From casual cafés to elegant fine dining, Vieques teems with fantastic restaurants. But while front-of-house staff gets to mix and mingle with guests, chefs are often the unsung heroes behind the scenes. Here’s your chance to get to know a little bit more about the men and women who put their passion on a plate every day.

Dan McTurnan, Al’s Mar Azul

With his hair tied back in a bandana and a Corona in hand, Dan McTurnan seems pretty unassuming. But as a former US Navy chef, he’s cooked for some of the world’s most impressive VIPs, including two sitting Presidents. He and his wife, Maria Fernandez, moved to Vieques six years ago, and he’s been serving simple, high-quality food at reasonable prices at Al’s Mar Azul ever since.

From fresh-cut French fries to biscuits and gravy, Dan’s menu focuses on comfort food. “My favorite kind of food to cook is what puts a smile on people’s faces,” he says. His days in the Navy enabled him to visit – and eat in – 37 countries, and he enjoys bringing international flavors to the restaurant with monthly specials like Indian and Greek nights. The oceanfront location at Al’s Mar Azul is a far cry from Dan’s native Michigan, but he wouldn’t trade it. “My backyard used to have snow and maple trees, and now it has boats and the beach,” he says. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

Erica Boulogne, Arenamar Café 

Arenamar Café serves food in a concession stand setting at Sun Bay, but you won’t find typical park fare like hot dogs and frozen burgers on Erica Boulogne’s menu. “Cooking is not just a business for me,” she says. “I want the people who eat my food to enjoy it and feel something good.” From fresh lobster and conch to vegetarian entrees to piña coladas made from coconuts cracked open on site, Erica’s menu is heavy on Caribbean flavors, local products, and island love. Sun worshipers can even get her food delivered right to their beach chairs.

Erica operates the restaurant with her husband, Chasti Connelly. Both raised on Vieques, the two were high school sweethearts and ran an educational center for kids on the island before opening Arenamar Café 13 years ago. When she’s not working, Erica loves to dance, and she teaches bomba classes in the off season when time permits.

Kurt Soukup, Bananas

Kurt Soukup’s path in the restaurant business has taken him both into and out of the kitchen. Throughout his 35-year culinary career, Kurt’s titles have included dishwasher, prep cook, maitre’d and executive chef, to name a few. “My journey has been hands-on, and I’ve learned from a lot of people,” he says.

Kurt dreamed of owning a restaurant in the Caribbean ever since he was a little boy. After operating eateries and catering companies in Massachusetts and Connecticut, his lifelong goal came into reach eight years ago. “We looked at St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Culebra,” he recalls, “but when we found Vieques we fell in love with it.” Kurt and his wife, Kelly, bought Bananas restaurant and guest house three years ago, and they credit a large part of the business’s success to a hard-working and dedicated staff. In their (limited) time off, Kurt and Kelly enjoy daily walks along Sun Bay, usually accompanied by one of their seven rescue dogs, all of whom are from Vieques.

“I will never regret putting those heels and briefcase in the closet” -Sonia, Bieke’s Bistro

Sonia Romero, Bieke’s Bistro 

Sonia Romero never planned on running a restaurant, but when her parents retired in 2000, they handed her the reins to El Patio, which she later renamed Bieke’s Bistro. With the help of her staff and her vendors, and using concepts from her former career as a healthcare administrator, she quickly learned the business.

Since taking over the restaurant, Sonia has focused on adding more flavor and freshness to the menu without losing the homey, family feel that her parents created. Three years ago she enrolled in culinary school, where she particularly enjoyed classes in the art of French pastries. Her desserts are legendary, and she hopes to eventually add an open-kitchen bakery to the bistro. Sonia loves using her baking as a way to make people happy. “I will never regret putting those heels and briefcase in the closet,” she says.

Eva Bolivar, Bili 

When Eva Bolivar was growing up in Puerto Rico, she rebelled against cooking. “I was the only girl with two brothers, and since cooking was looked at as girls’ work, I refused to do it,” she remembers. Thankfully, after pursuing a degree in design and a career at American Express, she eventually enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and began her journey as a chef. As a student, Eva’s talents caught the attention of Puerto Rico’s governor, and when she graduated she took over the kitchen at the Governor’s Mansion for three years. After relocating to Vieques, Eva opened Bili in 2008 with her husband, Miguel.

