Three years ago, when chef Gerardo Gonzalez announced that he would leave New York for a hotel gig in the Caribbean, some probably wondered why a bright young talent was cutting his career short.
“I always try to resist the myopic view of things,” Gonzalez says from the Grand Cayman’s Palm Heights Hotel, which granted him carte blanche to reimagine what a dining program should look like at a luxury resort. As it turns out, Gonzalez’s big move was arguably the third time the 38-year-old chef has been on to something. The first was around 2014, when the soft-spoken San Diego native turned heads manning the Lower East Side luncheonette El Rey. There, Gonzalez and his vegan chicharrones locos anticipated a wave of craveable, vaguely virtuous daytime restaurants where people take pictures of their toast: El Rey was the East Coast’s answer to Sqirl. Then there was Lalito, Gonzalez’s final New York project; that restaurant hosted a series of dinners highlighting subjects typically absent from the pages of traditional food media—a regular party, Tres Leches, centered Latinx identity and raised funds for food sovereignty efforts in Puerto Rico—long before the recent reckoning over representation in the culinary world.
At Palm Heights, Gonzalez built on these ideas. Since opening the hotel’s flagship restaurant, Tillie’s, he’s hosted dinners that fill the arresting seaside venue with creatives, culinarians, athletes, and scholars, from jewelry designer Soull Ogun and artist Laila Gohar to Nike master trainer Joe Holder. One event used roti as an avenue to explore the connections between South Asia and the West Indies. Another focused on the Filipino community of Grand Cayman. “People have all these associations with the island that have to do with lawyers and international finance,” says Gonzalez, “but there are 100 different nationalities represented here, on one small piece of land.”
This kind of multidisciplinary cross-pollination doesn’t exactly comport with the age of self-isolation. Gonzalez is eager to pick things up again. This summer, Trinidad & Tobago-born artist Adam Cooper and Hammer Museum associate curator Erin Christovale will aid in choosing themes, performers, and guests in a continuing investigation of the connections “between the West Indies and South Asia, West Africa, and beyond.” In the near future, chef Lee Desrosiers will be a fire cookery resident, preparing feasts on the beach. For the hotel’s soon-to-launch spa, Gonzalez and his right hand at Tillie’s, chef Jake Brodsky (formerly of Eleven Madison Park), are devising a plant-based menu in consultation with athletes and health experts. Gonzalez is also building a fermentation lab inspired by the exquisite corpse: When a chef visits, she’ll use what the last guy left behind. Chef Pamela Yung and artist Lexie Smith will be among the inaugural participants. “Imagine a chef arriving in Grand Cayman for the first time,” says Gonzalez, “and suddenly encountering a miso made of breadfruit, or a wine made from local hibiscus.”
For Gonzalez, though, the themed dinners will always be the heart of the endeavor. He recalls an early bacchanal when the hotel was still under construction. Toward the end of the night, he overheard Arielle Johnson, a flavor chemist, and Raul Lopez, founder of the fashion labels Hood by Air and Laur, talking about working together. “Even if a collaboration like that doesn’t wind up coming to fruition,” Gonzalez says, “there’s this euphoric sense of possibility.”
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