Get lost in Christiansted, St. Croix, for an afternoon. (©Erik Larsen/Flickr, Creative Commons)
Craving an island escape? For chef Ralph Motta, every day is an island escape.
The young entrepreneur owns a boutique catering company, Motta Cuisine, specializing in sea-to-table, modern cuisine and was recently named the culinary ambassador to the U.S. by the USVI Department of Tourism.
Motta sat down with Where to talk island life, insider travel tips and culinary inspiration.
You're on a deserted island and you can only have three ingredients to cook with. What are they?
A whole coconut. I will take some mahi and then, I've got salt water, so avocados. I can turn that into a dish.
What's the best restaurant for local food in St. Croix?
What's the one local dish you can't get enough of?
Probably callaloo. People make it all the time but it's better at a certain time of year—when traditional ingredients are in season. There's a combination of so much history and so much culture in one pot.
What's your spirit city?
I've only been twice—San Francisco would have to be my spirit city. San Francisco just reminds me of the Caribbean. Small town, same aspect, you park your car and walk everywhere.
What's your favorite way to spend an afternoon in St. Croix?
I'd say walking in Christiansted. The blocks aren't long. Every street has restaurants. Then the boardwalk, hanging out and having tacos, to walking the back streets of town and seeing the older buildings, stopping in and buying jewelry. The different art galleries. There's just tons to do. It doesn't require driving and stopping the car. You just pick a spot and jump out and walk for hours.
That one place you've always wanted to go and haven't yet?
If I could stomach that long, long flight, I'd go to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef.
Who's your ideal travel partner?
Do I have to pick one? There's Becky Bass, Zahra Jackson, Monique Meade. They're awesome travel companions. We're getting ready to book a trip to Cabo San Lucas. We're all excited; it's been a few years. We've been best friends since high school. We don't get to travel much because we're all over the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Best kept secret in the Virgin Islands?
Besides the food? The beaches. People usually come to the USVI on cruise ships. A lot of times people get whisked away on (an excursion). They might get to go to a public beach, but they don't get to see the true beauty.
Then there are the tidal pools on the Northwest. You can get there by car, but it's got to be a four-wheel drive; it's really off the beaten path. Jack's Bay is near Point Udall, the most eastern point of the USVI. It's a 20 to 25 minute hike, but it's a beautiful white sandy beach.
What is the best thing about living in St. Croix?
I think it's the ease and accessibility of everything. In St. Croix, I drive a mile or two, I've been to the grocery store, the barber shop, the beach—you have it all right there. I'm home right now but in five minutes I could be at the beach.
One thing we can't miss?
Visit in December or early January to catch the festival. We celebrate Christmastime and our heritage and culture. All three islands have one at different times. You get everything—tons of vendors cooking up all local fare, the parade with the girls in the feathers, J'ouvert (street party) at night, everyone dancing. It's phenomenal. Then all the different events that come alongside that. It's the perfect time to be here. It's not too hot like it is in the summer. The Island's booming. It's just a really great time to catch us at our peak.
What's your favorite zen place in St. Croix?
The rainforest—it's the least populated part of St. Croix. The roads are very narrow. Everything's pretty quiet. The waterfall starts flowing, the streams are running. It's loaded with mango trees. I'm getting ready for my summer drive. It's the perfect place to go zen out. You'll never be in traffic. There's no loud music. It's so calm. It's perfect.
What's your fondest travel memory?
In high school, I went to South Africa with my dad on a class trip through a program we have called Mini-Gusto. They had three trips going from St. Croix for 14 days. It was awesome. In total it was eight kids and five-to-seven chaperones. We all had a blast; it was me and my dad, my best friends.
What does the culinary ambassadorship mean to you?
The ambassadorship will be tons of different events and appearances with the USVI Department of Tourism. In Miami, they officially launched me; we promoted an event called Caribbean305.
Over the course of the next year, there will be more events like this; food and wine events, press events, different activities. Really just getting the word out about our emerging culinary scene.
I get to to spend the next year just really showcasing what the USVI has to offer, showing people what our cuisine is and how we're elevating it.
You were classically trained as an artist. How does art show up in your cooking?
I got my B.A. in painting. I never saw the two related until my roommate opened my eyes to it. In art school, you learn about colors, the way textures mix, the way it's composed on a canvas. You eat with your eyes before you do with your mouth. If your plate isn't composed correctly, people won't want to eat it.
For me, art plays a really big role in my plating as well as meshing textures, quality and flavors. How all of that comes together on the plate. It really starts in the kitchen and ends on the plate in front of you. Everything I learned about composing a canvas and mixing colors applies.
What is your go-to meal when you don't feel like cooking?
Pate. When you're not really up for cooking, you've got some nearby. Pate is just like street food, they're bites you grab by your hand. They would be like a go-to at any point of the day.