“To get it any fresher, you have to catch it,” I heard that phrase more than once while I was in the Cayman Islands and it is true. “Blue,” our restaurant located inside the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman sits right on the beach and because of our relationship with local fishermen, we get the seafood delivered to us as soon as the boats get back to the shore. We literally couldn’t get it any fresher unless we caught it ourselves. We like to think of Blue as Le Bernardin on the beach, although we don’t want it to be a clone of the New York restaurant. The same care is taken to source the best ingredients and make the main ingredient be the star of the plate. So many local fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood are there to be sourced and they have their own special taste of the islands—it would be a shame not to utilize them. The smells coming from the kitchen at Blue are from fresh fruits and vegetables; smells like lime, ginger and lemongrass fill the air.
At Blue the fish is still the star but the fisherman are the heroes, and the opportunity to fish with them is a way for me to have a deeper understanding of the source and therefore provides inspiration. Michael Ryan is a friend and the owner of the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman. He introduced me to native Caymanian and seasoned fisherman, Eric Rivers. Captain Eric picked me up on the dock and in just a few minutes, we were in deep-ocean fishing waters. He explained to me that the Cayman Islands sit on a high underwater shelf and within about 500 yards of the shore, the continental shelf drops off drastically. This is a unique situation because generally, deep-sea fishermen have to travel very far out from the shore to get to the fishing waters. The waters around these islands are rich with fish like tuna, wahoo, mahi-mahi and marlin. There are also spiny lobsters and conch in the shallow waters closer in.
We motored around the waters for a few hours but didn’t have much luck. I was so determined to catch something to cook but sheer determination doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. The experience really gave me a first-hand glimpse into the uncertainty of the job and ups and downs of life as a fisherman—I have a new respect for their work. Working on that beautiful ocean is inspiring however and it is easy to see why someone would enjoy the occupation. Just before heading back, we did catch one really beautiful black fin tuna. It is the perfect fish for sashimi but it wouldn’t be enough food for Eric and I to eat for lunch so he thought we might have some luck diving for conch. We moved close to the shore and he spotted an area with some sea vegetation on the ocean floor. This is the perfect habitat and somehow, among all of the potential areas of the water, Eric picked a spot that was perfect. Growing up in a place and working on the water gives a local fisherman an edge. They know the waters and the habits of the sea life—it is instinct. Eric was right because in just a couple of minutes after putting on our snorkeling masks and two or three dives down, we found some conch. He is a good teacher because after I dove down to the bottom a couple of times, I saw nothing but then he pointed them out to me and I understood the shape that he was looking for. The large shells of the conch were covered with a vegetation that was the same color as the ocean floor and almost impossible to see except for the shape. Again, years of experience and growing up on the island provide the valuable lessons needed to source the food.
All that fishing and diving made us hungry and because both the tuna and the conch would be delicious eaten immediately, we found a shallow sandbar to prepare and eat our lunch. Eric taught me the old-fashioned way to extract the conch meat from its shell using another shell and a large screwdriver from the boat—a fisherman’s tools. The conch is essentially a giant snail and they are very strong. Breaking the vacuum-like seal that they use to keep themselves inside the shell is important. Once a hole is created in the back of the shell with the strong point from another conch shell, the screwdriver can be used to help push the conch out from the back while you pull it out from the natural opening with your other hand. It took me a little while but I got it out and there was quite a bit of delicious, sweet and briny white meat inside. Eric taught me how to clean it and then I cut it very thinly and added it to lime juice, oil, onion, cilantro, and scotch bonnet pepper to create a super fresh ceviche. I also cleaned the tuna to slice into the freshest sashimi I have ever eaten—just out of the water! The experience of catching my own food and eating it right there in the ocean was really a powerful connection to the food and to nature. I’m very grateful.
I had a vision of catching many fish and having enough to serve at a party that I had planned for some friends on the beach that evening. I knew I would have to come up with plan “B” but wasn’t quite sure how. When Captain Eric and I pulled back up to the dock at the Ritz Carlton, Michael Ryan was waiting there to greet us. I suppose he has had some ups and downs as a fisherman himself because right there on the dock with him was a cooler full of live, spiny lobster. Plan B was complete and in just a couple of hours I met Michael, my friend of Food and Wine Magazine, Gail Simmons along with Captain Eric and some other local friends for a beach cookout. When you have an ingredient like the spiny lobster and the fresh fruits and vegetables on the island, not much else is needed to make a feast. We grilled the lobster and dressed it with a simple Caribbean sauce vierge—a light dressing made from herbs, ginger, mango, lime and green papaya for some crunch. I grilled some romaine lettuce hearts to go with the lobsters and we sat down to a delicious “home cooked” Caymanian meal right on the beach. Cold, sparkling Champagne and the gorgeous Cayman sunset over the Caribbean ended an incredible day of interaction with nature, food and friends.