When Chef Michael Schwartz approached me in the summer of 2011 about teaming up for a Slow Food event that would become part of what was then called Cayman Culinary Month, I immediately said yes. Michael’s initial idea, however, was rather limited in scope: A farm-to-table dinner at his restaurant Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, which was then in Camana Bay.
I had no problem with a farm-to-table dinner, or with Michael’s Genuine; I loved the concept and I loved the restaurant. But I wanted more. I wanted a day that not only finished with a dinner that featured locally grown produce and locally sourced meats or fish, but a day that also helped build relationships between farmers and chefs, and between farmers and the general public. I wanted Slow Food Day.
I took the reins of Slow Food South Sound — which had been established by former Grand Old House manager Martin Richter in 1996 — in late 2008. My becoming the leader of Grand Cayman’s chapter of the Italy-based culinary group (which was formed in 1986 as a protest to the first McDonald’s opening in Rome; hence its antithetical name) occurred soon after a significant occurrence in Grand Cayman’s agricultural development: the opening of the Market at the Grounds farmers’ market at the Stacy Watler Agricultural Pavilion in Lower Valley.
That development had been a key initiative of then Minster of Agriculture Hon. Kurt Tibbetts. His vision, however, went beyond just opening a farmers’ market; he wanted to help farmers produce agriculture of high quality, consistent supply and competitive prices so that it would be consumed by residents and thus make the Cayman Islands less dependent on food imported from overseas.
There was one big problem: to really make his vision succeed, there needed to be buy-in from Cayman’s chefs, who were skeptical about the quality of local produce as well as the consistency of supply. Restaurants like Michael’s Genuine and the Brasserie were already embracing local ingredients, but most of the rest of the restaurants on the island used only imported ingredients, with the notable exception of fresh seafood.
Having experienced the food of Michael’s Genuine and the Brasserie, and having frequented the Market at the Grounds, I wanted to use Slow Food to help expand the farm-to-table concept to other restaurants. I therefore countered Michael Schwartz’s offer with one of my own: Let’s have the farm-to-table dinner, but also a morning market where local farmers are teamed up individually with local chefs and have them create dishes using local ingredients, and then give samples of those dishes to the public.
The first Slow Food Day market, which was held at the Market at the Grounds, had six participating restaurants and attracted about 200 people. Small as it was, it succeeded in doing two very important things: it introduced chefs to farmers and it introduced chefs to the wonders of Grand Cayman’s fresh produce.
Later that evening, at Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, a diverse crowd of about 80 people enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner, some for the first time.
After two years, Michael’s Genuine bowed out of Slow Food Day and Camana Bay stepped in as the event’s presenting partner. Since 2014, Slow Food Day has taken place annually at Camana Bay and has continued to improve. Three years ago we added another entity, Cayman Food Revolution (with which Slow Food South Sound partners on the Seed2Plate after-school gardening programme for primary school students) to offer a children’s cooking class. This year, we also had the guest chef for the evening farm-to-table dinner, Jack Barwick, host an adult cooking class at Bon Vivant.
Reflecting on this year’s Slow Food Day, which took place on April 14, I now feel I can say, “mission accomplished.” We had 14 different restaurants participate this year and each one regularly uses local ingredients and has strong relationships with farmers. Some of those relationships, I’m proud to say, were developed during previous Slow Food Days.
Local chefs now look for ways to create dishes that take advantage of the beautiful and unique flavours that come only from fresh fruits and vegetables. If you don’t believe me, taste a piece of arugula from the grocery store and then taste a piece of local arugula. You’ll hardly think they’re the same plant. And that’s the case with much of the produce here, whether it’s tomatoes, eggplants, mustard greens or any of the fresh herbs.
It’s not just the chefs who have embraced local ingredients, either. The weekly farmers market at Camana Bay and at the Hamlin Stephenson Market at the Cricket Grounds are beehives of activity, swarmed by residents and visitors alike, who all see the superiority of local produce.
Now that my original vision for Slow Food Day has been attained, I’ll set my sights on attaining other aspects of Slow Food International’s “Good, Clean, Fair” mandate. Food waste, for example, is an issue here, just as it is in most Western countries, and Slow Food International has taken up the cause of raising its awareness. Maybe next year’s Slow Food Day will feature nothing but the day before’s menu at restaurants… revisioned by the chefs, of course.