He’s one of the more controversial figures in Cayman politics, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of man who people seem to either love or hate. He’s unabashedly pro-Caymanian, but during a dinner conversation at Luca Restaurant, Ezzard Miller insisted he’s not anti-foreigner.
The rules for The Journal’s “A dinner conversation...” articles are simple: The interview is recorded and everything is on record, unless the subject specifically says something is off the record.
North Side legislator Ezzard Miller didn’t blink an eye when reminded of the rules as we sat down at Luca Restaurant for dinner.
“I don’t have much that’s off the record,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve used that phrase too often in life. I’ve paid a high price for it politically, but if you ask for my opinion, you get it. You mightn’t like it, but you’ll get it.”
Indeed, Miller has never been one to mince words.
Owned by restaurateurs Paolo Polloni and Andi Marcher, Luca is an upscale version of its sister establishment, Ragazzi, the restaurant and pizzeria that has been popular with visitors and residents for more than a decade.
For our seven-course dinner, restaurant Manager Cheryl Pokoradi chose several dishes from Luca’s regular menu and had them served in tasting-sized portions, along with a variety of wines.
Our server for the night is Simone Maringer, who serves us the first wine of the night, Pratsch Sauvignon Blanc.
A few minutes later, as she brings out the first course, Maringer asks how we liked the wine.
“I haven’t tried it yet,” said Miller. “In other words, I should, right?
“I’m curious,” said Maringer.
“You’re furious with me?” asked Miller.
“No, I’m Austrian,” said Maringer. “So that’s why I’m curious.”
“Oh, it’s delicious; absolutely exquisite,” Miller said.
Maringer mentions that Pratsch is an organic winery.
“If it’s organic, does that mean it’s not made from grapes, it’s made from organisms?” Miller asks, adding after a pause. “I’m just kidding.”
“I’m going to have a hard night,” said Maringer.
This is the playful side of Miller, who has made for some seriously hard days and nights for others in the Legislative Assembly.
After completing his secondary education, Miller went off to Jamaica to study to become a pharmacist and he later attended the University of Minnesota to study hospital administration.
Although he experienced success in his career, Miller decided to run for office in North Side in 1980.
“If you had asked me three years before I went into politics if I was going into politics, I would have asked you if you were mad,” he said. “I went into politics because I was convinced by some of the seniors in my community, mostly church people, that I could make a difference. And I did.”
Although he failed in his initial election, Miller was successful in gaining the North Side seat in 1984 and served on the back bench of a government that was led by Sir Vassel Johnson, Captain Charles Kirkconnell, Benson Ebanks and Norman Bodden. Even from those days, Miller proved to be a maverick when it came to speaking his mind.
“I disagreed quite frequently and without any animosity with the government I supported... not just when we met to discuss it, but on the floor of the Assembly,” he said. “Because I made it clear that this [was] important enough to me that I need to make a public stand... and Mr. Benson, Captain Charles and Sir Vassel and Mr. Norman accepted that. They probably didn’t like it. But I think it lent itself to better governance because oftentimes I insisted to public debate, that they look at the other side of the coin.”
In 1988 elections, Miller barely fought off Edna Moyle, winning by four votes. Since Kirkconnell and Johnson did not seek reelection, Miller was elected by his peers as one of four Executive Council members - now referred to as Cabinet - with responsibility for health and social services.
Although several important pieces of legislation were passed through his portfolio during his term in ExCo, including the National Pensions Law and the Health Insurance Law, Miller was undone largely by an attempt to construct a new hospital, a failed exercise which ultimately cost the Cayman Islands substantial money.
“I committed political suicide on the hospital because I insisted on following process,” Miller said. “If I had started it when I wanted it and forgot about all public sector reviewing and the Caribbean development bank reviewing of projects and all this kind of crap, it would have been finished before elections.”
Miller lost his seat to Moyle in 1992 and then failed in his attempts defeat her in the 1996 and 2000 elections as well.
After Moyle announced she would not run for reelection in 2009, Miller ran again and returned to the Legislative Assembly after a 16-and-a-half year absence.
Italian cuisine, Caribbean style
Although Ragazzi is undeniably an Italian restaurant, Luca doesn’t bill itself as such, even though its menu displays unmistakable Italian elements with a Caribbean flair.
Our menu for the night reflected both the Italian side and the Caribbean side of the restaurant.
The first course, spicy yellow fin tuna tartare with avocado, fennel salad and soured tomato coulis, was definitely Caribbean and was something with which Miller could identify.
