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Resort food goes gourmet Add to ...

The club sandwiches and shrimp cocktails that once defined resort cuisine are undergoing a transformation as several high-profile chefs have opened Caribbean outposts of their top-shelf franchises. And though the chefs face notable challenges - partly because of geography and limited infrastructure - the ventures offer a way for them to infuse their brands with a tropical appeal.

In March, acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse unveiled Mix on the Beach at the W Retreat and Spa in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Mix, which also has an outlet in Las Vegas, features locally inspired comfort foods such as mofongo ($22), alongside roasted lobster au curry ($38) and, yes, shrimp cocktail with spicy tomato syrup ($18), both described on the menu as "Alain Ducasse Classics."

"Ducasse has oversight, and he was down here recently, and we tasted everything," said Dagan Lynn, the restaurant's executive chef. "We're taking French techniques and implementing our environment around it. We adapt his style to any region."

Mr. Ducasse has never been averse to franchising his name; his company, Alain Ducasse Entreprise, oversees 25 restaurants in eight countries around the world.

Eric Ripert, the executive chef and an owner of Le Bernardin in New York, is associated with only three other restaurants - and one of those is Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.

"The idea was to create a restaurant that was not Le Bernardin, but inspired by Le Bernardin with Caribbean influence," Mr. Ripert said. Still, name-branding is evident. Diners can indulge in the six-course Eric Ripert tasting menu: for 120 Cayman Islands dollars (about $147), a selection of Le Bernardin-inspired favourites such as poached halibut in sesame court bouillon.

But can a restaurant be called an Eric Ripert restaurant if the chef is there only four times a year, for a few days each time? According to Mr. Ripert, the answer is yes - given the right partnership. "To me, first what is important is the quality, and the money comes later on," he said. "I have been approached twice in Costa Rica and twice I said no because I felt it wouldn't be possible for me to do the food I want at the level I want to cook."

Grand Cayman has also attracted Michael Schwartz, who in June opened a second outpost of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink, his popular Miami place. Mr. Schwartz's culinary philosophy revolves around local and sustainable food, and the ability to translate that abroad was his biggest concern, he said.

He acknowledges using mostly American meat on his Cayman menu, but he is in dialogues with local farmers for produce such as callaloo, a leafy vegetable, which he serves with a grilled pork chop for 29 Cayman Islands dollars ($35).

Indeed, the Caribbean's hot climate and limited infrastructure can make championing a local food culture difficult. "About 20 to 30 per cent of our food right now is local," said Mr. Lynn, the Mix executive chef. "But it varies."

Mr. Ripert seeks out area food too. "We decided to work with the local fishermen, and it's never easy because they're very unpredictable," he said. "But we went after about 20 of them and created relationships and incentives. Normally at resorts, you don't pay cash, but we said, 'You come with the fish, and we'll pay you cash.' " He said the restaurant now receives a steady supply of local snapper, swordfish and wahoo.

Maintaining the same level of quality in the Caribbean can result in significantly higher prices, since island operations necessitate regularly flying in ingredients. For example, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in Paradise Island, the Bahamas, offers a goat cheese queso fundido for $18, compared with $13 at the flagship Mesa in New York, while the New Mexican spice rubbed pork tenderloin is $40, instead of $29.

And despite the chefs' efforts to introduce a contemporary cuisine to the islands, it's often an uphill battle. "The stuff that sells is the comfort stuff," Mr. Lynn said. "People say they want healthy, but they really want burgers or macaroni and cheese."

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