the ability to draw on funds from the district to do things here. One of the latest things was buying an anaesthetic machine for the hospital. We couldn’t have afforded that as a club individually, but we made an application for matching grants and district grants and we were able to do it that way. So it allows you through a collective effort around the world really, and particularly within your district, to take on bigger projects and to make a bigger difference.” 

Hew also helps individuals personally and through his company. He has often helped at-risk youths, particularly those in whom he sees potential. He’s hired boys from the Bonaventure Boys Home and he hires students participating in the internship programmes. Even though the latter positions aren’t supposed to come with a wage, Hew pays them $6 an hour. 

“I can’t imagine being happy working for nothing,” he said. “It’s supposed to be learning, but at the end of the day, they’ve got to work, too.” 

Hew said that even when business is slow, he keeps these young people on, as long as they show up and work. 

In addition, Hew makes sure his companies support a wide variety of charitable causes. 

“I listed it the other day… and it was 14 associations or youth groups or community groups in the first six months of the year that I’ve written a check out to,” he said. “I find that part of my social responsibility as a company and I find that part of my obligation to the community as well. If we don’t support these things, at the end of the day the people who are benefiting from it are going to end up costing the government… or being a burden to society in one way, shape or the other.” 

 

Expatriates  

After the payroll tax for work permit holders was announced, Hew said some of the comments he read or heard pertaining to Caymanian-expatriate relations scared him. 

“On both sides of it, I thought it was scary,” he said. 

From his work on the Trade and Business Licensing Board, the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, Hew knows how much expatriates contribute to Cayman, both economically and socially. 

“I have gone to cultural events where there is Caymanian music, Caymanian poetry and you look around the crowd and who is attending these events? If not an equal mix, sometimes more expatriates than Caymanians,” he said, adding that many expatriates get involved in the community and make a difference. 

“I am not saying an expatriate is a better person because they volunteer on more service clubs or on more charitable organisations,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re better than Caymanians. What I’m saying is that there are expatriates who put a lot into the country. They are expatriates that have residency, residency with the right to work, who have [Caymanian] status… that continue to put a lot into the country. I know that there are people who will go out there and walk the dogs to put it on their permanent residence application, but those are the minority compared to the ones that truly want to help. There are a lot of people in this country… who are grateful for the opportunity to live in Cayman and genuinely want to give back.” 

Hew has no better example of that than his father, who has spent his life here giving back to his adopted home. 

“We cannot survive without an expatriate community right now,” he said. “Social programmes cannot survive without an expatriate community. I would go so far as saying, Pirates Week would be a flop without expatriates. I would go so far as saying that perhaps Batabano would be a flop without expatriates. And many other programmes. Would we have a Cancer Society? Would we have a hospice? Would we have all these things? Would we have three very active Rotary Clubs in this country without expatriates? And that’s from the social side of it.” 

But Hew also understands there are two sides to the coin. 

“Every expatriate needs to understand as well, that without the people of the Cayman Islands accepting them in a harmonious way, it won’t work either,” he said. “We have to coexist and we have to work together and hopefully all work towards the same goal.” 

Hew was against the proposed payroll tax on work permit holders for many of the reasons others stated, including the idea that once direct taxation gained a foothold, it would only be a matter of time before it was expanded to include Caymanians, too. 

In addition, Hew knew that it was only going to increase his cost of doing business because the tax would have targeted the middle management of his company. 

“I can’t do without them. So… I was going to have to eat that,” he said. “I also have a moral and ethical responsibility to them and their families; so I couldn’t take away their pension. So at the end of the day, it was going to affect me; it was going to affect my customers because I have to pass on that expense somewhere. I’m struggling to make ends meet now, so if I had to add more [expenses] on, I was going to have to pass it on somehow. I would have had to cut out some of those 14 charities I spoke about earlier that I buy tickets for, that I provide auction items for, that I play golf for, that I outright just write a cheque for.”  

Hew believes that if the payroll tax on expatriates would have been pursued, it was the small businesses and the working class Caymanians that would have suffered most. He noted that many businesses have closed their doors over the past five years. 

“If you reduce your population any more… a lot more will close,” he said. “If you reduce the working class’s disposable income, you will see the domino effect. If you reduce the amount of work permit holders on the island, if you let the companies pick up and move to other jurisdictions, you will see the effect. If this tax thing had gone through, the trickle-down effect was going to be disastrous.” 

Hew said the financial services industry would have been harmed significantly by the proposed tax. 

“We are a tax-free jurisdiction that attracts businesses to come in and invest in our country; invest and avoid taxation, and that’s what we do,” he said. “So what we need to do is maintain an infrastructure that supports that; encourage and attract companies to come here and remain tax-free. It’s a simple formula,” he said. 

Hew said Cayman needs to work on not only attracting investors, but making them feel welcome. 

