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Michael Schwartz

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Exporting Slow Food by Importing a Restaurant

Posted: 01/04/12 04:58 PM ET

How a Foreign Brand Can Grow a Local Island Economy, One Ingredient at a Time

I'm a chef, so it's no secret that, in my world, the secret to good food is good food. Where ingredients come from is just as important as how they are cooked, period. In fact, you're probably tired of hearing me and a slew of other people in the slow food movement preach about local food and how product is sourced at its freshest when grown or raised nearby.

But for me, although counterintuitive, an import hundreds of miles away can be good for local food, too.

When we set out to open Michael's Genuine Food & Drink Grand Cayman, we of course looked inward at first. There were a lot of questions that begged answering, mainly, could our model exist and survive in the Cayman Islands? Was there even anything growing there, and if so, how were we going to go about getting it? Were farmers and fisherman working with restaurants, and would they work with us?

At first I was skeptical. I didn't think it was possible to replicate the experience, which has more to do with the process -- the responsible sourcing that is so important to who we are. But I came down and saw what was happening on island and that there was an emerging farming community that was there poised to embrace a restaurant like ours and we'd just have to learn and grow with each other.

I quickly realized that the key to our success was going to also be theirs. And it was going to have to happen gradually, using the same model we use in Miami -- forming relationships with growers, visiting them on their farms and at farmers markets. Eventually, we were able to insert ourselves into the network. We were lucky in that there was at least one chef, who we knew from South Florida -- Dean Max -- who had established some relationships with local farmers and fishermen for his Grand Cayman restaurant, The Brasserie.

We first got a taste of their product at the 2010 Cayman Cookout, an annual food festival taking place each January attracting internationally renowned chefs to the island, which we participated in then for the first time as a warm up to opening that summer. As we got a couple of months out, my chef Thomas Tennant arrived on the island and simply went out into the field with some leads, started talking to people in-the-know, and carved his own path.

It's a small island and small community, so it wasn't long before we knew exactly who would be our start-up suppliers. But like in Miami, it's a constant process of foraging and forging new relationships and staying on top of the industry as it grows. And, trying to help it grow in the right way, sustainably.

Our demand for fresh local product on our menus met producers' demand for income and exposure for their growing businesses in a sputtering economy. The product began flowing in in droves. Fish was a great jumping off point. Thomas dives, so he quickly cemented relationships in the local fishing community -- leading a movement to combat the invasive lionfish with local dive shops.

We started a lionfish safari program last summer, which has demonstrated potential to generate significant tourism dollars. The produce came in, too: Thai eggplant, callaloo, herbs, peppers, and amazing mangos in the summer, and pumpkin, pole beans, lettuces, and tomatoes in the winter. Dairy and proteins soon followed, with some of the island's longtime ranchers producing some good quality eggs, beef, and pork, and even one of our vegetable and fruit growers, Patrick Panton of East End Garden, recently began to experiment with raising chickens. After a quick sampling, the chickens were on the menu, and it was noted that they were enjoyed by the customers.

After being open about a year in the new mixed use town center of Camana Bay, we were able to bring organic farmer Margie Pikarsky of Homestead, Florida's Bee Heaven Farm in the Redland to Grand Cayman for a few trips. There, she met with the development to consult on a chefs garden project, and also made visits to local farms to lend her experience and help them improve their operations, including how to bring their products to farmers markets and work with restaurants. The emerging local agricultural community had grown ripe to receive her counsel, as entrepreneurs scouted new avenues to grow their businesses, and it was part of our mission to support local agriculture and promote responsible, slow food sourcing on the island.

One such outcome of these visits was a composting program with Patrick. Our restaurant buys all sorts of produce from him and then supplies him with organic material which he composts and uses to fortify his soil. It's an awesome cycle, and this small-scale step initiated a bigger one: Camana Bay began a composting program, encouraging all its restaurants to participate. It's about more than just good food. It's about building communities and growing economies. And most of all education -- mostly learning from each other.

We don't approach our menu differently than Miami, so that means there will be slight differences in the dishes as our Caymanian surroundings -- culture and ingredients -- influence them. We've learned a lot about Cayman culture through its farmers market, and consequently through the farmers we've met there. There's a sense of familiarity, while at the same time a newness that's been fun for us to explore and play with on the menu. In addition to daily changes to dishes based on what's available and in season, the restaurant is a member of Cayman Sea Sense and hosts monthly farm-to-table dinners with the island's slow food convivium.

Sometimes looking outward can prove beneficial inward.

As we approached our third year of participation in Cayman Culinary Month, which kicks off January 12 with the Cayman Cookout, it became really important to use this opportunity to focus on the emerging homegrown food scene that we've been getting to know over the past couple of years.

We're really excited to be working with the local chef community and share what slow food means on the island with visiting chefs alike. To this end, we are proud to announce that Michael's Genuine Food & Drink has partnered with Slow Food South Sound and Cayman Islands Agricultural Society for the Cayman Islands' first Slow Food Day on February 4, a new Cayman Culinary Month event devoted to raising awareness of Grand Cayman's own food producers. And when I'm in town these next couple of months, I'll be shooting a new a television show with the support of Cayman Islands Department of Tourism called Genuine Cayman, all celebrating the bounty of local ingredients on-island and the people who produce them, to air on Cayman 27 in spring 2012.

For more information, please visit our blog at thegenuinekitchen.com.