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02.16.10

Alain Ducasse's Caribbean Gamble

The famous French chef is partnering with W Hotels to open a super-luxe restaurant on a tiny island with more horses than people. Could the venture spark a Vieques gold rush?

With fewer than 10,000 residents, no five-star resorts, and more wild horses than motor vehicles, the tiny Caribbean backwater of Vieques is worlds away from Paris’ Avenue Montaigne. So when famed French chef Alain Ducasse descends there on April 1 with his latest restaurant, located in the new W Retreat and Spa, it will be an occupying force the locals can actually get behind.

Arriving after a six-month delay, the restaurant, Mix on the Beach, much like the W itself, illustrates the latest effort to transform Vieques into an easy-access playa playground for America’s gringo masses. Technically part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Vieques is a mere speck of an island best known as a former U.S. Navy bombing test site abandoned by the military in 2003. In the seven years since, the tropical outpost’s gin-clear waters and bioluminescent bays have attracted hippy-chic early adopters. But until now, no one has ever attempted true opulence on Vieques.

With Ducasse setting up shop, Puerto Rico’s hidden gem appears finally ready for its luxury closeup.

Now, with Ducasse setting up shop, Puerto Rico’s hidden gem appears finally ready for its luxury closeup. With a restaurant on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, Ducasse, the world’s only chef with three Michelin stars in three separate cities, is no stranger to beachfront establishments. Yet maintaining Michelin-level standards at such an isolated location will be a formidable feat, even for a master like Ducasse. “Remote locations inevitably raise questions about sourcing, quality control, and staffing,” Ducasse says. “But we’ve developed strong connections with local chefs, and New York is only just three hours away.”

Still, it is to the Puerto Rican—rather than Norteamericano—mainland that he is turning for much of Mix’s inspiration. His executive chef for Vieques, Degan Lynn, is a seasoned Ducasse veteran, having opened Mix’s original (and now shuttered) New York annex back in 2003. While Lynn will retain Mix’s core Franco-American menu, he’s enthusiastically embracing Vieques’ tropical bounty.

“Local breadfruit, star fruit, quenepa (Spanish lime), avocado, guava, passion fruit, 100 varieties of mangos—it’s all literally falling off of the trees here,” Ducasse says. Also on the toque’s radar screen: traditional Puerto Rican street foods, which he is giving a haute-nouvelle spin. “I always visit those overlooked holes-in-the-wall wherever I travel,” he says. “In Puerto, I love the kiosks serving authentic cuisine like whole roast pig.”

While Ducasse certainly won’t be sizzling swine on spits, pork will take center stage at Mix—farm-raised and served en cocotte with creamy grits and cornbread. Ducasse is also looking to the sea for source material, transforming sweet local crab into a spicy salad with tabouleh, hearts of palm, mango, and bell pepper.

Although these dishes are clearly aimed at Mix’s deep-pocketed clientele, the W itself is intended to kick-start the entire island’s moribund economy. Two-thirds of its staff will be locals—many returning to the property, which was briefly home to an ill-fated (and far less lavish) Wyndham from 2003 to 2006, the only other big chain to make a go of it on the island. Completely revamped with sleek new interiors by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola and a posh Chakra spa, the 157-room resort will serve as a symbol of first-world excellence on this still-developing island.

Or at least, that’s the intention.

“Our impact will be huge,” promises the W’s Australian general manager Jonathan Heath, a 20-year hotel vet most recently with Ace Hotels and the Kor Group. Along with upgrading Vieques’ miniscule airport, the hotel is improving its road network, launching a youth training academy, and developing small-scale orchards, gardens, and composting programs. It’s even opening its 2,000-square-foot gym, Sweat, to Viequenses—the first formal fitness facility on the island. “We will be the largest employer on Vieques,” Heath says. “And we want to ensure the hotel’s ripple-effect is felt throughout the community.”

Such goodwill is essential on Vieques, the site of intense anti-American protests during the waning days of the military’s 60-year presence. Loudly supported by prominent left-wingers like Edward James Olmos, Martin Sheen, Al Sharpton, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—along with Puerto Rican native son Ricky Martin—those protests included civil disobedience, mass arrests, and ample media exposure.

Less than 10 years later, Vieques hopes Ducasse and the W will attract bold-faced names of a starrier sort. With no direct flights from the mainland United States, the resort will face challenges as it competes for Yankee tourism dollars. But Vieques’ low-key vibe and small-scale tourism growth may be its saving grace, ensuring it doesn’t end up the next Cancun or Los Cabos. In fact, it may end up being that the unspoiled Vieques sells Ducasse, rather than the other way around.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast, for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

David Kaufman is a New York-based journalist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Financial Times, Time International and Wallpaper—and is the charming madness behind the blog TRANSRACIAL.