“Very nice,” he said.
The menu shows an Italian bias for the next two courses, veal liver pate with layers of arugula and caramelised onion marmalade and then vitello tonnato, a classic dish from the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
To describe vitello tonnato in words doesn’t do it justice. It’s a dish served cold consisting of thinly sliced steamed veal, served with a sauce that combines freshly made mayonnaise with canned tuna and then topped with fried capers.
It looks almost as unappetising as it sounds, but at least at Luca - unlike in Italy - the sauce is under the veal instead of on top of it.
Despite descriptions and appearances, vitello tonnato is delicious.
“This is quite good,” remarks Miller, who said he’s never had the dish before.
Pokoradi said vitello tonnato is one of the dishes she recommends when people ask her ‘what’s good?’ on the menu. And she said people almost always love it.
Since the 2009 election, Miller has consistently advocated for efficient and honest governance, starting with his stint as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.
More recently, he has led calls of Premier McKeeva Bush’s resignation because of the ongoing police investigation into possible corruption.
“I don’t hate the guy, but I think it’s the principled thing to do.”
Miller said that he has always tried to remove any hint of corruption around him.
“One of the things I did early in my political career was I deliberately - because of the way I was raised - I deliberately developed an unfriendly and unapproachable attitude,” he said. “Seriously, because prior to that I was the guy who started the dance at the party.”
He said he had huge concerns about being corrupted.
“If I have a great fear in the political arena is that somehow, unbeknown to me, I became corrupted.”
Miller doesn’t like the dark cloud of corruption that has seemingly engulfed the Cayman Islands in recent years.
“It’s not going to be easy to shake it,” he said. “My fear is that this will begin catch root and if it becomes the order of the day, we’ll be just like Jamaica.”
Miller said his parents raised him to believe that perception is reality, particularly in a small community, and that politicians must remove themselves from situations that could give the perception of corruption.
“I really do not believe that anybody should sit in Cabinet and have pecuniary interests, particularly in a business that they are in control of,” he said. “When I was privileged to be elected by my peers to be the minister of health, I divested myself of all health-related business.”
Miller said that even if he wouldn’t have benefitted directly, he was making the kinds of sweeping improvements that would have benefited anyone in the health-care business.
He said governance could be improved if elected ministers didn’t have pecuniary interests in businesses.
“Look at what we have now,” he said. “We have people who are qualified in fields sitting in Cabinet, but they can’t take the responsibility for which they’re qualified because they have pecuniary interests. You have Mark Scotland, who’s and engineer, but he’s in charge of health. It leads to square pegs in round holes and we can’t function.”
Pasta and wine
It’s virtually impossible to have a tasting or prix fixe menu at an Italian restaurant without a pasta course.
Luca, showing its affinity for things Italian, served Caribbean-style pasta dish - fettuccine with lobster and shrimps in spicy tomato sauce, basil oil and topped with a crispy fried basil leaf.
Maringer warned Miller that the sauce is a little bit spicy.
“Oh, it can’t be too spicy for me,” he said.
The dish is served with yet another wine
“Wow, how many of these are we going to have,” Miller asks.
In addition to its food, Luca is well known for having one of Cayman’s best restaurant wine collections, earning it a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence designation in 2011. The 3,000+ bottle wine list is particularly heavy in Italian, French, American and Austrian selections, with a nice spread of vintages.
For the dinner this evening, Luca highlighted several Austrian white wines. After serving the Pratsch Sauvignon Blanc with the yellow fin tartare and the veal liver pate, the vitello tonnato was paired Mrozowski Grüner Veltliner, the Austrian white wine that is light-bodied and dry, perfect for Cayman’s climate.
The seafood pasta dish was paired with a Pinot Noir from Beringer Winery Napa Valley Pinot Noir, a food friendly red that had enough body to pair with the spicy tomato sauce, but not too much that it overpowered the taste of the lobster and shrimps.
Paired with the lamb was a 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon called Sancerbone from the Agricola La Querce winery in Tuscany. Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with Sangiovese, Tuscany’s
iconic grape, to create the so-called Super Tuscan wines, but there isn’t a lot of pure Cab produced there. The Sancerbone was smooth and approachable with soft tannins and good fruit, making a great pairing with the lamb.
Miller believes Cayman, for its own good, must eventually become independent of the United Kingdom.
