Known for its long stretch of sandy beaches, clear blue waters and laid-back vibes, the island of Saint-Martin (French side) is also making its mark as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. With cultural influences that include West African, French, Dutch, Indian and Latin American, the island’s gastronomic scene over many, many years has become a diverse representation of the people who call “The Friendly Island” home.
With a rich culinary and destination history that reaches the Caribbean, Americas and Europe, Saint-Martin was the perfect French Caribbean location to bring together world-renown chefs, restaurants, up-and-coming talent and the community near and far for Festival de la Gastronomie last November.
“2021 was the first edition of the Festival de la Gastronomie and it was a success. Saint-Martin is known to be the culinary capital of the Caribbean and we wanted to create an event to showcase our restaurants, savoir faire, produce [and] diversity when it comes to food and its people,” says Aida Weinum, the director of the St. Martin Tourist Office.
Taking place over 16 days (November 13 – 29), both locals and tourists, including a few celebrities, were treated to live cooking classes, discovery menus at over 60 restaurants, student culinary competitions and musical entertainment with an event gala to bring it all to a close at the end.
Festival de la Gastronomie
Highlighting Saint-Martin’s gastronomy heritage through the diversity of its people and food was certainly a contributing factor for the event’s success. Local chefs such as Kareem Brooks, who led cooking classes during the festival, draws his culinary inspiration from watching his mom and grandmother throughout his childhood.
In addition, his use of colors and contrast directly correlates to years of making Carnival costumes with his dad. “The fact that my mom cooked in the kitchen and I feel in love with cooking, and I also fell in love with making Carnival costumes, I try to use that colorful background from costume making and incorporate it on the plates,” he shares.
Chef Kénila Hyman, also from Saint-Martin, walked participants taking the interactive cooking classes through recipes for a vegetarian burger and Caribbean brunch. A little island hopping allowed chefs Edna Butcher of St. Lucia and Jimmy Bibrac from Guadeloupe to infuse Festival de la Gastronomie with flavors that carry the essence of Caribbean cooking from their neighboring islands. Tristen Epps of Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in Miami served some international flare toward the event’s close out with his rendition of a coconut seafood stew.
The official festival ingredient was tamarind, and the tourist office challenged both chefs and restaurants to go beyond their everyday use of the versatile fruit for both sweet and savory dishes. “It also encouraged our restaurants to be creative, innovative and wanting to showcase the best of what they have to offer,” says Weinum.
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Restaurants participating throughout the French side of the island offered a dish or drink with a tamarind twist and were judged secretly during the festival. In the end, La Villa Hibiscus nabbed the award for Best Table, with Best Dessert going to Ice Cream Takata and Best Cocktail to Hot Spot by Bush Tea SXM. A complete list of all the winners can be found in this article here.
“The festival also created a stronger bond between the stakeholders and the Tourist Office. We are currently preparing the 2nd edition for which we are excited to announce in the near future,” shares Weinum. As Festival de la Gastronomie continues to grow, so will the opportunity to attract more people both near and far who see culinary and travel as the ultimate adventure pairing.
Saint-Martin: The Heritage Keepers
Visiting Saint-Martin during Festival de la Gastronomie also gives you a chance to taste local flavors both on and off the beaten path. Something that frankly, in my opinion, is a must when it comes to experiencing all a destination has to offer through food and drink.
With wide selection of restaurants on the island that offer white linen to counter service, you can easily choose your mood and budget. With so many standouts, my first question is usually, “Where do locals eat?” One of the answers will lead you to the towns of Grand Case and Marigot, where lolos or inexpensive local roadside restaurants serve traditional dishes with a side of conversation and good vibes to start, get you through or end the day.
Festival category winner Hot Spot, led by chef Renoldo Fleming, is one of many lolos in Marigot you’ll want to check out on the waterfront, especially for grilled meats and fried and baked johnnycakes. Other notable lolos include Sandy’s Waterfront Bar, Enoch’s Place, Rosemary’s and Chez Coco. But before you decide, I highly suggest walking around, and if with others, grab dishes from multiple places to share.
In Grand Case, Villa Royale is a household name and tourist favorite. Haitian native chef Leo Saintil’s provides a unique take on Creole cuisine that definitely has Saint-Martin’s attention. Compared to Marigot, there are fewer lolos, but that doesn’t mean flavor isn’t on the menu. Favorites include Rib Shack and Scooby’s.
Next to dining at local, small-owned establishments is a more up close and personal cultural experience in a host's home. That certainly was the case while taking a cooking class with Aline Freedom. The former educator who hails from Guadeloupe opens her home where she shows eager participants a simple and delicious recipe for codfish fritters that are dipped in a Creole sauce made of garlic, vinegar, lime juice and onions. Warning, they are highly addictive.
And finally, from French wines to award-winning rums, a drink that you can’t leave Saint-Martin without trying is the legendary folk guavaberry liqueur. Made from rare fruit known as guavaberries, no occasion or celebration is complete without this liqueur.
Colombier Guavaberry Tradition, owned by Louis Maccow and his wife Maria, has been family-owned and operated since the 1900s. Maccow proceeded his father with using the berries grown on his property before being harvested and mixed with an undisclosed rum, sugar and other flavors.
The entire process of creating this traditional liqueur takes between one to five years and occurs in aged oak barrels. Arrange a tour to learn more and then enjoy a tasting that takes you through more than ten flavors ranging from passionfruit, coconut, lime, pineapple, mango and more.
As the culinary capital of the Caribbean, Saint-Martin certainly lives up to this coveted title. Although any time of the year is ideal for visiting, you may want to be a little strategic when food is just as important on your travel itinerary as what to do. With planning on the way for this year’s Festival de la Gastronomie, timing along with some planning will make your first or next trip to this French Caribbean island one to remember.
To plan your trip, visit www.st-martin.org. Follow Saint-Martin Tourist Office on Facebook and Instagram for the official 2022 date announcement of Festival de la Gastronomie as well as island happenings, gastronomy experiences and more.