Island Cuisine in the Turks and Caicos Islands

Where When How - Turks & Caicos Islands - May / June 2015 magazine cover.Where When How Turks & Caicos Islands May / June 2015

Love at First Bite

Story By Mandy Rostance-Wolf
Photography By

Love at First Sight. Do you believe in love at first sight? The weak in the knees, heart palpitating, pulse quickening, and flushed skin kind of love at first sight? I do. I can still remember the first time, the first time I laid eyes on Grace Bay Beach. The attraction was instantaneous. My eyes slowly widened, as they attempted to take in the seemingly infinite panorama of intoxicating hues of brilliant turquoise and spectacular azure blue stretched across the horizon before me. My jaw instinctively dropped, and I could sense my heartbeat accelerate. Catching my breath, I became weak in the knees, forced to wriggle my toes deep into the coolness of the powder-soft sand to steady myself. My skin began to flush and take on a rosy glow, but I think that may have had something to do with the intensity of the heat or the brilliance of the sun or perhaps it was the rum punch! I suddenly and completely fell head over heels.

Was this the real thing, or a rogue wave?

A photograph of Bella Luna Ristorante, fine Italian dining in Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Bella Luna equals romantic, fine Italian dining in Grace Bay

But as I began to dig deeper, beyond the obvious physical attraction of this island’s natural and breathtaking beauty, I discovered that there was so much more to this paradisiacal place. This far-flung, tropical outpost was an out-and-out culinary nirvana with a distinctively exciting and exceedingly diverse carte du jour at each and every turn, with one common element. Expect the unexpected. Here, a cross-cultural evolution of Jamaican, Italian, Thai, Mediterranean, Indian, French, American, Mexican, Irish, British, Japanese, and Asian-inspired cuisine produce an authentic, epicurean ethnicity that deliciously coexists with our own local Caribbean flavours. The outcome is an exciting fusion of cuisine that is exclusive to the Turks and Caicos Islands and is simply, ‘Love at First Bite!’

A photograph of Caicos Café, Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Dine under the stars or on the deck at Caicos Café

There is a fundamental ingredient that is palpable in so many dishes you will experience here, and that ingredient is passion. This is a passion you can actually taste. A passion that intuitively journeys from the chef’s inspired imagination down through their skilful and talented hands and into your dish. Like so many recipes, ingredients are apportioned, and some dishes are certain to contain a little more or a little less passion than others.

So I asked the chefs to indulge my curiosity and reveal the details about their first time; and also, which of their dishes or ingredients best expresses and epitomises their passion for the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Mango Reef - Chef Florent Sourmont

The year was 2002, and the advertisement in the small Brittany newspaper simply read, ‘Looking for Sous Chef for Caribbean Island.’ Three weeks later, sight unseen, an adventurous and rather intrepid Florent Sourmont arrived in Provo, his joie de vivre landing him at the original Caicos Café with a lighthearted and down-to-earth premise; “I just want to try!” Florent can still recall, in vivid details, his first time. “My first impression when I stepped on to the island thirteen years ago was the clarity and purity of the light at sunrise. I noticed right away the incredible turquoise water and was impressed with the fine, white sand.” He said the postcard scene of coconut trees and the sea felt almost like a dream.

As Head Chef at Mango Reef, his passion lies in our abundance and quality of seafood. “The biggest advantage for me is undoubtedly the quality of the seafood, from fish to lobster and the local delicacy, conch, which one literally gets right from the fisherman’s boat to the kitchen and on to the plate.” His favourite time of year is lobster season, “I get to create specialties such as open lobster ravioli - layers of fresh ravioli pasta and dices of fresh lobster cooked with vegetables in a cream sauce – or I simply cook it in its shell with a dash of French mustard – of course!" he teases.

A photograph of Garam Masala in the Regent Village, Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Connoisseurs of fine Indian food will love Garam Masala in the Regent Village, Grace Bay

Regent Palms - Chef Lauren Callighen

Lauren Callighen now complements her Executive Chef title with Director of Food & Beverage. She presides over Parallel23 and Plunge at Regent Palms Resort. It was over a decade ago when an unexpected call from Club Med enticed Lauren to leave her Canadian home, in the dead of winter, for the sun-drenched, perpetually warm, and tropical shores of Providenciales. An easy, split-second decision to make if you have ever experienced a Canadian winter!

Was it love at first sight, I asked? “Your question made me reflect a little bit” she said, “I still have the same feeling when I walk on the beach as I felt the first day I got here.” She adds that since working at Regent Palms, “I feel that way every day.”

“The menu has really evolved – I have as a chef as well. It’s all about going to the next level and trying new things.” She acknowledges that she likes to focus on local ingredients, but doesn’t use them in a typical way. “It’s not going to be flavours of the Caribbean all over the place, but nice subtle inputs of them.” She cites the Chilled Caicos Lobster Salad as a great example of this approach. Her Caicos Lobster Risotto is extraordinary and, in my opinion, a perfect example of her prowess and creativity.

