Caribbean eyes are smiling at another conquest of the British. And this time it’s not in sport, but in the culinary arena. Just as the West Indies cricket team vanquished the English a few months ago, some of our top chefs have comprehensively captured the heart of one of the UK’s toughest chefs.
The television series Rhodes Across the Caribbean featured chef Gary Rhodes as he visited eight Caribbean islands in five weeks to learn as much as he could. At the end of his journey, he hosted a banquet in Grenada, using one dish from each country. It is a well researched, beautifully shot and engaging television series that showed off the diversity of the food from our islands. I’m not exaggerating when I say this series, which was broadcast on UKTV Food (the British equivalent of the Food Network), has really given Caribbean cuisine the kind of television platform it deserves.
Rhodes is known as a champion of British food and a man with a penchant for detail and perfection. I was curious about how he’d feel about our food, but seeing that he’s owned the Calabash Restaurant in Grenada for a number of years, I thought he would be pretty clued up. But when I interviewed him about the programme, he admitted to some serious gaps in his knowledge of Caribbean cuisine.
“I’d always thought that Caribbean cuisine was very much the Jamaican style of cooking. I thought it was about rice and peas and spicy jerk chicken,” said Rhodes.
“And all of a sudden, I find myself going to all of these different islands and all of them had their own style of cooking, and each island [was] very protective of its style of cooking.”
It was this diversity that struck him most after visiting Jamaica, Curacao, Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, St Lucia and Grenada.
“It was all about the different strengths from every island, that was the beauty of it.
You’d go over to Curacao, and of course, there was a lot of Dutch influence in the cooking. We were doing these stuffed cheeses – and that was one dish I’d never seen before – then you go over to St Lucia and you’ve got something that’s almost French-style, plus there was a lot of African influence, Indian influence and even Far East.
“The great thing was each island found its own identity with its food and each time I went to a different island, I was learning something completely new.”
Rhodes Across the Caribbean follows on the heels of forays across India and China. Those series got mixed reviews from viewers (myself included) who loved the food, but felt that Rhodes came across as patronising and rude to the local chefs.
So when I got wind that a Caribbean series was being planned, I was a bit apprehensive. But it turned out he was very respectful, and in fact had a lot of good things to say about our chefs.
“There are chefs out there who are so talented, so dedicated, and they could introduce their own personalities into great old classics from their particular island, and that’s what I loved. It was fabulous to cook with them.”
I could tell he was particularly bowled over by the charming female chefs, Vanesse Tweeboom from Curacao, Tobago’s Debra Sardinha-Metivier, and Angela Holland in Barbados.
This series also presented a great opportunity for London-based Trinidad chef Hasan DeFour, who was chosen to accompany Rhodes on the trip as one of his sous-chefs.
The good-looking, dreadlocked chef is popular among Trinis in London who know his “sweet han’”. A Trini party isn’t complete without some of Hasan’s food. My mother’s old adage of “eat before you leave home” doesn’t usually apply if I know Hasan is catering for a party. I eat before jumping and wining all night, after the wining I eat, and, of course, I leave with a bag of goodies for the next day’s lunch. So I was really happy when Hasan was chosen for this trip.
He was especially proud when the crew rolled into Trinidad, not only because it was home but it would also be a vindication of all the sacrifices he made to come to the UK more than ten years ago to follow his dream.
“I was so happy to be representing my country, coming home with one of the top chefs in the world and showing that what I have been doing in the UK has been worthwhile,” he said.
“I knew this journey would entail a lot of new discoveries in terms of cookery styles and skills, but we also would have seen some of the top chefs in the Caribbean taking the food to another level.”
It was heartening to watch Hasan’s wide-eyed fascination as he sampled coffee at the Blue Mountain coffee plantation in Jamaica or ate chocolate banana cake at the Tobago Cocoa Estate.
He was quick to point out that even though the islands are so different, we have a lot more in common than we imagine.
“One thing that kept popping up was the use of green seasoning! Each island had a different blend. In Trinidad, where there was a stronger Indian influence, we use a lot of chadon beni, which is similar to coriander; in other islands they used more thyme; or in the case of Barbados, they used marjoram, and I was surprised, because I didn’t think they would use such a European herb in their cuisine.”
For several years, people who love Caribbean food have called it the next big thing, but somehow it hasn’t happened. But after being captivated by our cuisine, Gary Rhodes is ready to champion Caribbean food in the UK.
“If I could open a whole chain of Caribbean restaurants across the UK tomorrow, I would. I feel there is a style of cooking that the British public have been unaware of,” said Rhodes.
“There are also many West Indians who would not recognise just how different the food is on every island, and some of these flavours we could put into a chain of restaurants. And just like Indian food and Chinese food have taken off in this country, I think Caribbean [food] would join them proudly.”