Damian Leach is one of the young chefs making waves in the island nation, putting twists to classic Bajan dishes with influences learned abroad. In support of the burgeoning food scene, the Barbados government has declared 2018 the year of culinary experiences.
The young, Barbados-born chef, like several others on the front lines of modern Barbadian cuisine, brings home training and food experiences learned abroad. The first time he ever left the island was to attend Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa, where he also worked for a year at the Courtyard with Marc Lepine, a young, hotshot chef who has won the Canadian Culinary Championships twice and now helms the much-lauded Atelier restaurant.
“We are taking local food and elevating it,” says Leach after a Thursday dinner service. “There are not many people doing it now.”
The Barbados food scene has been focused on proving tourists could get the same food on the island that they could get at home, says chef Michael Hinds, who runs a catering company and the East Point Grill, a casual weekend barbecue spot on the east side of the island.
And chef Willis Griffiths, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, says the modern food movement has been slow to take root on the island because chefs don’t cook outside their comfort zone.
“That’s our culture, we’re laid-back people. Because I experienced the hustle and bustle of New York, I want to keep it exciting.”
Those who are pushing the parchment paper envelope can be found manning tables at the annual Food and Rum Festival, held every November at different venues around Barbados, from polo clubs to the Concorde jet hangar near the airport. There are always some hotshot international chefs there. This year Michelin-starred U.S. restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten and British sensation Tom Aikens cooked up some plate stealers. But locals swarmed the group events where the best and the brightest of Barbados food scene manned booths serving small plates, including Leach, Griffiths and Hinds.
All this talent and innovation has not been lost on the Barbados Tourism Product Authority, which is jumping on the breadfruit wagon with a new, self-guided, culinary trail brochure called Authentic Eats that will be familiar to Canadians who have ever travelled a butter tart trail in Ontario, the Nanaimo Bar trail on Vancouver Island or the cider route in Quebec.
“We call ourselves the culinary capital of the Caribbean, but we are aware of the diversity of food choice,” says product authority CEO Kerry Hall, noting the government has declared 2018 the year of culinary experiences. “We have world-class restaurants, but we also have street food and everything in between.”