Is Nassau the Next Culinary Capital of the Caribbean?
Some of the world’s most celebrated chefs are setting their sights on Nassau’s shores.
It’s been a decade since Nobu Matsuhisa opened his namesake eatery at Nassau’s sprawling Atlantis, Paradise Island—and nearly two since Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Dune debuted at The Ocean Club—but it’s not until now that the capital of the Bahamas is finally getting the culinary cred it deserves.
Located on New Providence, the eleventh largest island in the Bahamas, Nassau is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world, but the cuisine is often considered on par with what you’d find back on board the ship. “Nassau has always been a top travel destination, but it’s food was always secondary,” explains Cleo’s Danny Elmaleh, one of the handful of chefs bringing their culinary concept to Nassau’s new $4.2-billion, thousand-acre development, Baha Mar. “Now, we’re turning the page on what travelers and locals will come to expect when they dine with us.”
Currently in the soft opening stages, Baha Mar will be one of the largest resorts in North America when the last of its three hotels (which includes Rosewood, Grand Hyatt and SLS) and 42 restaurants and bars are up and running this spring. Here, conch will not only be served beachside in salad form at the Conch Shack, this seafood staple will also work its way into menus at Master Sushi Chef Katsuya’s first Caribbean outpost, as well as at the new haute Chinese eatery Shuang Ba.
“The good thing with Shuang Ba is that we have the opportunity to work with a lot of local fishermen, and that’s a great way of showcasing what’s here in the waters of the Bahamas but done so with Chinese cooking methods,” explains executive chef Brent Martin. “For example, not a lot of Bahamians work with spider crab, but our Chinese chefs just love this product and are excited to showcase a couple of different dishes with it.”
Not only are chefs like Martin educating the culinarians—who are mostly Bahamian—on these cooking styles and ingredients, Shuang Ba is helping Nassau’s large Chinese community grow, serving as the supplier for the capital’s mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants that were once limited in terms of ingredients. “We’ve woken up a whole new world with a supplier on the island to bring in products from China to the Americas and then on to us in the Bahamas,” Martin says. “Now these Chinese families and their restaurants will be exposed to a lot more ingredients they can piggyback off us.”
Shuang Ba, which translates to “double eight” in Chinese and symbolizes double fortune and prosperity, joins the ever-growing wave of upscale Chinese eateries around the globe like Hakkasan and Mr Chow. The difference with this venture, however, is that Shuang Ba melds modern and traditional techniques thanks to its hand-selected team of 15 chefs hailing from across China. From Dim Sum Master Meihua Long to sous chef and wok expert Xue Quan, each member of the team not only represents a different region, they are also a specialist in a different discipline.
“In a sense, Shuang Ba and all of its chefs aim to redefine and reeducate guests on what real Chinese cuisine is,” says restaurant manager Hai Lin, who moved from China to the United States when he was 8 years old. “Featuring 88 items on menu, it’s a challenge not only to share what we have to offer, but to be that bridge that brings together food, history and culture.”
Many items on the menu are recreations of some of the most sought-after dishes that only emperors in ancient China were able to enjoy. In addition to dim sum and traditional Peking duck, diners will also find Chaozhou-style truffle and vegetable dumplings and “cherry” foie gras.
Local ingredients like crab, lobster and conch—housed in aquariums for guests to personally pick for their entrée—are one of the main highlights of the menu, but so is the local talent. While other culinary hotspots in the Caribbean may outsource their chefs, the majority of Baha Mar’s 400-plus culinary team is Bahamian. “The difference between Grand Cayman and here is that Grand Cayman allows a lot of expats; there’s not a lot of Caymanians working in the kitchen there,” says Martin, who held the role as chef de cuisine at Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman in the late 1990s.
At SLS Baha Mar’s Cleo, for example, chef Elmaleh works with an entirely Bahamian culinary team who weigh in on the dishes and ingredients making their way on the restaurant’s Mediterranean-inspired menu—one of Nassau’s first. “We’re bringing in new dishes with Israeli flavors and Syrian spices that I don’t think others have done in the past,” Elmaleh said in an e-mail. “We quickly realized lamb is somewhat of a delicacy in the Bahamas that isn’t offered in many restaurants on the island, and locals and visitors are ordering our lamb dishes in a way we haven’t seen at any of our other locations.”
After a five-year stint in Grand Cayman with his flagship Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, James Beard Award-winner Michael Schwartz is another chef who is heading back to the Caribbean with the launch of his latest venture, rustic Italian eatery Fi’lia.
“Thinking about a beach and a big bowl of pasta or pizza doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said in a phone interview while in Nassau for a menu tasting. “But when people are traveling, they’re attracted to something they know and love. Everyone loves Italian; it’s sort of like comfort food.”
For a menu that seamlessly blends Bahamian ingredients and an Italian concept, Schwartz brought another Michael’s Genuine alum on board, Thomas Tennant, to serve as Fi’lia’s executive chef. “We’re really just digging in to the local food and farming scene,” Schwartz explained. “But Thomas has been there for a few months now making growth with local chefs and figuring out the lay of the land. He was our chef in Grand Cayman, so he’s really got a good sense of not only living on an island but also connecting with local farmers, producers and fishermen.”
When asked whether Nassau’s culinary scene will evolve into something similar to Grand Cayman, Schwartz responded, “Nassau has the means and it’s not that different than Cayman. I think for Cayman, it took one chef—Eric Ripert—who started the food festival and brought a bunch of chefs and attention. When Baha Mar is locked and loaded and gains some momentum, I can see that happening easily here.”