Eva has a wanderlust that has taken her around the world, and her travels always involve food. While Bili specializes in Puerto Rican cuisine, Eva loves incorporating local ingredients into international dishes like her Puerto Rican Thai Pasta and Cassava Gnocchi. Next up? A line of Bili-branded packaged foods, starting with the restaurant’s three varieties of homemade hot sauce.

Christopher Ellis, Buen Provecho 

Christopher Ellis, chef and owner of Buen Provecho, began cooking professionally at 19 years old and his career has taken him everywhere from Colorado to Ireland. He and his wife, Elizabeth Palmer, originally came to Vieques in 2000, returned full time in 2004 and opened Buen Provecho in 2012. For Christopher, the island is all about community. “I like knowing that there’s a lot of people who would do anything to help me if I asked. You don’t get that a lot of places,” he says. This spirit of camaraderie also extends to his fellow chefs, who often help each other out with everything from brainstorming ideas to borrowing ingredients to sharing employees.

Christopher and Elizabeth are on the verge of opening a second, 52-seat restaurant and bar next door. The new outpost will specialize in what Christopher calls “feel good cuisine,” where guests can leave feeling healthy, full and satisfied. The menu will be packed with fresh vegetables, local seafood and authentic Caribbean flavors.

Suzanne Holbrooks, Café del Mar

“I think cooking and art go hand in hand.”-Suzanne, Cafe del Mar

Suzanne Holbrooks’ story proves that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. She first learned to cook at ten years old, and she wanted to own a restaurant ever since. In 2015, she and her husband, Francisco del Olmo, opened Café del Mar, where Suzanne and her staff serve up an eclectic array of savory and sweet treats. “To run a restaurant it takes a lot of people,” she says. “I have a great team. Without them I couldn’t do it.” Suzanne spent most of her life in Vieques, where her mother was born and raised. While many of the dishes on the menu are Suzanne’s creations, she is proud to use family recipes as well, particularly her grandmother’s carrot cake, a favorite on the island. When she’s not in the kitchen, Suzanne pursues her other passion – oil painting. “I lot of chefs I know are also artists,” she says. “I think cooking and art go hand in hand.”

Xandra Lopez, Carambola

When she was 19 years old, Xandra Lopez left Puerto Rico and headed to the Bay Area in California. Armed with a thirst for knowledge and an appetite for adventure, she began her professional culinary career. “I was lucky enough to meet a lot of incredible chefs, both men and women, who were my mentors,” she recalls. Xandra opened Carambola at the Inn at the Blue Horizon in 2006, and eleven years later Vieques continues to delight her. “I love the stars, the smell of jasmine, the hummingbirds, the flowers, the fruits,” she says. “What’s not to love about being here? It’s an amazing place.” In the kitchen, Xandra enjoys creating plates that incorporate Asian influences and utilize fresh herbs and ingredients, and she especially loves cooking breakfast while taking in the seaside views from Carambola’s open kitchen.

Rebecca Betancourt, Conuco 

Rebecca Betancourt didn’t plan on owning a restaurant, but midway through her studies in marine biology, she knew that she wanted to pursue a different path. After finishing her degree, Rebecca enrolled in culinary school in her hometown of San Juan. She and her husband, Manuel Rodriguez, relocated to Vieques and opened Conuco seven years ago. “It’s hard not to fall in love with Vieques,” she says. “And when you do, you work hard to return the love.”

Rebecca describes her culinary approach as homestyle cooking, and she aims to give diners a taste of Puerto Rican cuisine the way her grandmother made it. She particularly enjoys using fresh greens from La Finca Conciencia, a local Vieques farm. “It’s important for people to know where their food comes from,” she explains. “It’s so much more beautiful when you get it that way. That’s what I appreciate and what I stand for.”

