Dining: The Recipe of Life
Two hours and 30-some dishes into the lavish meal, the kitchen door opens and the chef emerges. His gauzy white pants and a flowing white shirt, unbuttoned midchest, replace traditional chef whites, and Greek music resounds throughout the dining room. Smiling deviously, the chef smashes a plate on the floor, then another, and with arms overhead, breaks into a lively Zorba-like dance. Within seconds, delighted guests abandon their ouzos to join him.
If this doesn’t sound like the usual, obligatory chef-meets-guest experience, it’s because Andrew Clay is not your typical gastronomic host. As the new head chef of Necker Island, Richard Branson’s Caribbean property in the British Virgin Islands, Clay caters to some of the world’s most discerning diners. However, unlike many top chefs, he doesn’t rely on foie gras and caviar. Instead, the engaging 30-year-old draws inspiration from his Greek homeland.
Clay came to Necker from the famed Anassa hotel in Cyprus in October 2000 and was named executive chef in February. Now that he’s in charge, the island’s dining experience includes some of his touches from home. “In Cyprus, lunches and dinners go on for hours,” explains Clay. “There are loads of dips and olive oil, garlic, wine. I spent most of my life gathered around one table or another. Greek meals are all about being together, celebrating and enjoying life.”
These are exactly the ingredients Branson had in mind when designing Necker. The Virgin airline and record magnate bought the island in the late 1970s with the simple dream of unwinding there with close friends and family. But Branson does nothing halfheartedly, and what was once a scrubby, desert-scorched, rocky landmass has become the most celebrated home in the Caribbean. Stone was brought in from Yorkshire, hardwood beams from Brazil, furniture—and entire guest pavilions for that matter—from Bali.
When Branson is not in residence, Necker Island is available for rent on a daily basis for you and as many as 25 of your guests. Even with a houseful, it maintains the feel of a private retreat. Meals are served anytime, anywhere, and consist of anything guests desire. Champagne at 9:30 am in your room? No problem. An African bush–style banquet on the beach? Just say the word. Feel like raiding Branson’s kitchen in the middle of the night? Help yourself.
Clay savors the spontaneity and rises to the challenge of gratifying guests’ whims. When a recent group told Clay of their love for sushi, he floated kayaks in the pool and filled them with ice, tropical flowers, and loads of sushi, duck rolls, sashimi, oysters, and seafood. When they were ready to eat, guests dove in—literally.
Clay’s signature meal, however, is his traditional Greek mezza, featuring 30 to 40 dishes from his homeland, a few made from his grandmother’s recipes. “I love putting on a proper Greek dinner,” he says. “As guests finish one bowl [of moussaka, tzanziki, yogurt-and-oregano chicken, and other native specialties], we replace it with another.” The meal does not cease until Clay finally intercedes with his plate-breaking, Greek-dancing finale.
With the arrival of Australian sous chef Stephen Hitchings, Clay is now adding some Down Under surprises to the menu, such as ostrich, antelope, and wild boar. Will the exotic meats be wrapped in grape leaves? Drizzled in olive oil? Tossed with feta?
No comment from Clay, who, with arms overhead and body swaying, has navigated to the rooftop to dance in the moonlight.
Necker Island, 800.557.4255, www.neckerisland.com