The Queen of Caribbean Cuisine

An Inside Look at the Woman Behind Ortanique

By Lizzie Wilcox

November 2019

Once a month, food lovers gather for a cooking class at Ortanique on the Mile in hopes of improving their own culinary skills. They have come to learn from the master, Chef Cindy Hutson. Born and raised in Summit, New Jersey, Hutson grew up far from the Caribbean sun. She got a lot closer when she was 19, when she moved to Miami – but not to live out a lifelong dream of becoming a chef. Instead, she got a six-pack captain’s license, which allowed her to take up to six passengers and crew out on the water for fishing expeditions. This began her relationship with restaurants and cooks – through selling them fish.

“I never thought I would be a chef,” admits Hutson. “I just liked to cook.” Despite her own disbelief, she opened her first restaurant, Norma’s on the Beach, on Lincoln Road in 1994 with her business and life partner Delius Shirley, who she met in Jamaica. Hutson describes his mother as “the Julia Child of the Caribbean,” so when the two of them were creating the concept for Norma’s, she thought Delius’ mother would be the chef.

“We were about four weeks from opening and Delius said to me, ‘You need to come up with a menu,’” Hutson recalls.

Two months into their first restaurant venture together, Hutson was ready to give up. Then, USA Today called Norma’s on the Beach “the best Caribbean restaurant in South Florida.”That was the first of many accolades Hutson would receive, including Miami’s Best Chef from New Times, The Top Female Chef from the American Chef Association and a Five Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality and Sciences.

Though it’s hard to imagine that at one point there were few places to dine on Miracle Mile, that was the case in 1998 when the City of Coral Gables approached Hutson and Shirley. From that dialogue, Ortanique on the Mile was born.

At their new restaurant, the duo did what they do best: Caribbean cuisine. The menu consists of dishes like West Indian Curried Fresh Jumbo Lump Crab Cake and a Jerk Chicken Breast Sandwich. “As Coral Gables began to grow, so did the ethnicity,” Hutson says. Her menu evolved to feature not only food from the Caribbean, but also countries from South America. So, when people asked her what kind of food she cooked at Ortanique, she came up with “Cuisine of the Sun,” meaning fresh, seasonal, and ethnic.

The range of that cuisine was present in the cooking class we attended. To start, the chefs-in-training prepared a salad tossed in an orange-ginger dressing. The main course was a tender braised lamb shank served over a mushroom parmesan polenta. For dessert, a warm apple-pear crumble was topped with cinnamon ice cream – perfect for the holidays.

Today, the decorated chef travels to the Caribbean once a month. Their other restaurant, Zest, has locations in Downtown Miami and, fittingly, Negril, Jamaica. “I always felt like I had a past life in the Caribbean,” Hutson says.

For the past three years, Hutson has also been the culinary ambassador at the Miami Cancer Institute. In layman terms, she creates the food for the café at MCI. She also teaches both past and present cancer patients and their caregivers how to cook healthier for themselves. “Cancer loves sugar,” says Hutson, who often creates recipes that are plant-based, low in sugar and high in fiber.

Hutson’s daughter Ashley has followed in her culinary footsteps as chef de cuisine at Ortanique. The two of them run the Interactive Cooking Class together ($108 per person), which feels more like a family gathering, and not just because of the mother-daughter pair. Many of the students attend every class, or as many as they can. Cindy and Ashley know them well, and the restaurant is filled with chatter as they eat and drink. The adoration by regulars makes it clear: It’s Chef Cindy Hutson’s world and we’re all just living in it. Luckily, it has great food.