Jimmy Cochran, Coqui Fire

Jimmy Cochran originally came to Vieques sixteen years ago with plans to be a beach bum. He’d walked away from a computer engineering job in corporate America and was looking forward to bartending here. When that job fell through, he reluctantly returned to cooking, a skill that had helped put him through college. While he had always been partial to Mexican food, being back in the kitchen gave Jimmy the opportunity to learn about new styles, and his passion for cooking was reawakened. “I’m always looking and studying and reading and wanting to do more,” he says.

At Coqui Fire, Jimmy’s Mexican dishes combine refined flavors with rustic presentation. He often experiments with new combinations, like coconut mole, an original creation. Jimmy and his wife, Kat, opened Coqui Fire restaurant in 2013, but he’s been making and bottling his famous hot sauce on the island for 15 years. Today, the line includes 11 different branded and two private label varieties, with a total output of roughly 10,000 bottles every year.

Carlos Perez, El Blok 

Puerto Rico native Carlos Perez first worked in restaurants when he was earning his degree in finance on the main island. After he graduated, he was a banker for two years before deciding to follow his passion and go to the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, TX. He later came to Vieques and has been cooking at El Blok since the hotel, bar and restaurant opened in 2014.

Carlos describes his culinary style as humble, simple and delicious, and he loves seeing patrons enjoy the food and the beautiful scenery at El Blok. “I think that a lot of people are scared of El Blok because they see a big imposing building, but it’s not that way,” he says. “Once they come in and experience how cozy it is, they change their minds.” In addition to an evolving array of dinner dishes, Carlos recently created a casual lunch menu for diners to enjoy on the open-air rooftop.

Scott Cole, El Quenepo 

For Scott Cole, restaurants are a way of life. His father was a chef, and Scott grew up spending time in the kitchen starting at four years old. At the age of eight, he was tasked with hulling strawberries, cracking eggs and cutting broccoli and cauliflower florets, all while getting to work alongside his dad. After cooking in kitchens across the United States, Scott opened El Quenepo with his wife, Kate, ten years ago. His style is eclectic, as evidenced by a menu that includes items ranging from goat masala to seafood mofongo.

“Cooking here is a challenge,” Scott explains. “In the States, there’s no question about whether you’ll have gas or electricity or lobster tomorrow.” He loves the community spirit of Vieques and enjoys using local ingredients, particularly acerola, stone crabs, triggerfish and arugula, which often make their way into the restaurant’s rotating selection of nightly specials. “We’re always looking to develop and progress. We constantly want to improve.”

Noah Berman, Lazy Jacks 

Noah Berman took over as kitchen manager at Lazy Jacks in 2016, but he’s been showcasing his culinary talent in restaurants across the island for the past four years. He first found his passion for cooking in high school while working at a small Argentinian deli in Western Massachusetts before moving on to top restaurants in Boston, Cambridge and North Carolina. He loves putting together thoughtful dishes and opening his diners’ palates to new ingredients. What’s his favorite dish to cook? “Whatever I’m cooking at the moment,” he says. Since coming to Lazy Jacks, he’s elevated the menu to include new items like eggplant parmesan and gourmet specialty pizzas. On his days off you can find Noah relaxing in a hammock on the beach with a good book, some wine and his rescue dog, Dr. Joel Fleischman.

Richard Nell, Next Course

Richard Nell was already familiar with the Vieques dining scene when he took over as executive chef at Next Course last year. He lived here five years ago when he opened and helmed the kitchen at Orquedia’s, a since-closed steakhouse in Esperanza. Richard loves cooking farm-to-table dishes when possible, and he is quite health-conscious about what he puts on the plate. “I want people to eat well, but I also want them to be happy and full.”

Richard got his start when he was 14 years old at a fish fry joint in Michigan before studying at the Culinary Institute of America. A love for travel led him behind the line in restaurants spanning Nantucket to Key Largo, St. John to, most recently, northern Alaska, where he commuted 25 miles through the ice and snow twice daily. It’s no surprise that he was thrilled to come back to this tiny Caribbean paradise. “I’ve found a new home,” he says. “I’m going to stay here for a while.”

Jose Diaz, Petie’s New York

As the kitchen manager at Petie’s New York, Jose Diaz is making his grandmother proud. “When I was little, I would wake up early and cook breakfast,” he recalls. “She always told me I should be a chef.” He’s even invited her to be a guest chef at Petie’s, where she’ll be cooking her traditional Puerto Rican recipes once a week.

