Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Chilling with One of the Coolest Chefs in the Caribbean

Full disclosure: I was a guest of the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa participating in a press trip. My airfare, room, food, beverages and activities were all courtesy of the hotel. However, the views and opinions expressed in this post are purely and entirely my own. 

Chef Sandy Tuason’s soft voice and humble demeanor are deceiving. Soon after engaging him in conversation, one quickly notices beneath his spray of salt and pepper hair, the mischievous spark in his eyes and the razor-sharp, edgy humor of a Jersey boy. After stints at prestigious NYC restaurants such as Sign of the Dove, Park Avenue Cafe and Le Cirque, he moved on to luxury hotels in New York City, Hawaii and Nevis. Recently transplanted to the Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa, Chef Tuason has revamped the menus for the property’s three restaurants. Here he touches on everything from briefly knowing Mario Batali and James Gandolfini way back when to his arduous days under Chef Daniel Boulud to his foie gras PB&J creation.
Cabana side menu from Westin Grand Cayman's Tortuga Beach Grill & Bar. famous frozen Mudslide cocktail, West Indes Jerk Chicken Wrap and Soba Noodle Salad with Chicken
So. Jersey boy?
I grew up in Glen Rock, New Jersey in a big family with four sisters and a brother. I moved to America from the Philippines when I was 6 years old. Of course, I grew up eating a lot of Philippine food. My mother had a very modest garden but we ate everything she grew. As a matter of fact, with such a large family to feed, you just ate what she put on the table. If you didn’t, you went without. Like most families, we congregated in the kitchen around a big table.  I definitely loved and was attracted to food. I just didn’t think of culinary as a profession.
Breakfast at Westin Grand Cayman's Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe. Blueberry Banana Smoothie, Spicy Smoked Turkey Taco.
My first job in a restaurant came when I was 14 years old as a dishwasher in a pizzeria. The next year I was a busboy at a typical Jersey diner. I used to hitchhike to work. It was more about making money to support my teenage lifestyle. During my college days at Rutgers, I got a job at a cafe in New Brunswick, New Jersey doing salads but the profession was not a calling yet.  I went to Rutgers University and graduated with a major in English Literature. I partied with both Mario Batali and James Gandolfini back then. They were college acquaintances. 

Delicious Original Cocktails & Appetizers before dinner at The Beach House
When did cooking become a calling?
Eventually, I enrolled in grad school to get a Master’s in Education. I found I would rather cook for roommates than study Shakespeare. At 21 years old I found myself working in the food industry. If you’ve read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential , it was exactly like that, a cooking rock and roll party lifestyle. We would work hard in the kitchen all day into the evening and then go out and party at night after work with the waitresses.
Delicious Original Cocktails & Appetizers before dinner at The Beach House 
When did you get serious about being a chef?
At 27 I enrolled in the French Culinary Institute. The training was extremely rigorous. The recipes were in French taught to us in in broken English by a French instructor. I had to quickly learn culinary French. I would leave school every day at 2:30pm for work at Sign of the Dove, a three-star NY Times restaurant. When I graduated six months later, I went to work full time at Sign of the Dove. I eventually worked all the positions in the kitchen. We were doing 250 covers a night. One of the highlights of my time there was working extremely hard one evening in the hot kitchen. I looked up and there was Julia Child watching me. I was awestruck. I didn’t know what to say so I imitated her voice and blurted out “Save the livers!”  Luckily, she started laughing. 
Local Homemade bitters & Delicious Appetizers before dinner at The Beach House 
What was your experience like working at the famous Le Cirque in New York City?
After three years at Sign of the Dove, I went to work there under Chef Daniel Boulud. In the culinary industry, back then, Le Cirque had a reputation as the toughest kitchen in the country to work for. He was an extremely demanding Chef. It was definitely boot camp and I learned how to survive there. It was a place where grown men would break down and cry. I had no life for two years but I would not trade that experience for anything. I learned so much.
Dinner Fare at Westin Grand Cayman's Beach House restaurant.  Cayman's Farmer's Market Greens Salad, Seared foie Gras PB&J.
What do you think of all these young chef stars that come out of the Food Network?
Food network is entertainment, nothing wrong with that. But it’s not really about cooking. A lot of young cooks that come out of culinary school are influenced by all the culinary shows, the internet and social media surrounding food. When you get out of culinary school, you are a cook, not a chef. You need years and years of training and experience, of working long hours, working holidays, weekends, working late nights learning technique and creating your own style to be a chef. It’s hard, blue collar work. You burn yourself, you cut yourself, you’re working in 120-degree kitchens. You get your butt kicked by the Chef. When I first started in the business, there was no internet, no social media, nothing like that. There was only Julia and The Galloping Gourmet.
Organic Farro Risotto with Island Kale, Local Pumpkin, Asparagus, Parmesan, Truffle Butter and Toasted Pepitas. My favorite dish of the trip. 
You’ve trained under famous chefs and in Michelin Star European restaurants. What’s the one thing you learned you still put into practice today? 

