Interview with Cindy Hutson: Ortanique Cayman Islands

Super Chef caught up with Chef Cindy Hutson in the parking lot of a Bed, Bath and Beyond store, shopping for supplies for her about-to-open restaurant Ortanique in Grand Cayman Island on November 25.

As a veteran chef with numerous restaurant scattered over the US, Cindy has much insight to share about her career and her new restaurant.

(Note how much Cindy talked about her staff, sharing the spotlight with other chefs and cooks.)

Super Chef: Can you tell me about your new Ortanique?

Cindy Hutson: Ortanique is in an area called Camana Bay developed by the Dart family. It is a town center with clothing stores, a movie theater and restaurants, one of which is mine. It is near the famous 7-mile beach where the Ritz Carlton and Marriot are. It is a gorgeous beach. The developers are my partners. They’ve been to Miami, and have eaten at Ortanique in Coral Gables.

Super Chef: How will you manage two restaurants?

Cindy Hutson: It’s a perfect concept. Miami is one-hour flight away. It is easy to go back and forth. It was difficult when I had restaurants in Washington DC and Florida and Las Vegas. This is easy. I can go in the morning and be back in the evening.

Super Chef: Why Grand Cayman? Is there a concentration of wealth? Is it a year round tourist destination?

Cindy Hutson: The Cayman islands is trying to developed, a cuisine scene, Eric Ripert at the Ritz, Chef Tell had a restaurant, they brought myself, Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine, who was a nominee for a James Beard Award: South, they asked him to come down. There are locals who dine out. They love good wine and food. They dine out often, but because of culinary scene, tourists are coming to the Caymans to eat.

Super Chef: Is it easy or hard to get labor?

Cindy Hutson: It is the biggest challenge. I have tried to hire Cayman islanders first to fill positions in the restaurant. I have to pay for work permits for non-Caymanians. We are hiring some people who have worked for the Ritz Carlton or Eric Ripert. They still need work permits.

I brought in a team that is already down there, including Sara Mair, the executive chef. She was a Top Chef contestant (third season) – she had worked for me for 5 years in Miami, and then she went to New Jersey to Bobolink farm. She spent a year learning about cheese making and milking. She is Jamaican. She understands the Caribbean, the difficulties in having a business there. She has committed to me for a year to help get the restaurant off the ground. She has a similar palette, new dishes drive her, and we have fun in the kitchen together.

I have a line cook in Miami, Mike, who is on the verge of sous chef material. He is a great teacher,. I put him in the middle of the line, and he can talk a new comer through the meal. He is a strong middleman.

I have a sous chef, who worked for me since he was 15, first as a dish washer, then he moved through every station, Ulysses stayed 6 or7 years,, then I told him he should go and experience others. He went to Johnson and Wales, and when he asked to come back, I told him to go experience something else. He worked up the ranks of American Airlines Arena. He is a strong worker and dedicated.

Lastly, Nicole, was my pastry assistant in Miami, she is very creative. I want to do comforting, tropical, warming dessert, not spun sugar – which wouldn’t last there, since it is so humid. She is going to be executive pastry chef.

They all know my palate. They are dedicated to the restaurant and me.

Super Chef: Sounds like you have a lot of women working for you.

Cindy Hutson: In the past, in Miami, I had 6 women in the kitchen, and only 2 males. There was a lot less testosterone. We had a fun time in the kitchen,. It wasn’t “Give me that pan, it is mine.”

My partner, Delius Shirley, loves when there are women in the kitchen. There are no arguments, we don’t walk off the line in tears when we burn ourselves. Men are so dramatic – when they burn themselves, men freak out and yell at each other, if we burnt ourselves we just take care of it.

Super Chef: Do you look for employees who haven’t gone to culinary school?

Cindy Hutson: I think culinary school is fine. But it isn’t necessary if you have palate. If you have a knack for preparing food, for seasoning, for sour and sweet, better to go into a restaurant and learn.

I never worked under anyone. I never had a mentor. I don’t regret not going to culinary school, but I do regret not having a mentor. My dishwashers give me dishes, or their grandmother’s dish from Columbia. My staff are my mentors – that is what keeps me going.

I love to take people from scratch, I love to give people a chance if they don’t have a chance elsewhere, troubled teens, to give them a sense of worth.

Super Chef: How would you characterize your cuisine?

Cindy Hutson: I started with a strong Jamaican-influenced cuisine, I call it Cuisine of the Sun. I don’t want to be stuck cooking Jamaican, or Italian. I love to learn about the history, about the ingredients, when I travel I bring back dishes.

As a chef and creator, I like to change all the time, but customers get upset. It is funny, people dine at Ortanique for six years, and they still order the jerked pork chop. I keep a core menu of the stuff that people say, “if you take it off I am never come again” I call them neighborhood favorites, around that I develop all the ethnic dishes. I spent 3 week in China, I came back cooking all kinds of Asian stuff, I love Indian cuisine.

Super Chef: Are food prices lower?

Cindy Hutson: Food costs are extremely high. It is a big hurdle. Everything is imported. Farmers are starting to grow herbs in Camana Bay. They have built a green house for baby lettuces and tomatoes. During the first month I have to learn is how to deal with the high duty put on everything that is shipped down there. I have to do some math to make sure not to hurt quality of the food. That means certain times of the year things won’t be on the menu.

Super Chef: What are you planning after the opening?

Cindy Hutson: I have Interactive cooking classes. The restaurant has a beautiful teak deck along the docking area. There is a man-made island with hammocks, and we’re going to have a full moon pig roasts at night with a pig box, whole caja china,. My event for the Cayman Cookout on January 13-16 is the BanDana Beach Barbecue on that beach next to Ortanique [see Winter Break: Cayman Islands Cookout]. I am known for the hundreds of bandanas in all colors that I wear.

2 comments on “Interview with Cindy Hutson: Ortanique Cayman Islands
  1. FYI…La Caja China and I have (finally) released our first cookbook, “La Caja China Cooking.” Lots of traditional Cuban recipes, as well as Southern US favorites, and a few from around the world!

    – Perry

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