A photograph of Fresh Catch in the Saltmills in Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.The freshest seafood is prepared ‘island style’ at Fresh Catch in the Saltmills

Coco Bistro - Chef Stuart Gray

Before arriving at Grace Bay Club as Anacaona’s first Executive Chef in June 1993, not only had Chef Stuart Gray never worked or lived in the Caribbean, but when it came to the Turks and Caicos Islands, “I never heard of them,” he laughed. Grace Bay Club was Providenciales’ first small luxury hotel and a natural progression for Stuart, who had worked in Relais & Chateaux establishments abroad, an exclusive brand of luxury hotels and restaurants.

For Stuart, it was not love at first sight, but more appropriately, love at first light! When I asked him to describe his first impressions he said, “I saw nothing but darkness!” Then he went on to explain his nocturnal touchdown and ensuingly equal dark and mysterious drive to what felt like “the middle of nowhere” to Grace Bay Club. But at first light he admitted, “It was beautiful.” The beaches were deserted, and he took full advantage of the recreational perks that living in the Caribbean presented. Following Anacaona he has been a key player in four celebrated and successful restaurants, including: The Terrace, Aqua, Fairways, and today, the immensely popular Coco Bistro.

Stuart knows that his customers can get fine dining food anywhere they live and recognises, “They want to get a bit of the Caribbean when they come to the Caribbean.” That basic philosophy has been a major influence in his food. You can experience more than just a bit of the Caribbean with Conch Two Ways, Conch Ceviche scented with lemon and hot pepper, and Conch Sweet & Sour made with fresh Dominican pineapple. His lobster dishes are outstanding. “If it’s a dish that’s not local, then I still try and use some kind of Caribbean influence.

He has recently published his own cookbook, ‘Beautiful by Flavour, Coco Bistro.’ In this beautifully designed coffee table book with larger than life photographs, Stuart generously shares many of his personal inspirations behind his celebrated dishes, his recipes, and a unique glimpse behind the scenes at this incredibly popular restaurant.

A photograph of Danny Buoy’s, special nights are always lively, Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.A favourite with the Saturday night crowd, Danny Buoy’s special nights are always lively

Danny Buoys - Chef Joel Rheaume

It was love at first sight for Chef Joel (Joey) Rheaume when he arrived on these shores 14 years ago as Grace Bay Club’s Executive Sous Chef. “Oh yeah! It was a new feeling, really exotic,” he exclaimed. “I’d never heard of the place” he laughed. His first impressions of Grace Bay Beach were impassioned, “Oh, it was beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen. Especially the sand, very fine and white and clear, beautiful water.” Even after having worked in Bermuda, his heart belonged to Provo.

“I like the evolution the island has taken, to be here for that progression. It still has that feeling where it’s not commercialised, with little boutique hotels and no franchises. I think that’s great,” he adds.

“As a chef, I like taking classic dishes and making them my own, and making them in a way that fits the environment I’m in at the time,” Joey adds. Today, Joey is creating dishes styled to fit in at Danny Buoys. He has made quite a name for himself for this infamous and somewhat legendary creation, The Jerked Gherkin. This is the dish that started it all. It’s hugely popular and has now evolved into pizza and even beverages. In preparation for the upcoming Conch Festival, Joey created a Conch Jerked Gherkin Wonton … try and say that after a few rum punches.

A photograph of Le Bouchon du Village in the Regent Village, with a large following. Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands. Le Bouchon du Village is THE French connection in the Regent Village, with a large following

Love is Blind

It became increasing clear to me that for so many of our chefs, arriving on these shores was somewhat of a ‘blind date.’ Yet love triumphed and flourished, and this love affair continues to grow and intensify year after year for these chefs and for so many more. But not all of our chefs were committed to a long-term relationship. Over the years, I discovered that many chefs craved a more nomadic lifestyle of sorts, seduced by an insatiable desire to travel and work around the world in exotic and exciting locales, carving yet another notch into their proverbial butcher block with each destination. Many long-time residents and regular visitors have experienced the momentary panic or transitory melancholy upon discovering that a beloved chef has recently left our shores, attracted and wooed by the charms of another. But while they were here, they left an indelible influence on our island’s cuisine. Their presence and their contributions are an essential and fundamental part of the foundation of the dishes we have enjoyed in the past, the dishes we take pleasure in today, and the genesis for the tastes we will experience tomorrow. And, there’s always fevered excitement and ardent anticipation upon discovering that there’s a new chef in town, all palates eager to experience a completely new brand of culinary magic.

A photograph of Lupo in the Regent Village, Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Italian fare, country style is lovingly prepared at Lupo in the Regent Village, Grace Bay.

Love at First Bite

At first glance, visions of dining out on Provo typically conjure up images of a succulent grilled lobster tail or the Catch of the Day. But for those who have done their culinary homework, they know that they are in for much more, so much more!

