Local ingredients shine on Slow Food Day

 In the past seven years, Grand Cayman has undergone a seismic shift in the way its residents view locally produced vegetables and meats. Along with the local farmers, restaurants and chefs, Cayman’s Slow Food chapter has championed the use of local ingredients, and nowhere was that more evident than on Slow Food Day 2014.  

 

When I took leadership of Slow Food South Sound in late 2008, the organization was pretty much a private supper club that met three or four times a year for events, usually at the Grand Old House. Former Grand Old House Manager Martin Richter had formed the local chapter – called a “convivium” – in 1986, 10 years after Carlo Petrini started the Slow Food organization in northern Italy. 

When sending out event invitations, Richter often added the tagline “For the defense of and the right of pleasure,” which came from the Slow Food manifesto.  

Taking pleasure in food and in eating in the company of friends, family and friendly people is certainly part of Slow Food International’s philosophy. However, Slow Food is about much more; it’s about caring about what you eat, how it is produced, the effects its production, harvesting and distribution have on the environment, and about whether the people all along the lines of production, distribution, preparation and serving are fairly treated and compensated for their efforts. Slow Food, in a word, is about sustainability. 

In the 12 years that Richter led Slow Food South Sound, taking pleasure in dining was about the only Slow Food philosophy he could embrace, given the paucity of local farming; he couldn’t very well host dinners highlighting local vegetables and proteins when there was so little produced – especially of restaurant quality – on Grand Cayman, with the exception of local seafood. 

Things started changing rapidly after the Market at the Grounds opened in 2007. Two years later, the Brasserie Restaurant embraced the “farm-to-table” approach to dining, highlighting local ingredients on its menus and even hosting monthly “Harvest Dinners” that pretty much exclusively featured locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood.  

Close on the heels of the Brasserie’s transformation, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink opened in Camana Bay in June 2010. Its namesake James Beard-award-winning chef, Michael Schwartz, was already a strong advocate of Slow Food and the use of locally produced ingredients at his restaurant in Miami. Within a year of opening, Michael’s Genuine started hosting “farm-to-table” dinners that primarily featured locally produced ingredients. 

Seeing the success the Brasserie and Michael’s Genuine were having with highlighting local ingredients, other Grand Cayman restaurants started doing the same and soon there was enough demand for the farmers to invest more money into their farms and to start adding new crops. 

At that point, I decided the time was right for Slow Food South Sound to embrace all of Slow Food International’s philosophies, which included being inclusive of anyone who wanted to join, which led to a period of rapid membership growth. 

In mid-2011, Michael Schwartz approached me about collaborating on an event that would become part of what was then called Cayman Culinary Month. During a brainstorming meeting with Michael and his brand manager, Jackie Sayet, we conceptualized a two-part event that would be a celebration of local farmers and what they produce, and of the fantastic dishes those ingredients could make in the hands of talented chefs. And thus, Slow Food Day came to be. 

  

 Slow Food Day  

Slow Food Day was held for the third time in 2014; however, it was the first time that the entire event took place at Camana Bay. The morning session of the event pairs local farmers with local chefs, who use product from the farmers to create dishes, samples of which are given out for free to the public.  

In the previous two years, the morning session has taken place at the Market at the Grounds in Lower Valley, but for a variety of strategic reasons, in 2014 it was moved to the section of Market Street in Camana Bay near Bon Vivant and Bay Market. 

The participating farmers and produce vendors included Hamlin Stephenson/Hamlin’s Farm’s; Patrick Panton/East End Garden and Gifts; Joel Walton/Plantation House Organic Gardens; Clarence McLaughlin; Jennett Anson; and Ivarine Johnson. 

Those farmers paired with chefs Thomas Tennant from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; Mike Fischetti from Ortanique; Tanya Foster from Bay Market; Joe Mizzoni from the Brasserie; Thushara Siriwardana from Grand Old House; and Ervin Horvath from Agave Grill. 

These chefs used locally produced proteins – including goat, chicken, pork and eggs – and combined them with a variety of fresh vegetables and local tomatoes to create some amazing dishes. Chef Thushara’s curry-infused braised goat with oven-roasted eggplant and cherry tomatoes, served with arugula salad, pickled seasoning pepper, tamarind reduction and breadfruit chips was, without question, the best goat I have ever tasted. 

For two hours, the chefs worked next to the farmers, who sold their produce to the public, in a demonstration of the relationships in the food distribution system few people ever see, or even think about. 

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The dinner  

It’s rare, but sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A. That’s what happened at the Slow Food Day dinner. Shortly after the morning session ended, the skies opened and hard rain fell, off and on, for much of the afternoon. With dark cloud cover persisting, and needing time to set up, the decision was made to move the venue from the planned open area of the Camana Bay Crescent to the covered area of the breezeway next to Karoo. I’m sure the venue would have been gorgeous had it not moved, but the new venue was spectacular with the mural-enhanced arched ceiling providing an intimate, European-like atmosphere. 

