Alongside crystal waters and the luxurious pink-sand beaches of Harbour Island, Chef Cindy Hutson is opening her newest restaurant, offering the delectable, fresh, and varied dishes she’s become world-renown for. I sat down with Cindy at her Coral Gables haunt, Ortanique on the Mile for an exclusive interview, discussing her newest venture in the Bahamas and the path of authenticity she’s taken throughout her life to get to where she is today. When referred to as a “celebrity chef”, she responds by saying, “where? I don’t see one”. Ironically, it may be her sense of humility, along with her commitment to being true to herself that has brought her the “celebrity” status nonetheless.
Chef Cindy Hutson.
Freshness: this might be Cindy Hutson’s most important “ingredient” in all her dishes. We asked her how she sources ingredients for her new restaurant in Harbour Island and the geographical advantages of its location.
“I love the advantage of having all those local fishermen there; they pull into the dock with a bounty of fresh fish and the tourists see exactly what you buy. They know I’m at the Dunmore Hotel, and they’ll be there because they saw me buy my fish.”
With a hint of humor, she adds: “[The fishermen] know I’m very picky. I have to be. Let’s face it: they are using perishable items. If there’s a storm and things are delayed and I can’t get the fish as quickly as possible, I simply won’t buy the fish, not throwing it in chowder, not to freeze it, not to do anything with it. So the fishermen learn very quickly that I am not one of those customers that might take 3-day-old fish.”
You might have an idea now of Cindy’s commitment to quality and freshness, which is key to her consistent success since the opening of her first restaurant “Norma’s on the Beach” with her partner Delius Shirley in 1994. However, as with all things of quality and prestige, there is almost always a tale of challenge and endurance that paved the path of success beforehand. I asked her how she became a chef, and she responded with a glint of nostalgia in her eyes:
“Totally by accident. I didn’t go to culinary school. I just cooked because I loved it. And my partner in life and business, though it was just business back then, Delius Shirley, asked me if I wanted to go into the restaurant business. He had been a restaurateur with his mom in Jamaica. She was regarded as the Julia Child of the Caribbean. We found a space in South Beach that eventually became “Norma’s on the Beach”. Delius knew about my culinary skill, and persuaded me to help out, so for 3 months, every single day, 15 hours a day I’d work, all while I went through this divorce, had kids: they were little, they ran back and froth between shifts, I’d pick them up. So, I guess I got ‘thrown into the fire.”
I asked if she thought her culinary career was the result of chance, or destiny, or a little of both, and she said: “I’ve said this a lot of times, I think one of my past lives was an island life, for a lot of reasons, but… I just enjoy a social, family dinner table. It was very important for me when the kids were growing up that we sat down and had a meal. That’s when we chatted, when we talked about issues, or no issues, or fun. I grew up that same way in my house. I loved the entertainment side of cooking, but had no clue about the work side of it and what it would take. So I think it was kind of destiny, for sure. Three months after we opened Norma’s, we were featured in a huge article in USA Today, talking about this ‘jewel of the Caribbean on Lincoln Road’. And that was the day I stopped crying, and realized I could do it.”
Call it destiny, dedication, or a combination of the two, it is clear nonetheless that Cindy is now a pioneer in the culinary world of Caribbean cuisine, combining the freshest quality food with ultra-luxury dining experiences and destinations. And speaking of destinations, her latest restaurant is situated in the heart of an island paradise: Harbour Island, in the outer islands of the Bahamas, home to an exclusive population of about 2000 individuals, and a long list of VIP visitors that range from celebrities and national leaders to jet setters and opinion makers including the likes of Mick Jagger, Wayne Huizenga, Cher, and the late Gianni Versace. Her new restaurant is opening inside the historic and charming Dunmore Hotel.
“The Dunmore Hotel…it’s exquisite. It’s an elegant, island boutique…15 rooms and cottages. The dining room is what you would see if you were in a plantation home in the islands, just really lovely. And the staff is very happy there, and they show it in how they treat their guests.”
When I asked her about what kinds of food she will be serving there, I was immediately swept away by Cindy’s words. There is a level of genuine, simple passion when she talks about food, which I won’t deny can also make your taste buds tingle! She said: “We want to do ‘Full Moon’ Caja China pig roasts. I do that in the Cayman Island restaurant, and people just fall in love with it. It’s so beautiful out on a full moon: the sky, the moon on an island; is it’s so pretty. And you know, we’ll do barbecues, there’s going to be a pizza oven there, where I’ll do all kinds of thin crust pizzas out on their veranda. The lunch menu will change and the dinner menu will change a lot. I’ll be connected with the local fishermen there, and during lobster season they’ll bring me those nice Caribbean spiny lobsters, and I’ll grill them, and put lots of herbs in them. Of course, there’s no better conch anywhere than there is in the Bahamas.”
But this restaurant retreat is certainly not sustained “totally by accident”, as Cindy refers to her experiences entering the industry. We talked about how she chooses the chefs she works with, and what high standards she places on them: “I pick specific chefs for specific venues… Remember it’s about me being in the kitchen with them, sharing ideas, nurturing… allowing them to cook with me, not saying, ‘here’s the recipe, follow it, that’s it’. For a chef, doing the same dish everyday would be redundant. So I have to keep the chefs excited about new things, ways to do an old thing new, a completely new idea for an old thing. For this Harbour Island venue, I’m training a gentleman in the kitchen; he’s Jamaican, and I think being in a Bahamian kitchen, he’ll fit right in. I manage the restaurants by treating everybody almost like my family. I hate to say it, but I think between all the restaurants I have 110 kids. As you know my family works in this restaurant (Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables). My sister is at the hostess stand, my daughter is my assistant, and my business partner is my partner in life, so we treat our staff like they’re family.”
Ortanique on the Mile Restaurant.
With regard to some of her most emblematic dishes and sauces, Cindy told us about her delectable creole sauce and her famous ceviche: Right now I’m doing this smoked tomato creole sauce, which if I was making it in New Orleans –New Orleans style – it would have a rue in it. Mine’s without a rue. I smoke vine-ripe tomatoes, fresh, nice sweet corn, lots of vegetables, and I make a sauce out of that, and just about anything I put that sauce on people fall in love with. Ceviche is very versatile. Sometimes it can be very spicy, but sometimes it is not. We’ll serve it Peruvian style, American style, or my own style. I like to use green mango because it has a little sweetness but still has a little bit of tart, occasionally I’ll throw some tequila in there. Just switching it up depends on the fish too. Some types of fish you want to slice thin, and just pour the acid and all the flavors that you’re going to put in right over the raw, sashimi-sliced fish. That’s more like a tiradito. Or we’ll do the heartier fish, like corvina or goldentile, that can withstand an hour or two of marination.”
And with this philosophy, along with her authentic passion for creating genuine culinary classics, Cindy Hutson continues to pave the way that leads to prestigious and delicious destinations. The latest path, which winds down the pink-sand shorelines of Harbour Island to the historic Dunmore Hotel in the Bahamas, is another shining jewel in the Atlantic –an ultra-luxury outpost for those who seek the absolute finest in freshness, taste, and majesty. ■