Words by Jesse Serwer
The Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Fla. is an upscale shopping district just outside of Miami known for its bridal shops. You don’t often find Caribbean food in environments like this but for the last decade Ortanique on the Mile has been hipping brides to be, jetsetters and retirees to the treasures of island cooking, with unique fusion dishes like jerk rubbed foie gras, Blue Mountain Coffee-encrusted salmon, and mussels steamed in Red Stripe beer. The restaurant, which gets its name from an orange-like citrus fruit indigenous to Jamaica, is the baby of New Jersey-born chef Cindy Huston and Delius Shirley, the son of the late “Julia Child of the Caribbean,” Norma Shirley. The pair, who opened Ortanique in Coral Gables in 1999 after an earlier incarnation on South Beach, last year expanded into the Caribbean itself, with Ortanique Grand Cayman. LargeUp spoke with Shirley about the influence of his late mother (who died last year at 72), the logistics of cooking with Blue Mountain coffee, and which wines match up with well with jerk.
LU: So your mother is Norma Shirley. Did you grow up in Jamaica?
DS: I opened up a restaurant there for my mom in 1992. That’s the only time I lived there. I was born in Sweden–my parents were actually studying medicine over there at the time–then we moved to New York City when I was about 1. She was a midwife and started working for one of the first abortion clinics in the country. Then we moved to the Berkshires. She met up with a guy named Terrence Hill, a Spaghetti Western actor, and opened her first restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1979. She had never been in the restaurant business before or even worked in one before. That was my first job. I was dishwasher. I was a young little tot. After about two-and-a-half years there, she moved back to New York City and started catering. Her main employer was Condé Nast, so she’d do all their photo shoots in the early ’80s. In ’86, she moved back down to Jamaica, where she started opening up more restaurants.
LU: Was she making Jamaican food in the Berkshires?
DS: No. She did lamb chops and things of that nature. She didn’t do jerk chicken. Until she went to New York City and was catering, then she’d do interesting stuff like a jerk chicken pasta. She more had a French classic style to her cuisine until she got to Jamaica and started incorporating the Caribbean products, and that’s where she got that haute cuisine as they call it. Her first restaurant in Jamaica was in Kingston. It was like a garden restaurant. Then she opened the one in Montego Bay with me. After I left, she opened up [Norma's on the Terrace at] Devon House and then she opened one up in Negril, and then one in Port Antonio. She was kind of all over the island.
LU: What were some of the things you learned from her and brought to your restaurants?
DS: My partner, Cindy Hutson, is really the food side of our restaurant. She’s self taught, like my mother. They used to share ideas and collaborate with one another. For me, from when I was a dishwasher at nine years old, I saw every angle and aspect of the restaurant business from busing to waiting tables to cooking on the line. I can cook but I’m not a chef per se. But growing up, I saw the do’s and the don’ts.
LU: In the Caribbean, you have the people’s food, and then a lot of the restaurants at resorts and the full-service restaurants in cities are geared more towards foreign palettes. There aren’t too many restaurants which do what your mother did and combine the two…
DS: I think things like the Food Network has brought the awareness of food and cuisine to your homes now. The world wants to taste other nations and I think the Caribbean has been a big component of that. Jamaica in particular. Everybody loves the whole thought about Jamaica: jerk food, marijuana, the beaches, the mountains. My mother took the French way of preparation and kind of married it with the Caribbean, and its spices. The Caribbean has East Indian people, the Chinese settled in the Caribbean. You’ve got all these interesting spices and cuisines all in the Caribbean. My mother and Cindy have brought that to the table with a mix of the rest of the world. That’s why we call our cuisine, Cuisine of the Sun, because Cindy takes a little of everywhere. From her travels around the world, she’s said, “I can do that but let me throw some thyme in it or cayenne pepper.” It dazzles the palette a little more than that classic French or Italian style. My mother did the same. When people come to our restaurant, they identify the meats, some of the spices, but they’ve never had them together in this combination. When the customer gets it, they say wow, this is different than going to a steakhouse or French to get coq au vin. Now it’s coq au vin but it’s with curry sauce and oxtail instead yet it’s done the classic way the French would do a coq au vin.
LU: You have a lot of jerk dishes but not simple jerk chicken…
DS: We don’t want to be categorized as a Jamaican restaurant, which at first everyone thought because the word jerk was on our menu. Now, they realize we do a jerk pork but we do it differently. Jerk doesn’t necessarily mean spicy. Jerk is the way of seasoning and cooking meat. Jerk is a slow cook, let the spices really get into the protein itself. We do a jerk pork but we put a rum guava sauce on it. We do a jerk chicken penne pasta. We make our own jerk seasoning… You can jerk fish, you can jerk vegetables, you can jerk anything.
