“Don’t come to the Caribbean to just have hamburgers and steaks on a resort.” Those are wise words from chef Robert Vicars of Vicars Bar and Grill in St. Thomas. Every winter, travelers flock to the Caribbean and idle on its gorgeous beaches, drink tropical cocktails and Instagram their vacation pics, but they’re missing out on some serious magic coming out of the kitchens in this part of the world. “Over the last few years, Caribbean chefs have really upped their game and are producing some fantastic dishes,” chef Damian Leach of Cocktail Kitchen in Barbados says. This wave of chefs is making the Caribbean one of the best places to travel for food.
Part of what makes the Caribbean so unique is that each island carries its own distinct culinary traditions based on the history of cultures that visited there. Native American, African, French, Spanish and Portuguese influences can be found all over this region, and that history shows up on the plate as well. Take Barbados, for example: “Bajan cuisine is a mix of African and Indian influences with strong flavors,” Leach says. His menu at Cocktail Kitchen features dishes like cold smoked marlin with pickled melon and braised oxtail with local goat cheese and potato croquettes, which combine traditional Bajan ingredients with modern touches.
Over in Puerto Rico, pork is an essential part of the cuisine, clear evidence of Spain’s influence. At Gallo Negro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, chef Maria Grubb has local pork and sausages on the menu, and uses these ingredients to create her takes on Italian and American dishes. Her method is simple: “Basically, I cook stuff that I want to eat.” Her menu pairs local guinea hens with Marsala sauce and creates crisp, Korean-fried chicken with local chicken from the island. She advises travelers to research traditional dishes and flavors before traveling, or ask locals for recommendations. Do so in Puerto Rico, and you’ll hear the name of one dish: mofongo, which is mashed plantains with crispy pork skins, topped with fish or meat. “You have to have mofongo with local fish when you come here,” she laughs. “That’s about as Puerto Rican as it gets.”
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“On a whole, I would say that we Jamaicans like our spice a little different than other places,” chef Leniel “Murphy” Ennis says. His restaurant, Murphy’s West End, on the western tip of Jamaica, opened in 1987 as an eight-seat counter and has grown to 36 seats due to its popularity. He creates what he calls “rustic Jamaican” dishes using the freshest ingredients possible—a trademark of the Caribbean. “We grind herbs and spices for everything, and you can taste the thyme, rosemary, garlic in our food,” he says. Look no further than the complex, earthy, sweet, smoky heat of jerk chicken or pork to see how Jamaican cuisine layers flavors. At Murphy’s West End, Ennis focuses on preparing seafood and chicken in a low-key atmosphere. “I’m not known for having a fancy place with fancy drinks and food,” he says, “but I’m known for having really good food.”
As far as St. Thomas goes, “it’s honestly better than any place I’ve ever been, and it’s memorable,” Vicars says. He opened Vicars Bar and Grill after living in Florida and working as a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami. He missed the food and people of the Caribbean. “That’s what you taste when you have Caribbean food,” Vicars says. “You taste the culture, the love. It’s like home cooking.” Today, he creates Caribbean dishes with Italian and Mediterranean influences.
But, of course, it’s not just the food that entices travelers. It’s the whole art of island living. “There’s just this mix of everything that makes the location amazing,” Grubb from Puerto Rico says. “There’s an ocean breeze, fresh seafood, great drinks. There’s a natural rhythm to it.” At the end of every shift, her kitchen plays salsa music, which inspires people in the dining room to get up and dance. “It goes from them sitting at a table eating foie gras to them being up dancing, and we’re dancing, too.” That’s part of why people go to this part of the world year after year, and why it’s one of the best places to eat. As Grubb says, “Only in the Caribbean.”
Where to go:
Chef Damian Leach uses local ingredients to create modern, innovative dishes in a fun environment.
Every Friday night, this marketplace right on the water is home to a massive fish fry, complete with DJs.
On the west side of the island, this waterfront bar offers a perfect setting for a romantic evening.
This Montego Bay institution specializes in jerk chicken amid a relaxed atmosphere.
Chef Leniel “Murphy” Ennis cooks classic seafood dishes, like lobster thermidor, in a comfortable dining room.
③ Puerto Rico
Chef Maria Grubb’s eclectic menu sources local ingredients to create dishes from all over the world.
The only restaurant in the Caribbean to be nominated for a James Beard Award, this is chef Jose Enrique’s love song to Puerto Rican dishes.
④ U.S. Virgin Islands
Chef Digby Stridiron creates contemporary West Indian cuisine at this St. Croix restaurant.
Chef Robert Vicars combines local ingredients and Mediterranean flavors at this restaurant in St. Thomas.