There’s not much to do in Anguilla but eat, drink, and tan, but the tiny British island, located directly east of Puerto Rico, excels in all three—especially so when it comes to the food. Its reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean is a bit incongruous, considering that the arid, limestone-and-coral island is nicknamed “The Rock.” Yet Anguilla’s evolution into a destination for food lovers has been two decades in the making, and not even the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 can stop it.
Part of that comes from local fare like famously sweet and tender langoustines, sustainably-caught red snapper and crayfish, and melt-in-your-mouth jerk chicken. But a large part is also due to the hydroponic farm at The CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa, which introduced farm-to-table dining to Anguilla in the 1990s and freed the island from total reliance on imported produce.
“Farm-to-table is a concept we’re very proud to say we were one of the pioneers of here,” says Stephane Zaharia, the president and managing director of the Resorts & Residences by CuisinArt. “The hydroponic farm is an integral part of the resort,” adds executive chef Alan Larch. “Before it, you couldn’t grow anything here—now, we can ensure that everything we serve is as fresh as possible without having to fly it in.”
Hydroponic farming is a method that doesn’t use soil. Instead, plants are grown using a mixture of nutrients and water. In the late ’90s, CuisinArt worked with the University of Arizona—one of the leaders in this type of growing—to install its 18,000-square-foot greenhouse, Zaharia explains. Since then, resort farmers have grown different types of lettuce, beefsteak and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, bok choy, and herbs to feed nearly 1,000 people per day, says Larch. “Everything our chefs use in their kitchens is harvested the same day and served at our restaurants: Tokyo Bay, Santorini at the Clubhouse, Mosaic, KazBar, and the Beach Bar,” says Zaharia. (The farm also provides fresh produce for The Reef by CuisinArt, the resort’s sister property, which reopened in April 2018.) CuisinArt’s focus on farm-fresh produce was way ahead of its time, and the resort was able to bring a new league of food-obsessed travelers to Anguilla—not just because it could offer less expensive home-grown produce alongside fresh seafood, but also because it marketed the property as a farm-to-table concept destination. “We really ran with it, from our farm tours to the demonstration kitchen and cooking classes, to create a hands-on experience for our guests,” Zaharia says.
Those same travelers were a boon to local businesses as well, as culinary tourists searching for good eats ventured off property to sample white oak-aged rum punches with freshly grated nutmeg at Roy’s Bayside Grill at the Sandy Ground beach or butter-poached lobster and grilled shrimp at Veya, a rustic restaurant tucked into the trees nearby. Anguilla, at only 35 square miles with a population of less than 20,000 people, has more than 100 restaurants that serve everything from world-class cuisine at five-star hotel restaurants to local delicacies from shacks on the beach. “Per capita, the ratio of restaurants is extraordinary compared to other islands in the region,” says Zaharia.
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But hydroponic farming is a delicate business, and the metal greenhouse structure—so different from the island’s typical concrete buildings to allow for the unique growing process—was “completely flattened” in Hurricane Irma’s 200-plus-mile-per-hour winds, says Larch. The Category 5 hurricane that hit Anguilla on September 6, 2017, also “substantially damaged” nearly 90 percent of government buildings and the island’s electricity infrastructure, according to the International Organization for Migration. Some of the island’s largest resorts (including CuisinArt, the Belmond Cap Juluca, and Malliouhana, an Auberge Resort) won’t reopen until November. The island saw tourism numbers decline by over 70 percent in the early months of 2018 compared to those same months in 2017.
While cleanup has proceeded at a rapid pace in Anguilla, the restaurant industry hasn’t fully recovered—yet. Some of the upscale spots, like The Restaurant at Malliouhana, started by Michelin-star French chefs, and the Belmond’s elegant Pimm’s and Cip’s by Cipriani are still working on repairs. Island staples like Scilly Cay, a speck of an island that hosts seafood barbecues under a palapa, and Blanchards, which serves a globally-inspired menu near the beach at Meads Bay, aren’t slated to reopen until late fall.
Instead of rushing to reopen, CuisinArt took the past year to give the whole property a facelift and double down on the hydroponic garden. The updated facility—along with the entire resort—will open on November 1. “We really worked closely with engineers to create a sophisticated system that would be more durable, more sustainable, and more productive than before,” says Zaharia. That includes a stronger structure and branching out in terms of crops. “We’re looking into setting up micro-climates within the farm to grow things like sprouts or berries, which has never been done in the Caribbean before,” says Larch.
Any excess production will go to staff members and into the community. CuisinArt plans to donate to senior citizen homes, schools, and the island’s only hospital. “We’re masters in this particular area, and that’s what we want to share with guests and the island,” says Larch. “That means providing our guests with the best possible food, employing people from the local community, and being as sustainable as possible.”
On the surface, CuisinArt’s hydroponic garden covers less than a square mile of island. And yet from the beginning, it’s been an experiential entry point into Anguilla’s dynamic culinary scene. Hurricane Irma may have wiped out last year’s crop, but it can’t kill this island’s dedication to genuine farm-to-table dining.