“I’m not one of those Caymanians who really believes the Queen cares about us,” he said. “Their constitution is very clear. The British Government will protect the Cayman Islands as long as it’s in their interests. The day that it’s not in their interest or there’s a conflict about what’s best for Cayman or what’s best for the UK, they make no beans about what route they’re going to go.”
As a member of the executive council, Miller saw first hand the UK exercising its governing powers through a Order in Council when banned the death penalty in its Overseas Territories.
“We were going to hang people on Friday; they issued the order on Monday morning.”
Miller said he doesn’t understand why some people think Cayman will always need the UK.
“I don’t know why we live in this cocoon that we really believe they’re going to look out after our best interests,” he said. “As long as the British government has what I have always called the nuclear option of being able to legislate in London for the Cayman Islands, I don’t think it’s in our best interests.”
Miller said his position is - and has been since the 1972 Constitution - that Caymanians should set the date for independence and work towards it.
“Had I been part of the [Constitution negotiating] delegation when [Foreign and Commonwealth Office negotiator Ian] Hendry said to [PPM Leader] Alden [McLaughlin] that if you want to take the attorney general out of Cabinet, you have to set your date for independence, I would have looked him straight in the eye and said how does the 14th of July 2025 sound? That’s my birthday, that’s a good day, that’s the day I intend to retire completely out of politics, that’s a good day to go independent,” he said. “But unless we make that decision, we’ll never prepare our institutions properly.
Miller believes Cayman’s independence is inevitable.
“[A]ll parents aspire for their children to grow up and get on their own one day. The great fear that existed way back was, we didn’t have an army and who was going to invade us and that kind of stuff - those are not fears of mine.”
Although he wants independence, Miller said he doesn’t want complete severance from the UK.
“I favour a different kind of independence as opposed to what the British government forced/gave to other... countries which was basically a severance,” he said. “I think what we need to do is decide ourselves and we need to plan this thing. And therefore we need to have total control of our own destiny, but have an interdependent relationship with the UK for certain things like ambassadorships and stuff like that.”
Ultimately, Miller would like to see Cayman have a relationship with the UK similar to what Bermuda has. He said he’s not sure that the assertions that the UK wouldn’t agree to such a relationship aren’t just a myth propagated by politicians “who don’t want to accept the responsibility of governance”.
“It’s just very convenient to blame the governor,” he said.
Miller said he believes there’s some political will in the UK to allow Cayman to have such a relationship with the mother country.
“If you talk to the civil servants with the FCO, you get this resistance for political advancement,” he said. “If you talk to the politicians in the House of Lords... they have a different view. They think all of the Overseas Territories should have a similar constitution to Bermuda - with the removal of the Order in Council. And I think most of them would be happy with that.”
Miller said independence could happen in one of two ways.
“We can have the political leadership that we have now, which becomes an embarrassment to the UK. Because I’m not one of those who thinks the [Framework for Fiscal Responsibility] is an endorsement of the government’s policies and fiscal management,” he said. “Or we can get a charismatic, popular leader who takes us into independence in a four-year window.”
Many restaurants have at least one dish that involves some sort of table side preparation. At Luca, it’s the filleting of branzino, which is a Mediterranean striped sea bass, which is baked in salt crust bread. First the bread casing is sliced open and then the fish is fillet
ed in front of the diners. The result is not only a dining experience with “wow” factor, but also an incredibly moist, tender and delicious fish.
“What kind of fish is it?” Millers asked Maringer.
“It’s a branzino,” she said. “It’s a Mediterranean sea bass.”
“The Mediterranean?,” he replied. “You’re really carrying me far afield. You couldn’t get a good yellow tail?”
Maringer paused, thinking, a little puzzled.
“You had that.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I’m just teasing, don’t pay me no mind dear.”
Maringer asked Miller if he would like a little olive oil drizzled on the fish. He said yes.
“Are you married?” he asked her.
“Not yet,” she replied. “I’m waiting for a ring.”
“Some lucky guy is going to get himself a wonderful
wife to look after him,” Miller told here. “You’re looking after me just Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Our final course will be pistachio encrusted New Zealand rack of lamb with steamed bok choy, fingerling potatoes and Barolo demi glace.
Maringer asked Miller how he wanted his lamb cooked.
“Mine well done,” he said. “I’m a country boy.”
Miller said the fears of him being anti-expatriate are unfounded.
“People like to say I hate foreigners,” he said. “I don’t hate foreigners.”
He noted that he spent 15 months as the chairman of the Work Permit Board and here were no complaints of him victimising anyone.
“There’s no part of my history that supports that fear,” he said. “I think the fear runs deeper than that.”