Restaurants are scattered all along the crescent-shaped island, from the east to the west, from Northwest Point to the absolute end of Leeward’s North Shore with many restaurants located in Grace Bay. Al fresco dining is always popular. Many restaurants enlist the natural decorating talents of Mother Nature to create the perfect island vibe. Lush and tropical garden settings with graceful, towering palms take on a romantic and enchanted aura after sunset, illuminated by tiki torches and fairy lights. Many have boardwalks leading right to the island’s famous main attraction, encouraging a front row, unobstructed view of the magnificent vista of Grace Bay Beach and beyond, by day, or the always dramatic, awe-inspiring evening sunset show, presented each night. Visitors staying in the Grace Bay area have easy walking access not only to the beachfront restaurant locations, but also to venues located inland, The Saltmills, The Regent Village, and Ports of Call, each offering their own twist of tropically inspired ambiances.

A photograph of Pavilion at the Somerset in Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Something for all tastes, served in beautiful surroundings at Pavilion, at the Somerset in Grace Bay

But it’s not all about the beach. Imagine your island dining experience in the middle of a sumptuous coconut grove under a ceiling of palms rustling in the sultry evening breezes, or suspended high on a hill with a panoramic view of the marina and the reef beyond. At sea level in Turtle Cove Marina, a meandering boardwalk connects many of Provo’s favourite dining spots and gathering places. Get off the beaten track and take in the exotic scents of fresh, salt air infused with the appetising aromas from the grills where a string of friendly island establishments serve up heaping helpings of indigenous cuisine in Blue Hills; and Provo’s now famous conch crawl in Five Cays. Continue even further down the road less travelled and take in the natural beauty of Chalk Sound National Park.

I take my culinary travels seriously, so my husband and I make the most out of our dining experiences by grazing whenever possible. A commonly embraced practice in the foodie world, grazing gives you the freedom and the latitude to play the field. Enjoy an appetiser at one spot, followed by a main course at another, and, yes, desserts at another, or indulge in a four or five course string of appetizers. Mix it up your own way. Grazing along Grace Bay Beach is an ideal choice if you haven’t rented a car.

A photograph of elegant dining at Seven, Seven Resort in Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Enjoy elegant dining at its finest, outdoors or in air conditioned comfort at Seven, Seven Resort in Grace Bay

Conch, Lobster, Fish, Repeat

I am going to set just one rule. Everyone who visits these shores should, and must, make a date to experience our incredible, edible natural resources: conch and lobster – two principal and lucrative exports of the islands, and, of course, our fresh-caught fish reeled in daily by our local fishermen.

The Caribbean Queen Conch is a sweet tasting mollusk that has been a staple of the local diet dating back to the Arawak Indians. Considered by some to be an aphrodisiac, it has been dubbed ‘The Viagra of the Turks and Caicos.’ Hailed for its nutritional value, conch is a great source of protein. Served almost everywhere, in barefoot and casual spots, to the finest dining establishments, each chef has their own adaptation on everything from conch fritters to conch chowder and from conch salad to cracked conch. Set out on your own conch-quest and explore and experience the cornucopia of conch creations.

The much-sanctified season of our local Caribbean spiny lobster runs from early August to late March. Like conch, lobster is prepared in so many appetising ways: blackened, salad, cracked, fritters, grilled, tempura, jerked, thermidor, and in an endless medley of pasta variations.

Our waters are teeming with many varieties of fish, and our local fishermen reel in the catch of the day and hand it over to our savvy chefs who work their culinary mastery and deliver it to your table.

‘Jerk’ here is used in the culinary sense and is in no way offensive! There are as many theories about its origins as there are recipes alleging to be the ‘authentic’ combination of herbs and spices, but only one thing really matters, it’s addictive, spicy, and absolutely delicious.

Everything your heart, or palate, desires is here. A cup of Joe on the go, ice-cream to tame the heat, and even a proliferation of pizza. There are delicatessens, markets, cafés, and bakeries that offer a bevy of fresh food that’s prepared fast, to eat-in or takeaway. You can arrange for a private chef or full service villa catering that can cater just to you, or to professionally handle almost any size of group or type of event.

A photograph of Thai Orchid in the Regent Village, Grace Bay, Providenciales (Provo), Turks and Caicos Islands.Thai Orchid offers sixty different dishes to enjoy indoors, on the patio or take home

Fall in Love

Now a culinary destination in its own right, this tiny archipelago has made a deep-rooted and significant niche in the global tourist industry in a big way, not only for our extraordinarily beautiful, award-winning beaches, but for our outstanding and exciting cuisine created by our talented and passionate chefs.

It’s always easy to spot the newcomers and neophytes, but it doesn’t take long for the island’s magic to take its enigmatic affect. Swept off their feet, they become inevitably and inextricably smitten, powerless to resist the urge to return to this island paradise again and again.

So what are you waiting for? Take your first bite, and fall in love with the Turks and Caicos Islands, heart, soul, and palate.

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