“Do you know what this is?” asks chef Mark Linton, waving a bright scarlet, knobbly pepper that looks like someone’s sat on it under my nose. He offers a wicked smile. “It’s a scotch bonnet. You really gotta know how to use it because it’s seeeeeriously strong,” he says, rolling the word “seriously” round on his tongue for a good while to make it sound anything but. “We use it in our fish cakes, our flying fish and, of course, our hot pepper sauce.” He throws me a wink. “We’ll definitely be using this later.”
We’re at Hastings Farmers’ Market (every Wednesday and Saturday from 8am-2pm) in the south of Barbados, and Mark, from nearby Turtle Beach resort (turtlebeachresortbarbados.com), is taking me on a gourmet tour. We’re picking up ingredients for the island’s national dish, flying fish and cou-cou (a mixture of cornmeal and okra), which he’ll be cooking when we get back to the hotel. Almost everything we need is here: okra, onions, garlic and those fiery scotch bonnet peppers, plus stalls piled high with avocados, mangos, fig bananas (so-called because of their sweetness), coconuts, tomatoes, peppers, pineapples and aubergines. Well, everything but the flying fish. Luckily Oistins, the island’s biggest fish market, is our next stop.
Every Friday night Oistins hosts the fabulous Fish Fry, a big street party where 30 or so stalls serve the catch of the day and ice-cold beers to the soundtrack of booming soca music. But this morning it’s just us and the locals haggling for everything from snapper and mahi-mahi to kingfish, grouper, barracuda, lobster and more.
We buy our flying fish from Tyrone Shorey, a giant of a man who’s won the title of “fastest fish filleter on the island” 11 times in a row, and head back to Turtle Beach for flying fish and cou-cou, just like Mark’s grandma used to make. It tastes delicious.
Mark is the first of many Bajan chefs I’m meeting over the next few days to talk about their passion and mine: food. You’d be right in thinking that Barbados is hardly up there with the great culinary capitals of the world, but over the past 15 years or so its restaurants have had their moments in the spotlight – and not for the reasons you might expect. With idyllic beachfront locations on the glittering west coast, the island’s top (read priciest) restaurants have attracted an eclectic range of celebrities (Tony Blair, Simon Cowell, Rihanna and Mariah Carey to name a few), feasting on gourmet food created by European chefs. They were (and still are) places to be seen, where you’d eat dishes that wouldn’t look out of place in a dining room in Kensington, Chelsea or Mayfair – and all made with ingredients likely flown in from a similar distance.
This foray into fine dining earned Barbados a Zagat guide in 2007. It was the first (and, to date, only) such guide to a Caribbean island. But very gradually over the past couple of years (nothing here ever happens at pace), something more exciting has been going on, and this tiny sun-drenched country has emerged as a proper foodie destination. As global food trends have evolved, and more and more chefs have begun championing local produce and flavours, Barbados has followed suit, ditching the incongruous and overly fussy interpretations of European food (who wants to travel halfway around the world to eat duck à l’orange or spag bol, however polished it might be?) and celebrating its culture with local colour, fresh ingredients and bags of flavour.
Barbados’ annual Food & Wine and Rum Festival ( foodwinerum.com), taking place from 19-22 November this year, has certainly played its part in the change. The event started six years ago, although back then it was a showcase of the best of Barbados (and, to some extent, it still is), if not necessarily the best of Barbados’ food,
as celebrity chefs from the US, UK and Canada such as Fergus Henderson, Tom Colicchio and Tim Love were flown in to host cooking demonstrations for the first edition. This year’s event sees Marcus Samuelsson (who cooked the Obamas’ first state dinner in 2009), Yorkshire’s Michelin-starred Andrew Pern and Canadian celebrity chef Craig Harding, among others. All the chefs will be cooking using Bajan ingredients, but, let’s face it, if you’re coming all the way to Barbados, the last thing you want is Italian food cooked by a Canadian chef. Which is why it’s so important for the island that so many strong Bajan chefs are also taking part.
Duayne Holligan is the enthusiastic yet softly spoken executive chef at L’Azure at The Crane (thecrane.com), the signature restaurant at the oldest hotel in the Caribbean. This the first time he’s been involved with the festival. “I’m excited and scared,” he tells me over a rum punch and a thyme-scented flying fish cutter (a roll, to you and me) he threw together in two minutes. “I wanted to be ready for my time to shine, and I feel like it’s now. My food will do the talking for me.” Duayne has come a long way since his early days working at a plantation and trying his hand at butchery (despite being pescetarian). His big night during the event is a Gourmet Safari on 21 November with American TV chef Carla Hall. He talks me through his early thoughts. “I have a good idea of what I want to cook – I want to stick to local food, to what I know best,” he says. “I’ll try something like flying fish stuffed with a rum-spiked mahi-mahi mousse and sweet potato chips. Or herb-crusted barracuda with potatoes and a lemon beurre blanc.” And what about dessert? Duayne places a delicate plate of breadfruit cheesecake in front of me. For those of you who don’t know what breadfruit is, it’s a prickly “fruit” that tastes a bit like undercooked potatoes. In Barbados, it’s usually fried or pickled, and has almost certainly never been served for dessert at a food festival or top-class restaurant. But Duayne’s cheesecake is surprisingly creamy, rich and sweet, and perfectly paired with a refreshingly tart pineapple coulis. “A lot of Bajan chefs try to be too European, but I prefer to I stick to my culture and use local ingredients the best way I can,” says Duayne. “But you’ve still got to make the food sexy, you know? You still have to have fun.”
