Escape to Mustique
Maguy Le Coze, co-owner of Manhattan's Le Bernardin, finds refuge (and a place to throw extraordinary dinner parties) in the Caribbean
It's probably safe to say that the more famous a person is, the more likely that person is to seek a peaceful and very private refuge. So although regulars on the Caribbean island of Mustique include Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, David and Serena Linley (who stay in the house that David's mother, Princess Margaret, built years ago) and Maguy Le Coze, there are only three restaurants. The island's social life is centered around small barefoot dinners at home--casual but rarely easy in a remote spot where getting provisions is expensive and chancy.
An island was a natural place for Maguy Le Coze, the co-owner of the four-star restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City, and her brother and partner Gilbert (who died in 1994 at the age of 48) to seek tranquillity. They were brought up in their parents' small hotel in a fishing village in Brittany, and the sea shaped their lives. By the early 1970s, when the two were in their twenties, they had already opened their first restaurant, in Paris, where Gilbert quickly became renowned for his innovative ways with seafood. "A wild thing swimming in the water, now that's passionant!" he would say, as his sister relates in the just-published Le Bernardin Cookbook (Doubleday), which she wrote with the restaurant's award-winning executive chef and co-owner, Eric Ripert.
Gilbert called Mustique "Brittany in the Sun." The house that he and Maguy built there in 1989 is a fresh white villa, open to a ravishing Caribbean view. They designed the kitchen with entertaining in mind--frequent houseguests, dinners for as many as 12--and equipped it with a custom-made La Cornue stove from France and a professional Traulsen refrigerator and freezer adapted for the island's voltage.
A number of first-rate West Indian cooks work on Mustique. The Le Cozes hired Sylvia Fernandez, a native of St. Vincent known for her deft hand with regional foods. To expand her repertoire, they brought her to New York for training sessions in Le Bernardin's kitchen. There she learned how to plan menus and organize meals, and she sharpened her palate in the restaurant's tasting room, where the staff samples dishes on the menu every day after lunch and dinner.
Back in Mustique, Fernandez and the Le Cozes faced the continuing challenge of stocking the larder. In the old days--a decade or so ago--the island's offerings were slimmer, and it was commonplace to see people in the small grocery shop comparing notes on who had spotted the weariest produce. Even seafood was unreliable: the availability of fish for dinner depended on whether the house's cook was friendly with the local fishermen. In 1991 the Mustique Company, which manages the private island, built a new market and a bright new fishing village. Matters improved, but Mustique still isn't Brittany, or St. Barts.
One way Maguy compensates for the limited ingredients is to bring in fresh herbs--thyme, rosemary, mint--and the oils and vinegars Le Bernardin uses. These imports require advance planning and permission: about five weeks ahead, she sends the Mustique Company a list to submit to the St. Vincent government for a license. The Le Coze house has a vegetable garden, which provides squash, eggplant, green and red peppers and basil. Some years back Gilbert ordered a small but expensive bag of Cavaillon melon seeds from France. The fruit ripened, but the manicous--the local name for opossums--developed melon mania and even took to climbing trees to leap down into the patch.
Although there are no more Cavaillon melons chez Le Coze, there's plenty to eat at Maguy's Caribbean villa. Among the dishes she often serves are a creamy callaloo soup, spicy curries and shrimp "pizzas" sprinkled with fragrant basil--a combination of West Indian favorites and signature dishes from Le Bernardin.
To cook at a faraway paradise (or to provide the ingredients so someone else can cook for you), here are a few tips:
1. Stock up on dried spices, especially those that can be hard to find. Saffron and dried chiles don't take up much space, and a little of each goes a long way.
2. Find islanders with gardens who are willing to sell some of their extra herbs and vegetables to visitors.
3. Pack your own table linens. Most rented houses aren't particularly well equipped with napkins and tablecloths. And remember that it's best to bring sets that don't have to be ironed.
4. Take along a few sharp knives, but don't carry them in your hand luggage. Airport security might confiscate them.
5. Have one all-purpose cookbook, or for a shorter stay, copy a selection of your favorite recipes. (Copies are far lighter than cookbooks, and you can throw them out when you leave.)
6. Don't assume you'll find kitchen tools at the rental. Even if there is a corkscrew in the house, you may not track it down until the day before you leave.
Text by Patricia Beard, a contributing writer at Elle, Mirabella and Town & Country, who has been going to Mustique since 1981.
Except where otherwise noted, these recipes are by Sylvia Fernandez, who cooks for Maguy Le Coze on Mustique. Michel Couvreux, the sommelier at Le Bernardin in New York City, contributed the wine suggestions.