Art with a message at Tomfoodery Kitchen & Bar

By Christopher Tobutt

4 June 2021

Big, large-canopy shade trees have always been important community meeting-places all over the world. Here in Cayman, sea grape trees are particularly valued for their shade and beauty and Camana Bay features many along the Crescent.

Sea grape trees are usually found outdoors, but that's not the case at Tomfoodery Kitchen & Bar, the newest Camana Bay restaurant, which opened for indoor dining this month. As you walk in, leaf-covered sea grape tree branches — made of reused materials — spread out along the ceiling, attached to the tree's trunk that is formed around a column.

The sea grape tree is there because there are several messages the owners want to convey to their guests. Part of the tree’s message is the focus on Cayman Islands — and wider Caribbean — cuisine, but it is also about providing high-quality food at a community-friendly price.

“Where I come from in New Orleans, what we learned from the myriad of hurricanes and recessions was that the businesses that thrived were the businesses that focused on the community [and] maintained their business models to be affordable," said Jonathan Nunez, who along with Chef Thomas Tennant, are business partners in the restaurant.

Sea grape trees are also well known for their resiliency, having the ability to survive and continue to grow even if uprooted during a storm. That's another one of the tree's messages: When storms come, metaphorical or otherwise, Tomfoodery will be there for the community.

art tree Tomfoodery
From left, Jonathan Nunez, Claire Rohleder and Chef Thomas Tennant next to the sea grape tree in Tomfoodery Kitchen & Bar. Photos: Christopher Tobutt

A labour of love
Creating the sea grape tree was not like building out the kitchen or dining room; it was more like creating art.

The tree has 2,000 translucent leaves through which strategically placed lights shine like the sun. It is something between a real-life tree, and a magical tree from a children’s storybook illustration.

Luckily, Nunez had a good connection for sourcing the artists; his wife Claire Rohleder is one of the three ladies who own 3 Girls & A Kiln just a short walk down Market Street in Camana Bay. Rohleder, along with the other two "girls" — Aimee Randolph and Deborah Kern — helped bring the sea grape tree vision to life.

Leaf by leaf, twig by twig, the 35 branches of the tree were painstakingly hand-painted and put together at 3 Girls & A Kiln over the course of more than four months, before being carefully transported to Tomfoodery, where they were assembled.

Several recycled materials were used throughout, a message of environmental responsibility that the tree also conveys.

The trunk uses recycled pallet wood as a strong armature.

art at Tomfoodery
The mural on the adjacent wall of Tomfoodery Kitchen & Bar showing stylised tropical leaves, with Jonathan Nunez and Claire Rohleder.

The bark was made from strips of cardboard packing and pasted, papier-mâché-style, with a mixture of glue and instant coffee. Each of the tree's leaves is made from big, catering-size coffee filters cut into six different sizes, Rohleder said.

“We reached out to local distributors and said, ‘Hey do you have any coffee filters that are going out of stock and would otherwise be discarded?’ and we bought them so that they didn’t get wasted, and turned them into sea grape leaves,” she said. "Each leaf is a unique work of art in itself, having been hand-dyed in subtle shades of green, turquoise and yellow and left to dry before being individually painted with gold paint on both sides to form veins."

The sea grape tree is complemented by a large, stylised tropical-leaf mural on the adjacent wall, creating an atmosphere of fun and creativity — yet another message in the artwork — for all who dine at Tomfoodery.

This article first appeared in the June 2021 print edition of Camana Bay Times with the headline "Art with a message at Tomfoodery Kitchen."

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