Miller told a story about when he was first elected to Cabinet.
“I was invited... there was a group of people who I often called... the George Town bourgeois - which is not meant to be a compliment,” he said. “But they used to have these dinners, and they probably still do, where they got together and kind of decided what was going to happen in Cayman. So I was invited to one of these dinners and I went.
“After the meal... we sat around chatting... and one of the main hosts said to me, ‘you know Ezzard... we have come to the conclusion that you are someone we can support and work with, but...’ and I stopped them; I said ‘Sir, there’s no but. What you see is what you get. Everything I do in government is not going to be done for my political advantage or my economic advantage or for any specific economic advantage for anybody else. It’s going to be done because my best professional judgment tells me it is the best for the country. You, like everybody else, will get equal opportunity to influence that policy by way of public discussion’. Let me tell you; you could have dropped a straight pin in the room and it would have sounded like a gunshot. I don’t think the six men said five more words to me within the next half hour. And I left and I was never invited back.”
Miller said because he can’t be controlled by outside influences, business people fear him.
“And I can tell you ... it’s frightening for me... I can’t influence government policy hardly any... I can’t determine government policy and you wouldn’t believe the overtures that have been made to me with my limited influence... by business people, by people who want to invest here and want to do well.”
Although he agrees that Caymanians and expatriates have to work together for the betterment of the Cayman Islands, Miller believes in a Caymanians first policy.
“I’m not talking about making the people who sell fish by the dock bank manager because they’re Caymanians,” he said. “I’m talking about people who have gone to school; they’ve got their professional qualifications/academic qualifications. I have never advocated anyone starting at the top. They must start at the bottom and learn the ropes. But don’t build the concrete ceiling over them. There are far too many Caymanians... who in my view are underemployed based on their education and experience. Caymanians now have 20 - 25 years experience in the financial industry, but they’re not represented in the boardrooms as top management; they need to be.”
Miller cited several examples of qualified Caymanians who have come to him who are either being passed over for promotion or not being hired.
“When I see Caymanians, who I know; who I’ve worked with in government or as a professional... been in the financial ministry for government for 10 years, comes out, works at Deloitte for five; has consultant business, holds her own; been on the CIMA board; represented the country in the financial [matters]; applies for a job with certain finance company... willing to start at the bottom because she wants to learn the business. But three years in a row has been passed over for promotion by people withlesser qualifications, lesser experience, non-Caymanians... well that gets my gall up,” he said.
Miller said that in Cayman’s financial industry, the only transfer of knowledge goes from the Caymanian to the foreign recruit.
“There is no plan, there is no deliberate methodology to transfer [knowledge] from the foreign recruits or even from the experienced foreigners to the young Caymanian graduate,” he said. “You hear young Caymanians [saying] ‘We don’t understand why they brought this man here. He doesn’t know how to put together a mutual fund file’. But the Caymanians train him and he has the ability to go to the cocktail parties, goes to Sunset House with his friends and he winds up getting the promotion. That is where my concern lies with this explosive powder keg that we have.”
In addition, Miller said young Caymanian graduates are having difficulties getting jobs or even interviews.
“The young Caymanian graduate... sees his friends being recruited by the top people in the United States, if that’s where [he] went to school. But [foreign firms] can’t recruit him because he can’t work there. He’s on a student visa and trust me he has to leave. And he doesn’t want to stay there; he wants to come back home because his parents have signed a loan for him to get his education.
“Then you get the other side of it, where you’ve got the parents coming to me and saying, ‘Ezzard, what am I going to do? My kid has been back a year, he’s got his degree, I’m paying his student loan for him, I’m feeding him, I’m clothing him, I’m giving him spending money on a Friday night, and can’t get a job; can’t get an interview’.”
Miller told the story about a woman in North Side.
“She went on a government scholarship to Florida, did a finance degree, came back, worked for a trust company for years, in the meantime, she went to law school, got her law degree, went to London, did her PPC in London, England, came back, she went around to every law firm, produced her CV. Not a single one would give her an interview,” he said.” She got a job because I happened to call someone who sits on the [immigration] board, and I said I just want you all to understand something, if you all don’t do something about this today... I’m on Rooster [Talk Radio programme] tomorrow morning and I’m going to blast you all; I’m going to call you by name.”
Miller said the woman got a job because after his call, the relevant immigration board told a law firm that the only way they would get a key employee they wanted was to hire the woman.
“That’s how she got the job... and she’s doing very well.”
