Gourmet Festival Puts St. Barts Cuisine in the Spotlight

“My father was born under the Danish flag, but his parents were from Saline.”

I am en route to St. Barts aboard Tradewind Aviation’s elegantly fitted Pilatus PC-12 eight-seater. My interlocutor and fellow passenger is an 83-year old grandmother from St. Thomas, an island which (I’ve just learned) was Danish territory before becoming part of the US Virgin Islands. It’s just the two of us on board with the pilot and co-pilot; Tradewind is a VIP shuttle enabling passengers to bypass security lines at departure and be escorted through French customs upon arrival.

In the memories Madame shares of her family’s old house near Saline beach on St. Barts, a few decades’ of West Indies history come to life. A leitmotif is periods of hunger when drought on one island would force inhabitants to seek better conditions on another. I will find myself reflecting on her stories during my time exploring this now well-off French Caribbean island during the Taste of St. Barth Gourmet Festival.

At the airport I am met by a driver from Hotel Christopher, one of the five-star hotels participating in the festival. A cool hand towel is proffered, and soon we’ve entered onto grounds lush with frangipani, heliconia and a dozen species of palm trees. The entire property faces the pool and seafront. As I regard the wide expanse of blue, I imagine I hear Françoise Hardy singing the lyrics to “La Mer.”

As a cornerstone of the festival’s lineup, chefs from the island’s top hotels are paired with visiting Michelin-starred chefs in a series of four- and eight-course dinners. The Christopher’s executive chef, Jean-Baptiste Piard, has been incorporating flavors from his international experience (including a stint in New Caledonia) into the cuisine at the resort’s two restaurants.

The dinner Piard prepared in collaboration with visiting chef Jérôme Nutile included an haute take on surf-and-turf: suckling pig and lobster with an emulsion of coconut and shrimp. As night fell, the potted white tabletop orchids became vivid against the darkening sky, and the Pleiades star cluster was reflected in the pool.

“We represent France in the Americas,” Nils Dufau said. He is president of the St. Barts tourism committee; we met at a welcome cocktail party at a villa overlooking Anse de L’Orient. “We have many different events on St. Barts:  yacht races, a film festival…but a gastronomic festival is a natural way to showcase a part of French culture.”

The cocktail party vibe was upbeat with the consensus that the island and its tourist infrastructure has been through an exciting period of changes, with new ownership of a couple of hotels, and renovations at others.

Some evidence of those changes can be seen at Le Guanahani, the 18 acre resort on its own private peninsula. Following a recent redesign, walls in Caribbean colors are the background for custom made furnishings in a Panama hat-weave finish by Luis Pons. The young Nicolas de Marchi has recently been named the resort’s executive chef.

De Marchi’s festival partner chef was Yoann Conte. The dinner they prepared in Le Guanahani’s Bartolomeo restaurant included langoustine with diced crunchy vegetables and sweet spices in which I was able to identify a hint of verbena.

The next day I sat beachside with the pair: de Marchi and the older Conte (who has earned two Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant in the Haute-Savoie) to chat about the future of cuisine on St. Bart’s. They share the conviction that the annual Taste of St. Barth Gourmet Festival is upping the culinary game on the island. “The festival is a really good exchange of ideas,” de Marchi said. “We are lucky to have this collaboration.”

“Maybe Michelin or Zagat will come and do a guide to the Caribbean,” Conte added.

One difficulty is that most food needs to be imported to the historically barren island. “I try using St. Barts eggs or St. Barts tomatoes,” de Marchi said. “But one day I’ll have 30 kilos and the next day–zero.” As he speaks I remember Madame’s tales, when a new sibling meant less milk and food for the others.

“Next time we will do something with langouste or tuna from here,” Conte says. Although the provisions are imported, local talent is emphatically involved in the festival’s events, including a competition for young (maximum age 30) chefs. And island children and teens to age 15 participate in the “Young Toques” pastry competition.

A beach picnic sponsored by Badoit offered another fun competition: the pairs of chefs each created a miniature tasting-meal-on-a-plate, with the festival-goers casting votes for their favorite.

Well fed, I decided to pop in for a look-see at Cheval Blanc, since Caviar Affair plans to feature their sister property in the Maldives in a future issue. Cheval Blanc is now part of the LVMH group. It was all pretty in pink, the hotel’s signature color, on a privileged spot on Flamands Bay which beckoned me.

But I couldn’t linger, as I had promised myself a swim off of Saline Beach. Madame from my Tradewind flight had told of an old family habit that I wanted to try. Swim out where the water is clean, she said, and swallow three gulps of saltwater as a sort of constitutional “to balance the system.” Bobbing out beyond the waves, facing back toward the limestone hills, my first sip was tentative, my third confident. I think that was my favorite St. Barts gastronomic experience.