The biggest lessons I learned were to be focused, disciplined and to always be hungry to learn. Also, passion is great but you also need how to manage people. 
Delectable Desserts at Westin Grand Cayman's Beach House. Assorted sweet bites and Incredible Banana's Foster.
New York City to Grand Cayman is a huge change. How has this affected sourcing ingredients?
I focus on who I can work with locally. The fishermen here have me on speed dial. Three different farmers deliver eggs, greens. mangos and tomatoes to me on a weekly basis. I visit the two small local farmers markets every week. That’s where I found Ms. Ivy, an elderly lady who makes hot pepper jelly. Of course, I can make it myself but I would rather buy from her and support the local economy.  
Westin Grand Cayman Beach Barbecue
In your career, you have worked extensively in New York as well as on several Caribbean islands. What foods have you discovered over the years that surprised you? Right here in Grand Cayman, I am recently in love with a local seasoning pepper. It looks like a tiny scotch bonnet or habanero but it does not have the heat, more like a floral, fruity taste. I love to flavor sauces with it. I think it’s important to support the local community and purchase as much local product as possible.
Westin Grand Cayman Beach Barbecue
I am also influenced by the nationalities of the people who work in my kitchen. I have three Nepalese cooks there. After the earthquake there, we did a fundraiser for Nepal along with a lot of top chefs on the island cooking Nepalese food. Our culinary team also consist of cooks from Grand Cayman, Philippines, India, Sri Lanka; I definitely am influenced by all the cooks that I work with; it’s a great learning experience for all of us. 
Westin Grand Cayman Beach Barbecue
How did you develop the menu for the Westin Grand Cayman?  
The menu is constantly evolving. I get bored very easily. My goal  is to be as much local market driven as I can. I’m a big proponent of the slow food movement. I use local products whenever possible. Because of the climate, I tend toward creating lighter food with broths, lighter sauces and vinaigrettes. On our menus, it’s important that we give credit to all our local resources.
Westin Grand Cayman Beach Barbecue
You are in charge of three restaurants on the Westin Grand Cayman property. How do they differentiate from each other? 
I’ve been developing each restaurant to have its own identity and revamped every menu when I came here. I also oversee the food that is offered in Café Soleil, the coffee shop here on the property Fresh daily pastries, breakfast and lunch sandwiches and salads to go. The Beach House is definitely our upscale dining experience. Ferdinand’s is good for a more casual breakfast, lunch and dinner with a Caribbean twist. It’s more budget friendly but we do offer dishes there like a foie gras burger. Tortuga Beach Grill & Bar is our beach restaurant, where we offer a good selection of healthy options as well as burgers and salads as well as a kids menu. Great beach food and the best fish tacos in Grand Cayman.
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
What is your favorite dish on the menu? Why?
For the Beach House, that’s like asking me to say who is my favorite child. It depends on my mood. Right now it's the seared foie gras PB & J. I like to add a touch of whimsy to my dishes so that’s a good example. Creativity is very important to me.
Pasta Bar at the Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
Explain the superfood section of the menu?
Sleep Well Eat Well is part of the Westin brand. We offer foods containing a list of ingredients that are high in antioxidants. This makes it easier to eat healthy while on vacation. 
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
The Westin hosts a lot of weddings. What are the challenges in creating a menu for a destination wedding?
What we mainly focus on is this is someone’s special day. We always want to do our best because we’re not just creating a wedding menu, we’re creating an experience for someone on their special day.  We will often do customized, special menus. Having this in mind when dealing with the bride and groom makes the process go easier. 
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
What’s your favorite snack at home?
Scotch on the rocks and a couple of cigarettes. Haha. Really, my go to snacks are vegetables and dips, like hummus. I also have a salad every day. My wife, Susan, is a chef as well. We share the cooking at home. One night it may be turkey burgers, another night it may be fish tacos. Definitely, light , healthy food at home. 

If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be?

Oysters on the half shell, foie gras and pork belly. That’s three. (laughs) 
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
You have collaborated with other celebrity chefs on large charity event dinners. What were those experiences like?
The people in the hospitality business, especially chefs and cooks, are all kinds of quirky but we all have the same motivation, nurturing taking care of people. Giving back is in our collective nature. Even though we all have different personalities, it’s easy to get us to work together for a good cause. 

Will the Westin Grand Cayman be part of this year’s Taste of Cayman Festival?   Yes. It’s a great event. Grand Cayman is the premiere food destination in the Caribbean. 40-50 restaurants participate and 1,200-1,500 people attend. Last year we won Best Food! But of course, it’s not about winning.I just  hate losing.

Everyone loves to hold on to their vacation feeling when they return home. How can people take home a bit of Caribbean cuisine? 

I would tell them to bring home some Cayman sea salt and locally made jerk spices to use when cooking at home. Also, if a guest requests it, I give them  recipes.
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
What do you want to teach young chefs?

Instead of being an English teacher which is where I was headed in college, I’m teaching young cooks. It’s important for me to mentor them, to teach them respect in the kitchen and respect for the craft, what is or isn’t a GMO.  I always say cooking food is a craft, not an art. Food is gone in minutes.

Speaking of that English literature degree, Will you write a cookbook?
One day, hopefully, yes. I’ve thought about it. I hope it’s in the future. 

Are you Happy?

Yes. I live with my best friend, my wife Susan, who I met in New Orleans doing volunteer work after Hurricane Katrina. What’s not to be happy? I’m living the dream in paradise and being paid to do something I love.
Westin Grand Cayman's Brunch Extravaganza at Ferdinand's Caribbean Cafe
Chef Sandy Tuason, Executive Chef at the Westin Grand Cayman, most recently worked at the 4 Star New York Palace, where he worked with Master Chef Jacques Sorci for two years Over the course of his 25 year career, Tuason has worked in New York City as Executive Sous Chef at the 5 Star Four Seasons Hotel, in the Caribbean at the 5 Star Four Seasons Resort Nevis and in Hawaii as Executive Chef at the 4 Star Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. While in Hawaii, Tuason hosted two James Beard Celebrity Chef Dinners with Chefs Jonathan Waxman, Michael Symon, Tyler Florence and Ming Tsai. Some of the highlights of his career include stints at New York City’s Le Cirque, Park Avenue Café and Sign of the Dove. Additionally, he has worked numerous dinners at the James Beard House in New York City, and worked with Chefs Daniel Boulud, David Burke and Andrew D’Amico.

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