Another chef doing exactly that is Mark Parris, who opened De Outback (outbackbb.com), a homely joint with a corrugated-iron roof and fairy lights wrapped around the palm trees, in February 2014. Here he serves simple dishes bursting with big, complex flavours: sticky piles of pork ribs as big as a ruler, cooked low and slow, and smothered in Mark’s syrupy barbecue sauce, which is sweet, hot and tangy, with the unmistakable warmth of Bajan rum; spicy jerk chicken, marinated for hours in Mark’s secret seasoning; catch of the day thrown on to the barbecue and served with a tower of sweet potato wedges.
This is not delicate food. And you won’t be going anywhere else in a hurry any time soon. It’s Bajan home cooking at its finest. “Why would I go to New York to eat cou-cou?” Mark says, when I ask him about his inspirations. “No, people want to eat food from the country they’re visiting.” Mark started his career at the Hilton (“I was promoted from potato peeler to dishwasher before I had a chance to cook!”) under the guidance a French chef. The Hilton didn’t serve much in the way of Bajan food and he vowed that, when he opened up his own place, he’d show visitors the real taste of paradise. “My jerk is the best in Barbados,” he continues. “Jerk is traditionally Jamaican, and the main spice is pimento. Pimento isn’t common in Barbados, so I substituted it for something else.” He smiles. “I grow it in my garden, but there’s no way I’m telling you what it is!”
Just like De Outback, Mark and his wife, Mary, started their garden from scratch, and use the resulting salad leaves, herbs and root vegetables in their dishes. It’s a trend that’s gathering speed across the island. At Turtle Beach’s sister property the Colony Club (colonyclubhotel.com), an organic vegetable and herb garden was created to make sure the kitchen had the freshest raw materials possible. Guests at the hotel can even get involved themselves with a tour of the beautifully landscaped beds and a garden-to-plate demo.
“All our salads and herbs are locally grown,” says the head chef at Lone Star, Britain-born Dean Butler. “We do have to import a few things due to sheer volume, and supply is an issue on the island. But it is getting better. Locals are even experimenting with new ideas such as hydroponic farms [where plants are grown in water not soil].”
It was the late British film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner, a frequent visitor, who called Lone Star “the Ivy of the Caribbean”. The comparison was made affectionately, but speaks volumes of the food served when Winner used to dine here: fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and Sunday roasts. Delicious, of course, but showing no sense of place. Fortunately Dean’s appointment coincided with a change in ownership, which gave him the chance to shake things up. “I had to keep some classics on the menu,” he concedes. “I think Lone Star will always have the Thai prawn curry, aromatic shredded duck, chicken tikka and that shepherd’s pie!” But newer additions such as jerk pork loin, blackened fish and soy-glazed local barracuda really shine. “I like simple things done well,” says Dean. “Too many chefs overcomplicate things and try to be too clever. You’ve got to respect the produce that you’ve got – if you start with quality you should finish with quality.”
But surely it’s a little more complicated than that? Pedro Newton, head chef at Champers (champersbarbados.com) seems to think so.
“We have fantastic products here, but we need to work on consistency,” he says. “To move forward and truly become a world-class culinary destination we need to work more with consistency of products. We need to showcase our products and import less. We aren’t able to produce the best cuts of loin pork, for example. We need to get farmers on board and teach them about the importance of breeding.”
Open for 19 years (nine in its current location), Champers is turning out some of the most exciting food on the island. “I like to serve Bajan flavours with an international twist,” says Pedro. “We keep the core flavours the same, but we might make adjustments to the ingredients and presentation.” Pedro’s keen palate and passion for local flavours is evident in dishes such as an elegant prawn and mango salad and parmesan-crusted local barracuda with seasonal vegetables.
The eldest of four boys in a family where his mother worked long hours to put food on the table, Pedro naturally took over the job of cook. It wasn’t long before he joined some of the most exclusive restaurants in Barbados – Pisces, Fairmont Royal Pavilion, Lone Star – all under the tutelage of accomplished European chefs. “I’ve been lucky to work with so many expat chefs,” he tells me. “It’s helped Bajan cuisine become more refined. The importance of the influence of these chefs is huge.” So, what’s next for Bajan cuisine? “Well, we want a Michelin star. Even if it’s just an acknowledgement in the Michelin guide. We need to find out how far away we are from a star from a reputable source. I think we’re close now. There are a lot of new, young chefs coming up so it’s just a matter of time.”
Words by Claire Bennie.