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Ex Setai Chef Jonathan Wright on Sandy Lane, Island and Miami Dining

Former Setai chef Jonathan Wright couldn't resist the call of the Caribbean when the swank Sandy Lane, Barbados resort offered him the coveted executive chef position. Eater Miami caught up with him to see what's going on over there, the differences between here and there, and what he misses, if anything, about Miami's cuisine scene.

What are you doing differently at Sandy Lane then what you did at The Setai, South Beach?
At The Setai, our focus was share-style, small plates, authentic and contemporary Asian cuisine....our culinary staff reflected this, coming from Indonesia, India, Singapore, Thailand. The Setai’s clientele would often stop in for dinner or lunch by the pool, en route to their next festive event - a party, concert, fashion show (indeed, we promoted many fashion shows in The Setai’s courtyard). There was a lot of movement, energy, and buzz, reflecting the lifestyle of the particular international clientele that we attracted. The guests at Sandy Lane are more relaxed, low keyed, and there are more children and families. Their average stay is longer, they come here to relax and soak up the island’s sun and charm. They are not rushing anywhere, they may linger over lunch and then move to the beach or the spa for a few hours before dinner.

The menu in Bajan Blue for example, features flavors of Provence, the Caribbean islands and Mediterranean with items such as roasted artichokes with aioli, salad Niçoise, Grand Plateau fruits de mer, oysters on the half shell, Assiette Italian and a variety of flatbreads and pizzas are also prepared in the brick oven and home sushi is made daily. Fresh seafood dishes including locally caught snapper, tuna, king fish. Maine lobster, whole stone crab claws on ice. The menu is casual, Al Fresco, Flavors’ of the Sun; light, fresh, clean.

We provide a variety of constantly-changing barbeques and had a large Robata grill made from Coral stone using Binchotan, a Japanese Charcoal which is built as a pyramid in the centre and had metal steaks around were we cook Beef, giant prawns, spiny lobster and vegetables.

In L’Acajou, our Signature restaurant we feature the finest local ingredients—from vegetables, spices, herbs, and seafood, often sourced from local farmers and anglers—to create a simple yet savory dining experience. With an emphasis on French and Mediterranean dishes such as Seared Main Scallops with Young Leeks, Spanish Iberico Ham, Roasted Hazelnuts and Shaved Parmigianino Reggiano, A Tasting of Natures Farms Beetroot, and A Warm Poached Hen Egg Confit Scottish Smoked Salmon served with Chilled English Pea Soup and Mint Oil, Farmer Mahon`s Roasted Suckling Pig.

Do you miss Miami? If, so what do you miss?
Of course, after living in such a vibrant, cosmopolitan city for nearly four years, I miss taking my wife to a show at the Adrienne Arsht Center. I miss the cooking of Michelle Bernstein and Michael in the Design District. Snacking on tapas at Karma while having my car washed, and especially Cuban coffee! I miss the people. I made some wonderful friends. I really miss my team at the Setai, my Cooks, my Managers and Hans Meier my GM and I really miss my Tandoor ovens.

On the other hand my wife and I feel very fortunate to experience the quality of life in Barbados, as well as the wonderful cast of characters we have met. Barbados attracts fascinating people from all walks of life, intent to make this island their permanent home.

Instead of shopping in malls and suffering through traffic gridlock, we shop for fresh seafood at a local fish market, kayak or paddle board along the coast, and snorkel in the warm blue waters that attract divers, surfers and sailors from around the world....all within 10 minutes' drive from where we live. We have a beautiful villa surrounded by tropical garden backing onto the Old Nine golf Course, were we walk the dog and run daily. When we need a change of scenery, we drive to the opposite coast, where we can let our German Shepherd, Ned, run on the beach at Cattlewash, watch the surfers at Bathsheba, and have lunch at the Atlantis Hotel overlooking the rugged shoreline.

A small Farmers Market, held every Saturday morning at Brighton Plantation, is a great, convivial scene that makes you feel part of a community. There we buy local vegetables and fruits (Barbados grows the most luscious local mangoes). When mango season ends, avocado season begins. We go to the Farmers Market whenever we can wake up early enough!

What culinary trends do you see for island dining?
It is difficult to comment on ‘island dining’ to include multiple islands, because the Caribbean islands have such different cultures and local agriculture can be very diverse from island to island.

In Barbados, local purveyors and tourism officials are acutely aware that visitors can choose to visit many other locales where there are also spectacular beaches. Local restaurateurs are increasingly reactive to guest preferences for both cuisine and service. This will most likely result in less formality in some settings, on the upscale end of the spectrum.

Prix-fixe menus turn off many well-traveled customers who are accustomed to selecting the types and number of dishes they wish to be served. And, while visitors understand that many foods served in Barbados are imported (and therefore subject to higher transportation costs, duties), they still expect value for their money, which they will get in many other places. So restaurants are reacting by offering reasonable wines by the glass, for example, and they are thoughtful about serving portions.

Barbados seems to be moving in the direction of lighter fare, smaller plates, and more flexible dining options. While traditional British dishes such as shepherd’s pie and fish and chips are still widely available, as are curries, cou cou, and other local Caribbean dishes, you are seeing more options for interesting light fare and smaller plates.

In keeping with food trends, new restaurant interior designs are combining polished, sophisticated design elements with a natural, casual island vibe. The result is an upbeat place to gather for cocktails before dinner, or on your way back from the beach. (Bajans will always keep things light-hearted and lively, especially if they have a well-designed setting to conduct their socializing!)

What are your predictions for Miami’s culinary evolution (or lack thereof) based on your experience in the market?
Miami is a very social city, it does not need tourists to fill restaurants, and the locals (who are extremely multi-cultural, from the U.S., Caribbean, South America, Europe, and beyond) love to go out and have a good time. This is essential to developing a robust restaurant scene because in this tough economy, you cannot depend upon a narrow sliver of the population to sustain your business.

Miami's restaurants are already known for being stylish and visually interesting, but there seems to be an increasing emphasis on food quality, including farm-to-table. Several interesting restaurants have opened since my departure, which are evidence that the culinary scene is evolving and dynamic - such as the Local Craft Food & Drink, Pubbelly, Bistro 555, Haven 'gastro-lounge'. Existing restaurants are expanding their reach and appeal via food trucks.

Hopefully some settling in the real estate market and economy-at-large will enable more Miami restaurateurs to negotiate reasonable leases in appealing locations, so they can show off their skills. That is ideal for the culinary scene to further develop – if more chefs can assimilate in an area, generate friendly competition, feed off one another’s energy, attract more culinary professionals to the city, and allow their offerings to evolve by experimenting with an open-minded, adventurous audience. You have to create a setting where this interaction is possible.

The world is changing and Miami has changed such a lot in the past few years, There has been good food the for a while but not necessarily high on the required itinerary. [EaterWire]

Setai Hotel

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