Hotel pioneer. Tourism promoter. Author. Tireless advocate for charitable causes. Each of these descriptions handily describes Suzy Soto, who has reached iconic status in the Cayman Islands. However, lost in the sauce, as it were, may be one of the other hats she has worn over the years – that of restaurant owner and cook (she steadfastly refuses to be called a “chef”).
Though Suzy would most likely be the first to play down her role in that industry, she will have to defer to a much higher authority – the Cayman Culinary Society – who last year honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award for “distinguished service and commitment to the hospitality industry.”
The recognition meant a lot to her. “I was very humbled to get that award. When Keith Griffin (of the society) notified me, I said ‘I am not a talented, educated chef like the rest of you at the Culinary Society. I am more of a “seat-of-the-pants” cook.’ Anyway, I was very excited. It is a great honor,” she says.
Suzy considers the award the culmination of all her efforts but is quick to credit others for the overall success of Cayman’s hotel and restaurant industry.
“When I won the award, I started thinking about all the work of being in the restaurant and hotel business,” she says, pointing out the contributions of others including Cissy Delapenha, Clemens Guettler, and Mike Flowers, who helped established the Taste of Cayman food and wine festival in 1988, which just celebrated its 28th year.
Included in that inaugural event were their restaurants – Cracked Conch, Golden Pagoda, The Wharf, and Lone Star. As with everything else, there is a funny story to accompany that first Taste. “We had made all the arrangements – Mike, Cissy, Clemens and me (there were about 15 restaurants that took part), but we forgot to plan for garbage cans. Mike and I ran around picking garbage up and putting it in bags.”
A love of cooking
Anyone who knows Suzy can attest to her love of cooking and of sharing with her guests whatever she happily whips up in the kitchen, from a simple but delicious sandwich-and-soup combo, to turtle steak or a huge pot of chili. Though she earned her culinary chops at her first restaurant at Tortuga Club in East End, which she opened in 1963 with then-husband Eric Bergstrom, followed up in 1981 by the Cracked Conch, which long ago became a landmark establishment, she credits her mother for her cooking success. Along the way, she brought up five children, who all “quietly contribute to life in Cayman,” she proudly notes.
“My mom was a great cook. I’d die for one of her lemon meringue pies right now. She experimented with everything,” Suzy recalls. “She made do with what we had. She made the best Welsh rarebit.
“I got my love of cooking from her. But, I can’t follow a recipe; I’m always changing things.”
Suzy watched and learned by her mother’s side and then took a cooking class in high school in Chicago, where she discovered her own approach to cooking, despite her teacher’s efforts. She recalls how the class was instructed to measure out everything separately, which, she says, “was a waste of time and energy. It dirtied up all these extra dishes instead of just measuring the ingredients and throwing them in the bowl.
“I said it was outrageous and the teacher told me I would never learn to cook.”
Not only did Suzy prove her teacher wrong, she also learned the importance of good nutrition, first by instinct and then through her training as a nurse.
“I objected to draining and straining,” she says, believing that reduced the nutritive value of the ingredients. As she learned more, Suzy explained that her style of cooking “started coming together in my head.”
A new era
By the time Suzy and her husband built the Tortuga Club, after moving to Cayman in 1963, she was excited to create a menu with many new dishes.
But first, they had to make the hotel accessible, in the most literal way.
“Eric chose the spot; we had 300 feet of beach but there wasn’t even a road to reach it. You had to walk along a path or the beach to get there.
“So, Eric got on a bulldozer that was in the area and bulldozed the road through. There were no phones, no electricity, no water, just nature. We had to provide everything. We had to get two diesel generators from England.”
Despite the obstacles, they pushed through and Suzy set up the menu and showed her first cook, Marvel McLaughlin, who she notes is great at cooking Caymanian dishes, how to prepare some of the newer items. Then, a woman who would become a well-known name in Cayman culinary circles – Cleo Conolly, who Suzy calls a “gifted cook,” joined the kitchen and stayed for many years. Cleo’s brother, Frank, tended bar (“He was a non-drinker, the best kind of bartender!”).
She learned some important things from Miss Cleo. “I was working with Scotch bonnet peppers flicking out the seeds. She warned me to use gloves and an hour later my hands were on fire. I had to plunge then into a bucket of seawater. Never again did my hands touch a Scotch bonnet.”
Though Miss Cleo couldn’t resist an “I told you so,” their time together forged a lifelong friendship. “I loved her very much,” says Suzy. “She and Frank and their other family members became our family, along with all the other staff from East End. I have very fond memories of working with them. Most of them went on to be very successful in life and work.”
Suzy also recalls that they didn’t even have tables for their first guests, instead setting up wooden “horses” with plywood across them, covered by tablecloths. “Everyone sat at the same table,” she said, adding that she insisted that all the hot food was served hot and the cold food served cold.
“You need to use soup bowls that keep the soup hot,” she points out, “not a shallow bowl. Even if the soup is served hot, it would cool off by the time it got to the table. I am pernickety about that.”
The lack of supplies in the early days also helped to shape the cook she would become.
“Not being able to get everything we needed – if the ship didn’t come in – once led me to use Ritz crackers, cho-cho (chayote) and green papaya to make a pie. I learned to convert local ingredients into some classic recipes.”
A culinary legend
Her attention to detail and commitment to staff has served her well, as evidenced by her other major success story as a restaurateur – The Cracked Conch, which she opened in 1981 in Red Bay with her son-in-law Davy Ebanks, who was the first manager, and daughter Sheree, then moved to Selkirk Plaza and finally relocated to West Bay, where it has remained. The restaurant was born the same year she married dive-industry pioneer Bob Soto, who passed away in March 2015. Each of them became a legend in their own right.
Suzy owned the restaurant until 2005, building it, with her dedicated staff, including long-time manager, Thomas Pennington-Lowe, into one of the island’s most popular eating establishments, all with Bob’s encouragement and support. Her years of cooking and overseeing restaurants, along with numerous requests from guests for recipes, finally led her to write a cookbook, “Cookin’ and Laughin’…in the Cayman Islands,” which contains a great selection of her culinary creations.
She may no longer be actively involved in the restaurant business, but Suzy’s love of cooking and sharing good food with family and friends remains one of her joys. “I love to have people try new things,” she says with obvious pleasure.
That renowned warmth and hospitality, which is clear to anyone who has ever sat at Suzy’s table for one of her home-cooked meals, might be her true lifetime achievement.