NEVIS, West Indies — Chef Benjamin Voisin chats amiably while dicing papaya, tomatoes, onion, and bell peppers during a cooking class at the Montpelier Plantation & Beach here. He sautes this “island salsa” quickly, splashes it with fresh passion fruit juice, and uses it to garnish pan-seared red snapper fillets, caught locally off the island. “When I first told colleagues in Spain I was moving to Nevis,” says the Frenchman, “the response was ‘I’m sorry — where?’ ”
This quiet tropical island gets less attention than St. Kitts, its big sister located 2 miles across a channel in the pale green Caribbean Sea. People travel to Nevis (pronounced “NEE-vis”) not for casinos and night life — there isn’t any — but for low-key pleasures such as swimming, sunning, hiking, and dining.
Montpelier Plantation, a 19-room Relais & Chateaux hotel located on a lush 60-acre hillside overlooking the ocean, offers casual luxury. Two restaurants on the property are open to the public: The poolside Indigo and the more formal Restaurant 750. For those who want a cooking class, the hotel offers a three-hour culinary demonstration and participation class for two to six people ($100 per person includes lunch).
Voisin, who looks younger than his 27 years, trained in Bordeaux, France, and lived and cooked in Spain for seven years. He arrived at Montpelier in 2011 and designed the current menu. “My goal is to integrate my kind of cooking with local ingredients, to combine a taste of the Caribbean with foods of the Mediterranean,” says the chef.
Though the island is only 5 by 7 miles, the land is verdant, and local farmers produce many varieties of fruit and vegetables including some that are organically grown. “Ninety percent of the produce we use here comes from the island, including our own garden. It’s the real Caribbean,” says Voisin. The challenge for the chef is to create different menus every day with a rotating set of ingredients. “We have people who come and stay here for two weeks, so I can’t repeat myself. I look in the refrigerator every day to see what I have.”
Local fish are line caught, including red snapper, wahoo, and mahi-mahi. Voisin buys them directly from the fishermen and fillets them himself. Divers catch spiny lobsters in traps, and Voisin grills the tails to serve with curry-cilantro and other sauces. The few items on the menu not from the island include USDA-approved meats that come from other sources.
Putting aside the finished seafood salsa, Voisin turns his attention to chopping cucumbers for a chilled soup made, surprisingly, with the skin and seeds. Placing the cucumber chunks in a blender, he adds garlic, white vinegar, a pinch of salt, and lemongrass leaves before pureeing with a healthy pour of olive oil. “This is very easy, and fresh,” says Voisin, transferring the bright green mixture to a container to chill before lunch.
Voisin supervises a small, efficient staff that prepares everything from scratch, including all sauces, soups, vinaigrettes, pastries (except croissants), and desserts. The use of local ingredients extends as well to beverages. The hotel infuses spirits with island-grown products served at the bar, such as cucumber gin, pineapple rum, and passion fruit vodka. Nothing in the kitchen goes to waste. All papaya shavings, tomato scraps, pepper cores are saved in a bucket that is picked up by a local farmer to feed his pigs.
The chef joins the students for lunch on a patio overlooking the pool. In addition to the chilled cucumber soup and pan-seared snapper with island salsa, there is jasmine rice, crispy plantain chips, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. The flavors are as fresh and vivid as the surrounding landscape.
“Before coming to Nevis, I never saw nature so green and wild,” says Voisin. “It’s amazing. It’s a raw, unspoiled island. It’s all about really getting away. Come and be creative.”
Montpelier Plantation & Beach Nevis, West Indies, 869-469-3462,