Miller said that as of now, he knows of 19 Caymanians who are academically qualified as lawyers and can’t get articles.
“I have a young Caymanian who graduated with an architectural qualification in project management...two years and can’t get a job. I have two people in my constituency who were sent off on government scholarships in tourism and can’t get jobs in tourism. Both excelled academically. It’s absolute madness.”
Miller said Cayman should be training people for the labour available.
“We know we have 500 lawyers on a permit. So, we should be able to train 500 lawyers and at least 400 of them get jobs in the legal fraternity,” he said. “You have to understand something now. If we had a situation where we had no lawyers on a permit, I’d have a different approach. Even if a person winds up with an average degree, they’re entitled to a job.”
Miller said that some people are lamenting the fact that the financial industry isn’t attracting the same high calibre of people it once did, something which he thinks is probably true.
But while some would blame Cayman’s immigration policy for the decline in talent, Miller thinks is a reflection of businesses refusing to pay the going rate for talent.
“Ten years ago, we could get the best accountant out of central Canada for US$50,000 because the Canadian economy was in shambles,” he said. “Today you can’t do that... their economy is booming. So we need to be paying that same accountant today $100,000. Pick up the paper tomorrow and they’re advertising for $50,000. And that’s what they’re offering to Caymanians.”
Miller believes the influx of mediocre talent also has other roots.
“The worst thing that ever happened to the financial industry in Cayman is when Mbeki became president of South Africa,” he said. “Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say because it has nothing to do with race. But he put in the policy that the workplace must reflect the ethnic mix of the community. So you now have all of these mediocre white South Africans who can’t get a job. Because if you have to get rid of some white people to bring in some Indians or coloured folks, who you going to get rid of? So, we can attract them for the $50,000 - $60,000, and that is why we’re getting a poorer calibre of people.”
Bacon with dessert
Luca’s chef Federico Destro popped over to say hello and posed with Miller for a photo.
Later, Maringer brings dessert.
“I’ve never seen such large dessert plate in all my life,” Miller said.
“Well, I hope you’re going to like it, Maringer replied.
“So far everything’s been great,” said Miller. “You could put anything in front of me and I’ll love it.”
“Wow. You can come to my house and I’ll cook for you,” Maringer said, finally coming to terms with Miller’s good-natured banter.
“I might accept the invitation,” Miller said. “When could I come? But my wife would be upset.”
“She could come, too,” Maringer said.
“Well that’s different,” Miller said. “It’s always better to cook for two than just one, right?”
One of the two items for dessert was banana mousse over banana sponge cake with some caramelised bananas. The unique aspect of the dessert is that it was sprinkled with bits of crunchy bacon. Although the combination sounded odd, it was truly delicious.
“It’s got the sugar and the salt,” said Miller. “That’s a good combination.”
In addition, Maringer served warm chocolate molten cake.
“It has some rum-marinated oranges,” said Maringer.
“Now there you go,” said Miller, noting that his acid reflux was starting to act up. “You only live once.”
The wine served with dessert is Mrozowski Cuvee Auslese, a late-harvest white wine from Austria. It goes well with the banana mousse.
Maringer asked if we wanted coffee. Miller said yes.
“What kind?” asked Maringer.
“Just regular Americano,” he said. “The colour of me, as sweet as you.”
Through the course of the evening, Miller stuck to his word - virtually nothing was off record except for some inner-dealings with one of his former employers that was brought up for background purposes.
Miller showed the impressive ability to pick up where a conversation left off during the many service interruptions and even for bathroom breaks.
He made several isolated comments that give insight, such as how after taking a Karrass negotiation training seminar in Miami, he often advocates for the extreme when everyone else has an opposite position to him, in hope of bringing an issue to the centre.
“I know it’s not what I want oftentimes, but its a negotiation,” he said, adding that he has no problem giving ground on many things.
He said he would run in the next election as an independent again and he believes independent candidates will do much better in the next election.
“I don’t think the two parties will be able to campaign as successfully this time around against independents and [the idea] that independents can’t do anything. I think I have proven otherwise.”
Miller also cautiously backed away from a statement he made some time ago about not wanting the position of premier.
“If I believed it was in the interests of country and there was the right calibre of people, particularly people that I know had principles and integrity, not just in person but in purpose to represent Cayman, and it was the right group of people, I would consider it for two years,” he said.
“And during that first two years, I would do my best to groom whoever they selected to be the next premier, and I would step aside in two years and let them lead the party.”