LU: Why did you open Ortanique in Coral Gables? There are upscale Caribbean and Caribbean fusion restaurants in New York but they’re downtown, in hip areas. They wouldn’t be on Fifth Avenue…It’s just not one of the cuisines that wealthy people seem to know.
DS: We had the restaurant in Miami Beach and we were consulting for Bob Johnson of BET and opened up a couple restaurants for him. And the city developer in Coral Gables approached us and said we want to re-gentrify Coral Gables. Right now, it’s all French and Italian restaurants and bridal shops. They put together a sweet deal for us. It was a chance but we had the confidence, and the city did, that there was a market there for it. Down here, you have a Latin clientele who already could identify a little with the cuisine we were doing. How we blend them together was new for them but it was identifiable food to them.
LU: Do you get a lot of Jamaican customers?
DS: We do. At first they’d come up and say, “I can get jerk pork and it’s not made like this and it’s a third of the price.” Yeah, you can but there’s the quality of pork we use, you’re being treated to five-star kind of service. That’s why you’re paying for it. And you don’t just get rice on the side and a piece of jerk pork and hot sauce out of a bucket. This is an experience. Now, they understand more, they realize this is taking it to the next level. This is not just a boxed lunch in a bodega. Those Jamaicans and West Indians who frequent us want that little extra that we give them, not that diner style food they’re used to. It’s that treat you can have once a month or every two weeks.
LU: You have a huge wine list. Why is that?
DS: We have a clientele interested in pairing wines with the food we have. Wine has been exposed to so many different cuisines and with the new style wines coming out, the Zinfandels, the petite Shiraz…they’re finding that matches up well with our food, the spices, the herbs and so forth. It’s not cabernets and merlots you drink with steak. There’s all these great varietals that are being produced.
JS: I wouldn’t think to order wine with a jerk dish…
DS: You’re thinking of beer. We have wine that brings out the flavor more where beer is considered a fire hydrant to tone down the spice. What we’re trying to educate people about in jerk is that it’s not just spicy, it’s spices. These are things that can accompany it. A good rioja, a pinot noir that’s already got pepper in it and fruit that will enhance the spices in the jerk seasoning.
Why did you open in Grand Cayman?
DS: About six years ago we were approached by a company called Dart. They invented styrofoam. They were about to break ground on this Camana Bay development, and they were looking for restaurants to be tenants.. They approached us and asked if we’d invest. I said I’m not investing in a foreign country I know nothing about and a company I know nothing about. So we’re out. They approached me again in December of 2008, and said we’ve got investors, we’ll put the money up. We signed up. We liked the proximity. It’s an hour flight. Like Coral Gables, they didn’t want their development to have two Italian restaurants, two French restaurants–they wanted diversity. They wanted a French restaurant, an Italian restaurant and they wanted our cuisine, which really lent itself back to the Caribbean.
LU: Who do you feel is doing interesting things with food in the Caribbean?
DS: In Jamaica, tofu was taboo 10, 15 years ago. Now tofu is well respected, and there is a market for it. There is more diversity now. I haven’t eaten there in years but there’s a restaurant in Ocho Rios called Evita’s. An Italian woman settled in Jamaica and her restaurant was only Italian. But now today she has a jerk penne pasta. She has now incorporated ingredients she can get in Jamaica and produced something more dynamic than just a bolognese sauce or pasta primavera.
LU: Are you able to use some unique ingredients in the Caymans?
DS: It’s such a small island where they can’t really supply on a consistent basis to the restaurants but we try to use as much local ingredients as possible. The local fishermen don’t come out all the time. And depending on the weather, they just can’t get it. But when they can, we get wahoo, cobia, red snapper, yellowfin tuna. Breadfruit is prevalent on the island so we get that a lot. Mangoes, papayas–but they’re seasonal. It’s not like Jamaica, where you have this rich, volcanic soil and that’s why you get unbelievable vegetables and fruits. But whatever we can get on the island, we use. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the lionfish, and how it’s taking over the reefs. Fishermen will get ‘em and give it to us for free and want us to cook it. I would love to. But there’s more work in getting the meat–because there’s only about two inches of meat on each fish. That’s a big deal now in the Caribbean, particularly in the Cayman Islands.
LU: Your Blue Mountain Coffee ice cream is incredible. Is it cost effective to make?
DS: People go crazy over that ice cream. Even though Blue Mountain coffee is the second most expensive coffee in the world, you only have to use so much because it’s so potent. It goes a long way. We do Blue Mountain encrusted salmon or pork, but we don’t put 100 percent Blue Mountain coffee in front of it. If we encrusted our whole fish with 100 percent Blue Mountain coffee you’d have to pay $50 for it. But you get that flavor even though it’s somewhat of a blend. I hate salmon but when you encrust it with that, it’s really good.