“He just bought 1000 earthworms on Amazon,” Mathayom Vacharat’s girlfriend whispered to me as I sat down next to her at Ground Breaking, one of the themed full moon dinners presented by St. John Catering and Mathayom Private Chefs at their St. John event venue at the Windy Level.
“Mysterious purchase,” I laughed, but we were pretending ignorance. We realized that the wigglers had something to do with composting and the verdant kitchen garden glowing in the moonlight next to our table. We just didn’t know you could buy worms online.
Over the course of the next few days, as I interviewed the chefs and restaurateurs that are revolutionizing Caribbean cuisine with their passion for local ingredients, the insect/worm buying behavior became matter-of-fact.
“Of course we order our bugs and worms online,” said Extra Virgin’s head chef Tommy Garfield as he turned over a tomato leaf to display a ladybug happily munching on aphids. “You see, no toxic chemicals.”
The gardens at Extra Virgin Bistro are particularly astounding because to access the rooftop oasis, you have to scale up two levels of spindly ladders while ducking under low hanging power lines. Tommy told me that the restaurant team lugged up over a hundred bags of soil on their backs to terraform the roof. It’s a wonderland of raised beds, hanging pots, a hydroponic greenhouse and even a chicken coop.
Local sourcing and restaurant gardens are thriving in the islands as a love ignites for new twists on authentic Caribbean recipes and techniques. Look carefully while walking the streets of Charlotte Amalie, Cruz Bay or Christiansted and you will see your next meal hanging from wooden pallets on walls or cleverly disguised as landscaping.
If not grown on location, the new guard of Caribbean food are buying their produce from local farms like Ridge to Reef Farm on St. Croix or the Gifft Hill School’s EARTH program gardens on St. John. Fresh, locally grown or wild harvested ingredients like jackfruit, purslane, soursop, West Indian greens, tamarind, key lime; and herbs like lemongrass and wild Indian sage might be found incorporated into a dish cooked using traditional techniques such as wood fire ovens or pit roasting.
Meet the Revolutionaries
I had the opportunity to interview some of the influential young men who are creating cuisine that embodies the art, ingredients, and culture of the Caribbean. Let me introduce you to some of the rising stars of this new culinary world.
Shaun Brian Sells
While seated on the veranda overlooking the gardens of Gallows Point Resort interviewing Chef Shaun Brian Sells, I was privileged to witness a rare combination of electric charisma and a boundless passion for food. Shaun’s uncompromising dedication to sustainability and locally inspired food makes Ocean 362 at Gallows an extraordinary example of island fusion, a melting pot of cultural influences including Taino, African, Dutch, French and American. On Ocean’s changing menu you will find elevations of the traditional such as crisp heritage pork belly with johnny cake, tamarind bbq, and house-made bread and butter pickles.
Named one of the Top 30 Under 30 by Zagat for his work at the historic Harbor View Hotel in Martha’s Vineyard, Shaun Brian is recreating the strategy that won him the recognition of the prestigious publication. During his three years as executive chef at Harbor View, Shaun joined the hotel’s board to implement an extensive edible landscaping plan and to create a menu using locally sourced ingredients. He’s doing the same at Ocean 362.
“If we wanted to eat well, we had to cook for ourselves,” Shaun said about growing up in the flats of Coral Bay, also known as La La Land.
Shaun’s mother – a busy midwife with a rotation of up to ten children, stepchildren, and foster children living in her home – would throw rice, vegetables, and whatever else was on hand into a big pot and that was the meal for the day.
“I learned to cook from necessity,” says Shaun.
Earth School was where Shaun earned his elementary education, a sort of homeschool collective that was given grants of land on what is now Josephine’s Greens Organic Farm.
“School was under Josephine’s house,” Shaun said, “Our curriculum included daily meditation and making our own lunches from the gardens. We ate vegan and used food co-ops before most people knew what that was.”
Foraging became an obsession as he roamed through the valley with his brothers to gather wild herbs, tropical fruits, mushrooms, and medicinals. This upbringing is the source of Shaun’s kitchen alchemy. Shaun unites unique local flavors using modern gastronomical techniques to create tastes that you have never experienced before.
Shaun’s food activism extends far past the reach of his kitchens and gardens. He hosts the annual Friends of James Beard Benefit, is co-founder of the West Indian Chefs Alliance with St. Croix’s Chef Digby Stridiron, and has been named Senior Chef on the US Virgin Islands Culinary Team.
Mathayom Vacharat swept through the VI catering world like a hurricane, uprooting the old and bringing in the new. This is more than a metaphor; Mat literally arrived on island the day before Marylin hit in 1995, an experience that would send the weak of heart packing. Instead, he bloomed.
