Think Caribbean dining is all about conch and jerk chicken? For the past eight years, the Caribbean Food & Wine Festival in Turks and Caicos has aimed to dispel that notion, offering a showcase for the island territory's food and hospitality as well as attracting top wineries and chefs from around the world.
At the invitation of the Turks and Caicos Tourism Board, I attended this year's four-day festival, which brought Michelin-starred U.K. chef Andrew Pern and "MasterChef" U.S. Season 7 winner Shaun O'Neale to Providenciales to mingle with and, of course, cook for attendees.
For the festival's opening night dinner Nov. 1 at the Amanyara resort, O'Neale prepared five courses, starting off with sweet potato arancini (rice balls coated with panko). One menu highlight was the second course, a citrus-marinated ceviche consisting of locally caught white fish, mango and chilies and served in a halved coconut.
Pern's menu for his Nov. 3 alfresco Dinner With the Stars at the Grace Bay Club bore British influences in items such as a spiced brown shrimp pikelet (similar to a crumpet) and the selection of English cheeses that capped the night's meal. An Angus fillet and lobster croquette (made with locally caught lobster) offered a novel spin on surf and turf.
The chefs' meals were paired with offerings from California vintners David Ramey and Michael Stewart as well as Champagne house Veuve Clicquot.
Grace Bay Club was among the venues for the festival's flagship event: the Gourmet Safari, which took attendees to five spots along Grace Bay for each of the night's courses. After hors d'oeuvres at Grace Bay Club, attendees walked to the nearby Coyaba restaurant for Wagyu beef short ribs, then hopped aboard shuttles that transferred them to Seven Stars (jerk-rubbed veal loin), the Palms (short rib tacos) and finally the Gansevoort (desserts including mango caramel mousse and a nitrogen ice cream station).
Festivities were not confined to nighttime: Veuve Clicquot hosted a Women of Wine luncheon at Ocean Club West's Solana restaurant, and all three vintners took part in a wine-and-food- pairing seminar at the Palms. Festival activities concluded with Sunday brunch at the Shore Club, featuring a beef Wellington station, an eye-catching dessert display and a bloody mary bar.
Plates for every palate at Turks and Caicos food festival
'Sea to table'
The Caribbean Food & Wine Festival is as much about the experience as the eating, according to event co-chairman Nikheel Advani.
"Our goal is always to push the envelope on the experiential level," said Advani, who is also COO and principal of Grace Bay Resorts. (Fellow festival co-chairman Anthony Garland is operations manager for the Wine Cellar/Discount Liquors, based in Providenciales.)
With that in mind, the festival committee has discussed a number of possible experiences for future festivals, such as cookouts or a symposium on culinary and health trends, according to Advani.
Speaking of culinary trends, Advani acknowledged that farm to table isn't a strong suit for Turks and Caicos.
"We don't have a lot of those resources," he said. "We're a pretty dry island, we're pretty flat, so farming's not a big part of what we do here."
However, he added, "On a sea-to-table level we can do very well," as demonstrated in Pern's and O'Neale's dinners.
And over the years, many other celebrated chefs have put the sea's bounty to use at the festival. "We've had Michelin-starred chefs, 'Chopped' chefs, we've had chefs that cooked privately for Nelson Mandela," Advani said.
Next year's lineup will likely include a chef from Chicago, which Advani said would present the opportunity for joint marketing to coincide with American Airlines' launch of weekly, nonstop service from O'Hare, which begins next month.
"First we want to challenge ourselves; we want chefs we haven't had, from a different region or different country," he said. "Then we want to look at the exposure we can get from that region and the guests coming in."
Photo Credit: Eric Moya
So, yes, as demonstrated by the Caribbean Food & Wine Festival, Caribbean food is more than jerk chicken and conch. But sometimes, jerk chicken and conch can really hit the spot. Between festival events, I got my fix of both.
But while organizers have big plans for future festivals, those plans don't include getting big.
"We've grown it slowly, because one of the hallmarks of this event is it's very boutique," Advani said. Most festival events this year drew four or five dozen attendees; Pern's dinner and the Sunday brunch drew the most, at 118 and 120, respectively.
"The only way we'll grow the event is to add more nights; at some point it'll be a whole week," said. "We'll do what size makes sense for the chefs and hoteliers so they can put out the highest-quality experience."
Next year's Caribbean Food & Wine Festival is scheduled for Nov. 7 to 10. Visit www.caribbeanfoodandwinefestivaltci.com.