Foraging for High-End Meals on Dominica, the Caribbean’s Best-Kept Secret

Despite being in the Caribbean, Dominica is in many ways virtually untouched by the sort of outside influence you see on neighboring islands.
August 25, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
Dominica's Secret Bay's beach. Courtesy of Secret Bay
Courtesy of Secret Bay

“When I got to Dominica, I’ll be honest with you, I was tempted to ask the pilot to keep the plane running,” says South African–born chef Grant Lynott, remembering his arrival on the Caribbean island a year ago. “I had been to places that had been devastated before, but I had never been anywhere that a hurricane had passed through. Here it was a whole country—gone. The growth in a year is just biblical.”

Lynott had been in the middle of plans to move to Australia when he took on the role of executive chef at Zing Zing, a new fine-dining restaurant on Dominica, a wild island in the West Indies that had still been recovering from Tropical Storm Erika when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. It may seem an unlikely destination for such an endeavor, particularly given the unpredictable consistency of food and the island’s undeveloped supply chain. But here we are, wandering the grounds of Zing Zing’s home at Secret Bay, a boutique villa-only resort on the northwest side of the island, with a pair of gardening shears in hand, harvesting accoutrements for that evening’s menuless dinner.

An aerial view of Secret Bay, a boutique villa-only resort in Dominica.
Courtesy of Secret Bay

Despite being in the Caribbean, Dominica is, in many ways, virtually untouched by the sort of outside influence you see on neighboring islands, including big-box brands and tourist traps expertly manicured to attract sunburned foreigners. Though there are some picturesque beaches, people come here for the adventure: pristine diving and snorkeling, muddy hikes to a lake that boils with geothermal activity, canyoneering into mossy crevasses filled with a cool river that flows into massive twin waterfalls. Locals called it Nature Island long before the local tourism board adopted the name.

It’s easy to see why from the moment you fly in. The runway at Dominica’s primary airport is as short as our news-cycle attention span, too short in fact for a large commercial jet like a 747 to land, and is reached after a twin-turboprop soars low over lush and densely jungled hillsides covered in mist and abutting the coast, where whitecaps lash the east side of the island incessantly.

Natural History

But when you get close, walking among the wild as Lynott does during his pre-service forages, you start to notice the individual elements—and the story that flora tells is intimately complex. It’s laced with a history of attempted colonization as the British and French battled each other and the island’s indigenous Kalinago people, who’d already defeated the Spanish.

Though the colony days have ended (Dominica won sovereignty in 1978), foreign fingerprints are still found in the land itself. As Lynott explains it, there’s what grows naturally, what grows in a sort of alien sense, and what grows because of who’s tried to colonize (and who’s failed miserably)—“and the fact that everything is often just forgotten,” says Lynott.

Dominica-Zing Zing Restaurant-Chef Grant Lynott
Zing Zing executive chef Grant Lynott.
Courtesy of Secret Bay

Standing on the walkway to one of the six villas, he points to a lone fruit hanging at waist height from a tree just off the path. “So something like that, that’s definitely not native, at all,” Lynott says. “But to see pomegranate grow here, this is probably thanks to the English.”

He plucks it and points across the walkway to a yellow flower with tendril-like petals. “But like that, that’s ylang-ylang,” he says. “That’s the ylang-ylang variety they use in Chanel No. 5. You know the perfume? The Thai, they would use that in cooking, both the seedpod and flower. But here they wouldn’t touch it in a culinary sense. They wouldn’t even go near it, because it’s not something that’s traditional in any sense.”

Universal Language

Lynott has a few resources he’s been able to reference when coming across something unfamiliar in his foraging. Sitting on a shelf at Zing Zing, there’s a photocopied, spiral-bound version of a survival guide that was published in the 1940s by the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery titled Edible and Poisonous Plants of the Caribbean Region. Meticulously compiled drawings of edible and poisonous plants and fruits and water-rich vines cover its hundred-plus pages, the first of which reads, “This manual is designed to aid the serviceman to live off the land if he becomes separated from his unit.”

Lynott has also befriended a man who, as Lynott puts it, is trying to regrow Dominica from a farm in Syndicate, a town a few miles inland from Secret Bay. Together they’ve gone on treks across the island, guided by the diary of a plantation manager, in search of plants like vanilla. One day, the man knocked on Lynott’s door, saying he’d found tonka bean. “And it was only through description [that he could identify it],” says the chef. “Nobody knows what tonka bean is here.”

For Lynott, that’s exciting. It feels as though the plants of Dominica are a dead language that a few people are just starting to learn again.

“He brings me stuff sometimes, and he goes, ‘What is that?’ And then I’m like, ‘Ahh, I don’t remember! Either it kills you or it’s really good with soup.’ That’s kind of the vibe. That’s literally what it’s all about,” says Lynott, gesturing with his basket of trimmings. “This whole property is built like that so that you can just wander around here and make dinner more interesting. It’s not the place where you have like 65,000 rows of beautifully manicured vegetables and some hipster in a massive sombrero sun hat. You know, the ‘sage-bed whisperer’ or whatever. I don’t think you’re going to have that here, just because it’s so labor intensive.”

Conflicts of Interest

Slaves who were forced onto Dominica-bound boats left an enduring West African influence on the island. From a culinary standpoint, however, that influence was bastardized by the French and English, as colonizers scrambled to re-create familiar recipes with ingredients that weren’t readily available or easy to produce on Dominica. To this day, you’ll find coconut milk in place of heavy cream in rich pasta sauces at restaurants.

Lobster mac and cheese at Zing Zing.
Courtesy of Secret Bay

Because of that, Lynott, who fully recognizes that he’s an outsider, gets regular pushback from staff: What he’s trying to do at Zing Zing is nontraditional in the sense of what Dominicans have come to expect, but, he argues, is closer to what those original Dominican recipes probably looked like.

“If it’s not prepared in a way that they saw their grandmother do it, then it’s not right,” he says. “I try and explain at every turn: It’s not about me. Even if you look at this little restaurant, Zing Zing. This will result in a couple of hundred recipes that will be real Dominican stuff, that can be applied by whoever. But what is made here, nine times out of ten, is something that is so outside of what is normally made in a household, yet it’s probably closer to the original. Which is a kind of weird position to be in. I’m basically calling grandma’s recipe book a pack of lies.”

Inside Zing Zing restaurant.
Courtesy of Secret Bay

He uses callaloo, a greens-based soup found throughout the Caribbean, as an example. It changes from island to island because the dish is more of a “fireside story” than a recipe, says Lynott, and when someone forgets a step or ingredient once, or subs in something different entirely, that changes how it’s made the next time. Cooking, then, becomes like a game of Telephone, where word of mouth has created more of an adaptation than a copy, which is how you end up with callaloos in Dominica made with garlic or onion, neither of which grow on the island.

Because original recipes aren’t available, it takes some guesswork to imagine what these traditional dishes looked like before that game of Telephone started. But that reconstruction is part of the creativity of Zing Zing.

“I’m an alien here,” says Lynott, “But I’m more interested in what was being done here and what the ingredients were like before the French and English arrived.”