Before starting his own catering business in 2004, Mat steadily progressed through the kitchens of the Virgin Islands starting at the Purple Door, moving to Cafe Roma, Chateaux Bordeaux and finally, Asolare. In 2015 he and his team leased the abandoned Windy Level and transformed the gutted restaurant into a huge, bustling kitchen with a covered outdoor dining room adjacent the small farm and a spacious banquet hall.
Mat and the team at St. John Catering craft unique fusions of Caribbean, Asian and European cuisines for events, in-villa dining and for their celebrated five course, open air full moon dinners. I had the privilege of sampling the March full moon menu which featured vegan dishes such as artichoke cup with sweet potato hemp crisps, Windy Level greens, and a sunchoke shooter. The courses featured multiple ingredients sourced from the Windy Level’s own gardens or local farms. Personally, this meal made my top five list of all time.
The accomplishments of Mat and his team are exceptional, but Mat himself is humble and community minded. He started modestly, learning Asian fusion at the side of his mother, an American who married Mat’s Thai father. Mat’s philosophy is one of openness. He doesn’t guard his recipes. On the contrary, he shares to create a culinary dialog of creativity and sustainability. Mat seeks to bring people together around food.
Ryan Costanzo and Tommy Garfield
Chef Tommy Garfield has a story that is common around the islands.
“I was invited to St. John to work under an executive sous chef at ZoZo’s, but when I got here, the chef was gone and so was my position,” Tommy told me.
Tommy had an established career in the States, he could have easily gone back, but perseverance is a trait that’s needed to succeed in the Virgin Islands. Like Mathayom, Tommy did not turn tail when disaster presented itself. Instead, he took the job that was available at ZoZo’s, moved up, and made alliances along the way. This path led Tommy to open St. John’s Extra Virgin Bistro with co-owner and fellow ZoZo’s alumni Ryan Costanzo.
Like Shaun Brian Sells, Ryan grew up in Coral Bay and learned to farm in La La Land through the after-school program Project Green Up hosted by the St. John Agricultural Center – a program dormant since 2006 that is expected to see new life in 2017. Ryan began working at ZoZo’s at the age of fifteen and held almost every job the restaurant had to offer before leaving to start his own venture with Garfield. Ryan is a great restaurateur because he knows everything from dishwashing, to serving, to managing, intimately.
“Our philosophy is simplicity and balance. We let the ingredients speak for themselves. We buy local, if we can, or grow ourselves. We buy most of our fish from local fishermen. You can see their names printed right on the menu,” says Ryan.
“In the beginning, I had to free climb the building to get an ingredient for a cocktail or something. We’d get an order for a mojito, and I’d say, ‘be right back’. I’d return with my shins bleeding and a sprig of mint in my hand. We’ve got it worked out a little better now,” says Garfield with a smile.
Extra Virgin’s menu also includes meats and sausages that are smoked or cured on the premises, hand-cut pastas, freshly baked breads, and of course, roof-grown produce like zucchini flowers, a variety of greens, chilis, tomatoes, and herbs. At first, a fusion of Caribbean and Italian might seem an odd combination, but it really works. For example, try the local yellowfin carpaccio with pickled cantaloupe, orange citronette, and chives from the garden, or a fall-off-the-bone beef short rib.
The Island to Table Experience
The week I spent touring the restaurants of Cruz Bay, St. John has broadened my awareness of the scope of the island-to-table revolution. It’s so much bigger than what can be covered in one article. Each of the men I interviewed had stories enough to fill a book, and I haven’t even begun to explore St. Thomas or St. Croix.
Interest in Caribbean cuisine comes at a pivotal time in food history. The Virgin Islands are on the cusp of becoming one of the world’s top food tourism destinations. Young chefs and restaurateurs who were born here or have deep ties to the Caribbean are flooding back to the Virgin Islands to breathe new life into a restaurant scene that was suffering from inauthenticity, particularly in the resort and fine-dining arena. Beyond the upper echelons of fine dining, our wealth of homestyle eateries offers a nearly endless variety of culinary experiences.
If you haven’t experienced the magic of Ocean 362, Extra Virgin Bistro, or the monthly full moon dinners at St. John Catering and Mathayom Private Chefs at the Windy Level, I urge you to fill your senses with the sublime flavors these artists create. Reservations are required.
*Note that the full moon dinners are often full far in advance since these happen only once a month, so plan accordingly. At the time of this writing, space was still open for the April 11th event, so call today.
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