This Chef Really, Really Wants You to Eat Iguanas
Green iguanas are an invasive species that destroys vegetation. For Thomas Tennant, that's even more reason to eat them.
Illustration by Hunter French.
"In Cayman, we have a lot of diversity," says chef and longtime Grand Cayman resident Thomas Tennant. "Lots of people are willing to try forward-thinking things and they're not afraid of a challenge or stigma."
That mindset makes the Cayman Islands the ideal home for Tennant's Tomfoodery Kitchen, a culinary concept offering the standard gamut of cooking demos and private catering—and also green iguana rillettes.
This dish is part of a larger effort to eradicate environmentally destructive invasive species by transforming them into dishes with mainstream appeal.
"Speculations on how they got here vary, but the green iguana is a serious problem," says Tennant about the scaly-tailed enemy of the state. "The main issue is that they can populate really quickly, take over spaces that the indigenous iguanas need, and destroy vegetation because they eat so much. Eat and poop, that's all they do."
The issue has real human implications, too. "Economically, it's very damaging," Tennant emphasizes. " If you don't have flowers you don't get fruit, and if you don't have fruit and produce you don't have sustainable agriculture. You just don't. How is a farmer going to live if all these iguanas are eating their plants?"
Tennant's involvement in the issue dates back more than in a decade. In 2007, the newly-minted culinary school grad landed a gig at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in his hometown of Miami. Three years later, Tennant moved down to the Cayman Islands to open Michael's Genuine's now-shuttered Grand Cayman location, and it was there that an invasive species first caught his eye.
"Within a year, I got approached by Jason Washington from Ambassador Divers and two officers from the Department of the Environment," Tennant recalls. "They wanted to do lionfish at a restaurant, so I took it up, and have been going at it ever since."
Lionfish look more or less like underwater horror movie villains, marked by wide, protruding mouths, a vibrant spray of zebra-like striping, and, most terrifyingly, a trail of sharp, poisonous spikes cascading down their ample spines like a quiver of deadly arrows poised for attack. The theory goes that an aquarium owner let a group of these Indo-Pacific natives loose off the coast of Florida sometime in the mid-1980s and they've been charting new territory ever since, killing smaller fish and crustaceans, destroying plant life, and breeding like crazy up and down the coast from North Carolina to South America. With no known predators and with the ability to lay up to 30,000 eggs every four days, these finned terrors are capable of devastating delicate ecosystems swiftly and irreversibly. So when divers discovered one flitting about the Cayman Islands in 2008, they knew they had to act quickly. The DOE initiated a widespread culling effort, first incentivizing fishermen and eventually reaching out to area chefs. The idea was to generate an economically viable feedback loop by turning the once-feared beasts into coveted cuisine. Tennant was in.
"Filet it, roast it all, fry it whole—the fish is very simple to prepare and tastes very clean, kind of like Dover sole. People associate them with ciguatera toxin, but it's the spine that has the venom. Cut it off and the fish is safe to eat," explains Tennant. "I was like, 'All right, I'll buy all your lionfish, all you have to do is cut off the spines.' With the DOE and Ambassador Divers, we started a group called CULL, Cayman United Lionfish League, and we still host tournaments. On our last cull, we managed to bring in 400 pounds, about 800 fish."
The program was a success, despite some initial consumer skepticism. "The first time we did it we were at a food festival, serving four thousand people," remembers the chef. "I was like, 'Just try it. Nothing's going to happen. Look at me, I've eaten pounds of this stuff, and I'm not dead.'"
As Tennant continued to sing lionfish's culinary praises, the green iguana started to storm Cayman's sandy shores. He naturally smelled opportunity.
"I tried iguana once when I was at Michael's because someone brought it in—people eat it pretty regularly in Honduras and Trinidad," he says. "After that, I was like, 'Let's try to make this happen.' But Michael wasn't really into it and it was Michael's restaurant so I went along with it."
Despite his boss' disinterest, Tennant never stopped mulling over the pesky lizard. So when he eventually flew the coop and started Tomfoodery, he was determined to develop the perfect green iguana recipe.
"Like with the lionfish, I wanted to make it more approachable for people. If other cultures eat it, why can't we?" he explains. "First I tried a deep fry, treating it like chicken wings. It was good, had a bit of chew to it, maybe a little tough but it tasted like chicken. The problem is that sizes vary—I can order chicken thighs all be the same size, but I can't do that with iguana."
"So I was like, 'Well, let me have a think.' I could stew it, but I wanted to do something more interesting. There was obviously braising, and then there was confit, cooking something submerged in fat for a long period of time at a low temperature. The result was surprisingly good."
Tennant gets the bulk of his meat from a Cayman supplier called Spinion. The company was originally founded in 2012 as a lionfish exporter, but a lengthy approval process left them space to branch out into green iguanas. Since August, 2018, Spinion has been euthanizing iguanas purchased from area trappers, processing the meat, and shipping it to the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. Meanwhile, the DOE has separately amped up its own control efforts. In October 2018, the government kicked off an island-wide cull, offering licensed hunters cash in exchange for dead iguanas. According to Cayman Compass, a local newspaper, the cullers wiped out about a quarter of the population within the first two months and are well on their way to their target goal of 1.3 million by the end of the year. However, Tennant thinks the current system could use improving.
"The government has a budget to cull these iguanas. The DOE started at two dollars an iguana for shoot and catch, then they went to four, and now five, but they're just going to the landfill and dumping them," he says of the agency's tactics. "Spinion, they have to receive the iguana live and treat it like a livestock. Even though they're offering seven dollars, it's a pain in the butt to bring a live iguana—they don't go down without a fight and their tail whip is really strong. When you get a big one, you're like 'Aw, man. Might as well just shoot it and get the five dollars.'"
In addition to sourcing from Spinion, Tennant is also working directly with one of these cullers. He sees this type of relationship as the most practical and economically sustainable way forward for all parties.
"The only cookable parts are the legs and tail, so what I've done with one culler is treated it like a fish," he continues. "Shoot the iguana, then cut off its legs and tail and put those on ice. Take the body and head to the government, show that you shot it, get your five bucks, and then make some more money selling me the parts I need. Right now I'm working with the Terrestrial Department trying to figure out a solution that will benefit everyone."
While things come together, Tennant is continuing to showcase his reptilian masterpieces at festivals, pop-ups, cooking classes, and other catered events around the Caribbean under the Tomfoodery brand. He's also planning to purchase and man his very own food truck later this year (according to him, it'll be the first in the world to serve iguana). As for adding other uninvited creatures to the bill, he's open to the idea but acknowledges that rillettes aren't always the most appropriate solution.
"Right now I'll tackle these two, and if something else pops up for the good of the island, let's do it," he says. "Some of invasives you can work with, and some you can't—you can only combat them in certain ways. The damselfish is invasive, but it's very small and you really can't eat it. I was told by the Department of the Environment that cats and dogs are invasive. Humans are invasive, too, you know."