The Cayman Islands had strong representation at a gourmet culinary event in rural Ohio last month in support of Veggie U, a nonprofit organisation focused on teaching children the benefits of healthy eating through an ‘earth-to-table’ educational programme.
Veggie U is an entity of the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio, which became the hottest spot in the foodie world on the evening of 16 July as top chefs and food personalities from all over the United States – and the Cayman Islands – converged on the retreat and learning centre’s bucolic grounds.
A record-breaking 1,200 guest attended the 9th Annual Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration in spite of sweltering heat. Among the participating chefs were Luis Lujan, the chef de cuisine at Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, and Brad Phillips, the executive chef of the Brasserie. Another familiar face in Cayman, Chef Dean James Max, – the Brasserie’s consultant chef – also participated, representing his restaurant AMP 150 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Lujan had help from his Cayman-based sous chef N. Basaran Mulgan and Phillips, who was returning to his home state, was assisted by Brasserie General Manager/Sommelier Kyle Kennedy, who is also from Ohio.
Farmer Lee Jones
Kennedy said the Brasserie’s participation in the event came about after Lee Jones – better known as Farmer Lee Jones – visited Cayman in February to attend one of the restaurant’s harvest dinners and a Slow Food event that the Brasserie catered. Jones and his family are heavily involved in the Culinary Vegetable Institute and Veggie U,
While here, Jones saw first hand the Brasserie’s efforts to make farm-to-table a reality in Cayman through its own chef’s garden and through the purchase of fresh produce from local suppliers.
Because the Brasserie and its chefs share similar philosophies when it comes to food, Kennedy said they decided to support the Veggie U fund-raising event.
“Veggie U stresses making wise food choices, which is something we feel is very important for future generations,” he said.
When he visited Cayman, Jones and his wife Mary were also invited to dinner at Blue by Eric Ripert, which – as is the case with the Brasserie – has been buying product from Jones’ Chef Garden for many years. Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman Executive Chef Frederic Morineau said the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has a long history with Jones’ The Chef’s Garden, which is one of the reasons Lujan attended the event.
“We have long supported The Chef’s Garden’s mission of sustainable agricultural practices and felt it important to also support the Veggie U Food & Wine Celebration, particularly since it supports such a great cause: the children’s education programme,” he said, adding that there were also benefits for Lujan.
“This event is a prime learning experience for those who attend,” Morineau said. “Touring the grounds and the institute offered Luis the opportunity to enhance his knowledge about sustainable growing, but also to exchange ideas with other chefs and colleagues. We look forward to having Luis implement some of his learnings at Blue.”
In his station at the event, Lujan prepared a small bite made from Maine Lobster, aji Amarillo foam, avocado and micro herbs.
“It’s Peruvian-style,” he said, adding that he was very impressed with seeing Jones’ operations.
“Farmer Lee puts great care into growing his products,” he said. “His goods are not just a science, they are a passion for him, which is how I feel about our creations in Blue.”
Lujan said that he knows he can trust Jones’ certified organic products, which is one of the reasons they fly them into Cayman from Ohio.
“I can rely on consistent quality, which you can imagine can greatly impact our kitchen at Blue,” he said. “Yes, the products are coming all the way from Ohio, but they are guaranteed fresh and are usually no more than 24 hours off the vine or from the garden… fresh.
Being able to have this reliable partner in conjunction with using goods from our local farmers ensures the quality of our food in Blue.”
The Brasserie’s Chef Phillips took a true taste of the Islands to Ohio by serving Cayman-style fish tea that had a base-broth made of conch and red snapper, poured over fresh chopped vegetables.
Phillips said he actually helped pick some of the fresh vegetables for his dish.
“I picked the baby bok choy and baby fennel literally five minutes before the event started,” he said.
Phillips said he knew he was taking a risk in serving a hot soup on a sweltering summer day, and also by preparing a dish with which most guests would probably be unfamiliar.
“I was confident people were going to like it, but I could see it on some of their faces when we said what it was, they were like ‘what?’ But once they tried it, they liked it.”
In fact, even with the many other talented chefs and delicious dishes at the event, the Brasserie Cayman-style fish tea received high-praise from two Cleveland-area culinary bloggers as favourite dishes.
Phillips said he enjoyed meeting and talking a lot of the other chefs who participated in the event.
“There were a lot of guys there I’ve heard of and never met before,” he said, noting that all the chefs there had basically embraced farm-to-table philosophies.
“They’re all using a lot of Chef’s Garden products because that’s the kind of food they are making,” he said.
When Jones visited Cayman in February this year, he told guests at the Brasserie Harvest Dinner and Slow Food event that he believed many of the health afflictions of young people in the world today can be attributed to poor diet choices. The Culinary Vegetable Institute joined forces with educators, a nutritionists and a physician to develop a programme that would try to improve children’s diets through education and the outcome was Veggie U, a programme “dedicated to changing children’s eating habits one classroom at a time”.
The educators involved developed an in-class school curriculum aimed at fourth-graders.
The participating classrooms are provided with kits of seeds, soil, growing flats, root view grow boxes, grow lights and a worm farm.
Those materials allow for a hands-on study in which the students can see, hear, feel and even taste the experience of planting, growing, harvesting and eating.
Started in Ohio, the programme is now in 1,800 classrooms across 26 states.