A native of Vieques, Jose has cooked in several of the island’s restaurants. He also spent time working at a family-owned Italian trattoria in Cleveland, where he learned to make pastas, sauces and dough. “I’ve never met someone who’s so eager to learn and who respects food more than Jose does,” says Peter Fraser, principal owner of Petie’s. “His culinary knowledge is excellent, but his thirst to know more is even better.” Outside the kitchen, Jose enjoys spending time with his family, particularly his three young children.

Choli, Rancho Choli

For authentic home-style Viequense cuisine, locals and visitors flock to Rancho Choli. Mariano River Corcino, better known as Choli, grew up just a few blocks from where he operates the restaurant today, and he serves his guests adapted versions of his mother’s recipes. Choli’s favorite dishes are traditional Christmas offerings like pastelles, lechon and arroz con grandules, which you’ll find on his menu all year round. Pigs are roasted for 5-6 hours in ovens behind the restaurant where you might also find Choli in a hammock.

Food is all about family for Choli. “I always remember having arepas and coffee with my dad and brothers,” he recalls. “We were all just enjoying each other and eating good food.” He runs the restaurant with his wife, Sonia Noemy Acevedo Torres, along with his niece, stepdaughter and several of his seven brothers.

Joe Williams, Taverna

For Massachusetts native Joe Williams, cooking is a form of artistic expression. “I’ve been a musician my whole life,” says Joe, who plays drums in the local band Los Victones. “Cooking is another creative outlet. I realized that I was very good at it very quickly.” Joe and his wife, Liz Koogle, opened Taverna in 2008, and the restaurant has become the island’s go-to spot for gourmet pizza, pasta and Italian specialties. From kneading fresh pizza dough daily to painting the walls, Joe and Liz do it all. “We really pay attention to quality and detail and put a lot of heart into it,” he says. They open Taverna each year from November through May and in the off-season head back to The Cape, where Joe manages the kitchen at a popular restaurant in Provincetown.

Omar Rivera, The Jungle Room

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Omar Rivera worked in kitchens in New York, Massachusetts and his hometown of San Juan. When the opportunity to cook in Vieques came about four years ago, he jumped at the chance. “Vieques is a very special place. It has it’s own uniqueness, very different from Puerto Rico,” he says.

For his gastropub-style menu at The Jungle Room, Omar implements from-scratch cooking as much as possible. His dishes are straightforward but elegant, incorporating unique elements ranging from house-made ketchup to brioche baked fresh on site. “From simple dishes to fine dining, all food can be great if you use the right technique and the right ingredients,” he explains. He loves taking advantage of the on-property garden for herbs and greens, and he sources seafood like lobster, snapper and conch from local fishermen. In his off time, Omar can be found surfing and practicing yoga.

David Donovan, Trade Winds

If you’ve had the pleasure of eating David Donovan’s food at Trade Winds Restaurant, you have his high school French teacher to thank. “She instilled in me a love of French culture, and so much of cooking technique is French,” he remembers. “Being a small town boy from western New York, it was such another world. It was fascinating.”

In the kitchen, David likes to keep his food simple, bringing out the subtlety and natural essence of his ingredients. He’s especially partial to seafood and loves the challenge of working with delicate cuts of fish. For the past 25 years, David has called Vieques home, and he celebrates his 20th anniversary at Trade Winds this year, a lengthy tenure that’s almost unheard of in the food service industry. “Everyone that works here is so fantastic,” he says. “It’s been a great experience for all of us.”


HIGH SEASON ON VIEQUES IS THANKSGIVING THROUGH EASTER.

BUSINESSES AND RESTAURANTS SOMETIMES CHANGE THEIR HOURS AFTER EASTER WHICH FALLS ON APRIL 16TH THIS YEAR.

 

 

About The Author

Kelly Thompson
editor • publisher • designer

Kelly’s background in graphic design and photography led her to creative jobs all over the U.S., Australia and Europe. She moved to Vieques in 2003 and started publishing the Vieques Insider magazine in 2014 allowing her to share her love of the island through photos and stories.

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