“Quite often we have the open sign on the door and when people come they have to pull on the door, go around and knock on the window, call up a friend and say ‘do you know anybody in there?’ We’re not really open for business. We’re open for business if you know someone,” he said. “So, we still have a lot of work to do in that regard. But if you take away the tax-free aspect of it, we’ve lost that industry. People are willing to tug on the door, people are willing to knock on the window, people are willing to call a friend and say ‘do you know someone?’ because the ultimate goal is the tax-free aspect of it. If we take away the tax-free aspect of it, ladies and gentlemen, that industry is finished. And the average working-class Caymanian has to understand what that means to them. We are not the only tax-free jurisdiction in the world. We do have sun and sand; however, when you hit a man’s wallet, sun and sand don’t mean that much to him. He’ll vacation in sun and sand, but he will move his business to where he makes more profit.” 

 

Sweets  

For dessert, we were served Island Spiced Molten Chocolate Ginger Cake with banana-caramel ice cream. The difference between this and most other molten cakes is the spice, which gives the dish a savoury twist. 

Marth served the dessert with Sauternes, a pairing that didn’t particularly resonate.  

Hew isn’t a big chocolate fan, but he eats most of the dessert, telling Marth he hadn’t eaten that much chocolate in years. 

We had more to discuss and Hew was interested in more red wine, so Marth poured us each a glass.  

Later, we had coffee and then finished up the way we started – with shot of rum, this time Zacapa rum, served neat. 

 

Politics and governance  

For the Cayman Islands to prosper again, it has to change the way it conducts politics, Hew said. 

“One of the things we really need to progress on… is becoming more mature in our politics and becoming more mature in our policies and the way we do things,” he said. “We need to catch up with the rest of the world.” 

Hew was surprised that the government didn’t consult with the business community before announcing the plan to implement the payroll tax. 

“I fail to understand why our politicians, why those we elect to be our leaders… can’t find it within themselves to come and talk to us, to come and talk to the experts in whatever areas and ask for opinions.” 

Hew thinks Cayman needs to change the way it governs.  

“I’d love to see our country mature to the point where we get away from politically appointed boards, where we get away from lawyers being appointed as the trade and business board chairman and the work permit board chairman,” he said. “These are respectable people, these are people with their heart in the right places, but having been involved in it, I can tell you, that their business increases. Because when an investor enters the Island, they say to someone, ‘who should I get as a lawyer to put in my trade and business licence?’, and someone is going to say, ‘lawyer A is chairman of the trade and business board, so that would be my first choice’.” 

Hew thinks that other changes need to be made as well. 

“We need to get away from having the owner of the largest construction supply company on the Island being chairman of the planning board,” he said. “If I am a developer and I have a [planning] issue with my development and I need to go and meet the chairman, the first thing I would do is pick up the phone and call my people and say, ‘what are we buying from him?’ And you know what, if we’re not buying anything from him, I’m going to say, ‘what have we not signed off on’ and I’m going to say, ‘call him up and tell him we’re buying it from him’. Because when I walk into that meeting, I want to at least have the confidence to know that I’m buying something from him and that he’s not sitting there thinking that I’m not.” 

Beyond governance issues, Hew said the way politics are played here needs to change. 

“What I have seen displayed in the last year and a half between our two political parties is an unacceptable level of immaturity, political posturing and ego building,” he said. “It’s a shame that we’ve gotten to that point.” 

He said the way it is now, the focus of the elected representatives isn’t on solutions or progress. 

“The focus is on… attacking each other and trying to break down whatever each is doing,” he said. “I can’t say that I have seen any sort of collaboration towards for what is for the betterment of Cayman.”  

However, Hew believes party politics is here to stay in Cayman. 

“We’ve got to accept party politics, but we have to demand of party politics the way it was designed to be where you have your membership, your executive within the party, your elected government and where you carry out the business of the country in a professional manner,” he said. “The party politics that we experience now is that you put some money towards a party, you support that party, the party gets elected, and you demand what board you want to sit on, without actually joining the party, without actually adding to the culture of the party, without actually adding meaning.” 

Hew hopes that a lot more young people get involved in the political debate and perhaps even as potential candidates.  

“I think… intelligent Caymanians are fed up with all of the bickering,” he said. “We’re fed up with the back and forth; we’re fed up with ignorance. There is no short way of putting it: It is ignorance. It is posturing. It is ego.” 

Hew thinks the days are gone when to be a politician, you needed to go out to the local bars and buy drinks five nights a week. 

“I think there’s a change happening right now and I believe the average Caymanian is intelligent enough and understands that we need to move past this and… we need to mature in our politics,” he said. “We need to move on and we need to start looking for leaders who do not rely on politics as a career. We need to start looking at leaders who are not concerned about being elected the next go-around, but who [entered politics] because they felt strong about issues that need to be sorted. And I believe a lot of that is coming.” 

Dinner with Joey Hew 2

Joey Hew, centre, flanked by Blue Cilantro General Manager Markus Marth, left, and Executive Chef Vidyadhara Shetty

Dinner with Joey Hew 1

Scallops with roasted mango and tomato chutney

Dinner with Joey Hew 3

Grilled fresh yellow fin tuna over mushroom risotto and vegetables with a truffle corn sauce

Dinner with Joey Hew 4

Island–spiced molten chocolate cake topped with banana caramel ice cream

Dinner with Joey Hew 5

Latte with a shot of Ron Zacapa rum served neat

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