After guests collected a welcome “local guava mojito” cocktail upon arrival made by Karoo, a series of canapés were passed by several of Camana Bay’s eateries, including Jessie’s Juice Bar, Abacus and Bay Market, all of which featured local ingredients. 

I then welcomed the guests, who included the farmers and the three non-Camana Bay restaurant chefs who had participated in the morning session. It is seldom anywhere that people get to dine with the farmers and chefs who prepare their foods, and having these folks here was really something special in my view.  

After talking a little bit about the importance of Slow Food Day for the Slow Food movement in Grand Cayman, I introduced the host of the evening, Chef Michael Schwartz. He said that while it wasn’t easy for a restaurant in the Cayman Islands to embrace the key Slow Food philosophy about buying local ingredients, it was something he and his organization believes in.  

Slow Food Day has featured a guest visiting chef each year; in 2012 it was American farm-to-table trailblazer Jonathan Waxman; last year, it was Canada-born Hugh Acheson, a James Beard award-winning chef. 

This year the guest chef was Andrea Reusing, another James Beard award-winning chef whose restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has been heralded as one of the best farm-to-table restaurants in America. Speaking to the Slow Food Day dinner guests, Reusing said she wanted to use local ingredients for her dish that evening, but acknowledged that she had very little experience cooking with breadfruit – one of the ingredients that accompanied her coconut grilled local snapper – and that she had just worked with it for the first time the previous week. 

The meal was served buffet-style from stations, with one station manned by Ruesing. Other main courses served included roasted local goat and wood-roasted local pumpkin salad served with local long beans and local scallion prepared by Chef Thomas Tennant of Michael’s Genuine, and Thai-inspired local red snapper with local bok choy and zingy sauce made with local hot peppers prepared by Chef Alan Pressly of Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar. All of the dishes were delicious, but my favorite for the evening was the jerk-smoked local pork belly served with local plantain mofongo and local arugula prepared by Chef Fischetti or Ortanique. 

To top it all off, Stefano Franceschi and Gelato & Co. provided a “cremeria trio” that used local fruits to create a wonderful dessert plate for each guest. 

Yes, I realize I just used the word “local” 16 times in three paragraphs, which is definitely considered bad form for a writer, but as the convivium leader of Slow Food South Sound, I really can’t stress enough that local ingredients can be used to make wonderful dishes that are less costly, more environmentally friendly, more unique and better tasting than ingredients that arrive on Grand Cayman on ships. That skilled chefs can use these local ingredients to prepare a meal of the highest standards should be celebrated now because it simply didn’t happen in restaurants here less than a decade ago. 

Of course, not every aspect of a Slow Food event can come from local sources. Wines, in particular, have to come from abroad, but some imported wines adhere more to Slow Food philosophies than others. For the Slow Food Day dinner, the wines of Benziger Family Winery from Sonoma Valley, California, were chosen because they are certified sustainable, organic and biodynamic green certified.  

Cayman Distributors Group’s Wine Sales Manager Jodie Ehrhart, who is a member of Slow Food herself and who attended the Slow Food Day event, said that people in the wine industry are ultimately farmers who are concerned about the environment because it directly affects their livelihood. Since they want longevity in their business, she says, it behooves them to use sustainable farming methods. Benziger wines, she said, are “light years ahead” of their competition, especially in California, when it comes to being a sustainable winery. And just like other ingredients, there is a positive taste difference in wines made from grapes grown with sustainable farming methods.  

The attendees ate and drank their fill of wine and food, and some stayed long after they’d finished eating to enjoy the fellowship at their tables. Slow Food Day 2014 was a marvelous expression of what everything Slow Food is about. The planning for Slow Food Day 2015 has already begun, and I believe that after three successful years, Slow Food Day is becoming one of the events on the annual culinary calendar to which people really look forward. I know I do! 

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Chefs from the morning session of Slow Food Day 2014 included, from left, Ervin Horvath from Agave Grill; Thomas Tennant from Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; Joe Mizzoni from the Brasserie; Mike Fischetti from Ortanique; and Elardo McDonald and Thushara Siriwardana from Grand Old House.

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Threatening weather forced a move to the cover of the breezeway next to Karoo, but the ‘Plan B’ venue proved to be an intimate and beautiful spot for the Slow Food Day dinner.

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Jennett Anson holds up one of the pumpkins she was selling at the Slow Food Day morning session.

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Guest Chef Andrea Reusing prepares her dish for Slow Food Day dinner guests.

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Guest Chef Andrea Reusing, left, along with members of the Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink team, which included, from left, Slow Food Day host Michael Schwartz, Jackie Sayet and Thomas Tennant.

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