THE SCOURGE OF THE CARIBBEAN LE FLÉAU DES CARAÏBES
SINCE THEIR POPULATION EXPLODED A DECADE AGO, LIONFISH HAVE BEEN GOBBLING UP EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. THE BEST WAY TO RID THE REEF OF THIS MARINE MENACE? JUST EAT IT.
A Michelin-starred chef’s delicious mission to rein in the lionfish population. Un chef étoilé au Michelin a une mission : réduire la population de rascasse volante.
JACK JOHNSON’S ISLAND SLACKER TUNES DRIFT FROM our dive boat stereo across the turquoise Caribbean Sea, back to Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. The stretch of white coral sand, colonized by chaise lounges, luxury hotels and condos of the taxavoidant wealthy, shrinks in the distance as we approach Hammerhead Hole. The shallow dive site, one of roughly 240 on the vast coral reef flanking the island’s shorelines, is home to hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, red snappers and myriad tiny algae eaters essential for reef health. Also: an invasive ex-pat known as Indo-Pacific red lionfish, the reason we’re here.
On board, José Andrés sharpens a three-pronged spear with a rusty file. The boisterous Spanish-American chef was named 2018 James Beard Humanitarian of the Year for his work preparing over three million meals for Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; he’s also credited with popularizing tapas in the U.S. with his 31 restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Minibar in Washington, D.C. Andrés and some of the world’s most celebrated chefs are here for the Cayman Cookout, the island’s annual binge-booze-and-beach
“Handling lionfish is like trying to wrangle a porcupine,” says our guide.
extravaganza. He’s also on a mission he hopes will do nothing less than rescue the sea’s threatened ecosystem. That’s why, at the moment, he’s suiting up for a lionfish hunt.
As the crew drops off the back of the boat, I strap on flippers and a snorkel, a contented surface dweller peering down on the action 10 metres below. Clutching spears and cylindrical catch containers, the divers float in slow motion, scanning the reef’s periwinkle and pale-yellow crags and crannies for the lionfish’s telltale stripes and feathery mane. An overly familiar four-foot nurse shark arrives to spiral between torsos and legs, momentarily distracting the group and sending this aforementioned surface dweller into a minor panic, before slipping beyond the reef’s precipice into the abyss. That’s when a petite, ponytailed dive guide thrusts her spear into a nook, yanks it back and reveals her one-pound, copper-andwhite-striped prize.
Back up on the boat, Andrés is joined by a local chef named Thomas Tennant to prepare the catch. “Handling lionfish is like trying to wrangle a porcupine,” says Jason Washington, our guide and the owner of Ambassador Divers, as Tennant snaps on latex gloves and cuts off the venomous spines with shears. The imposing quills are one reason many chefs are reluctant to work with the fish – it’s a lot of work for a little meat. Diners also shy from ordering it, frightened off when they hear it’s venomous. Pushing lionfish as a delicacy is a tough sell here, even for a chef of Andrés’ calibre. But to reduce the predators’ numbers, it’s essential to serve them up.
Still dripping with water and suddenly wearing a pastel “Live Love Laugh” apron that a fan on board has given him only semi-ironically, Andrés commandeers a blowtorch from Tennant and freestyles lionfish crudo. He flames the glossy