When we step into the Azul Restaurant at the Sea Breeze Hotel in Christ Church, we are met with the most stunning view of the Caribbean we’ve seen yet. It almost distracts us from the reason that we are here–to see Marcus Samuelsson work some magic in the kitchen. We’ve seen him win “Top Chef Masters” and go knife to knife with the best on the “Iron Chef” and here he is in the flesh, preparing ingredients, lifting pot lids and consulting with his sous chef before his cooking demo begins. He’s purposeful, but laid-back in his white t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his hot Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster, with red high-top Chuck Taylor’s. We anxiously await good food and any pearls of wisdom about good food. Samuelsson doesn’t disappoint.
He starts by toasting the bun for a simple fish sandwich with a bit of butter in a pan. He says it is little things like this than can make a dish special and that taking care can be one of the most important ingredients in a dish. Taking care becomes a theme in his demo. Taking care to choose the best quality meats. Taking care not to waste food. (He drops the statistic that if people in developing countries stopped throwing out 5 percent of what they eat it could stop world hunger.) Taking care to make vegetables more palatable to our children. It occurs to me that maybe Marcus Samuelsson is something more than a chef. He’s like an evangelist for eating healthfully without sacrificing taste and he’s not too preachy about it. I think I can manage toasting a bun for a fish sandwich, but the crispy fried capers he’s adding may be a bit out of my league. Gai managed to score a seat in the front row and get the first bite of the fish sandwich. She looks like she’s in heaven.
My side of the room gets lucky with his second dish, lemon ginger chicken with basamati rice. The skin on the chicken is golden brown and crispy, and the first bite is bursting with tanginess. It is positively yummy. As we taste, he talks about using the remaining chicken carcass for soup or chicken stock to use for future meals. If I made chicken this good I don’t imagine there would be much of a carcass left to re-purpose, but I get his point. Now, Samuelsson seems anxious to get out from behind the island he’s been cooking behind. He wants to answer our questions about cooking. Gai wants to know why restaurant recipes she tries at home don’t taste the same. Samuelson suggests good pots and pans. A cast-iron skillet is a must and using the right amount of heat when cooking. Someone asks about the healthiest oil for frying. He suggests grape seed oil. Another asks the best the way to tell is your meat is really organic. He says you can’t, really. But you should develop a relationship with your butcher and find out where he’s sourcing his meat. Someone else asks where he likes to eat in Barbados and he says Oistins, entreating others to go and enjoy the local food and culture. I find myself liking the guy, especially watching him take care with his fans, signing books and posing for photos.
After our brush with a celeb chef, we decide to stay on the south coast of the island and visit The Boatyard, a popular beach bar and club, particularly with the cruise set. In fact, we find ourselves in line behind a cruise group on a day pass. They get instructions and their required wristbands to enter from their cruise trip leader. It costs $10 US or $20 Bajan to hang out at The Boatyard. The cost goes toward food and drinks. Not a bad deal. We are forced to hang at the bar for a bit because a torrential downpour followed our arrival. The decor is old Caribbean shipwreck and perfect for a place that serves strong rum drinks called the Sharky. Before long the sun is back at full strength and we commandeer a few beach chairs, but the pale blue water is irresistible. Fellow traveler Walter from Silver Spring and I decide to head straight for it, followed by Miss Joyce from Philadelphia. The sand was smooth and rock-free, unlike our west coast beach at Tamarind. The water was cool at first, but transformed into a soothing bath and we contentedly bobbed up and down in lapping waves, watching younger beach-goers run down a pier and fling themselves from a swinging rope into the ocean. Walter says if he gets a few more drinks in him, he’d do it, but we decide to go for a walk on the beach instead. All manner of boats pepper the seascape from dingies to yachts and glass-bottomed boats to cruise ships. We spy a group of people in the ocean, maybe 15 or so, who seem to be in a formation, heads peeking above the water. It looks like they are in the midst of some kind of odd ritual and we are for some reason reminded of the movie “Cocoon” when retirees think they’ve discovered the fountain of youth in a pool, but it’s really just the alien pods init. We hope their water gathering is just a happy coincidence.
The clouds return and we head back toward our resort, driving through Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados on the way. This is where everyone is. It’s Saturday and locals have packed the streets, shopping and running errands or just getting ready for parties that evening. The barber shop is packed with men getting their heads cut. A man pushes a cart overflowing with coconuts up a hill. Two men with locs wrapped around their heads in tall beehives are engaged in an intense debate in front of one store. The store next door has a card table filled with perfumes, lotions and hair oils out front. I want to hop out of the van and mix and mingle a little and a few of us want to come back to do just that. Our van driver turns out to be a font of information taking us through US Attorney General Eric Holder’s neighborhood. Few of us knew he was of Bajan descent. We even pass a building with his name on it. Our driver points out a cheery yellow building that turns out to be a housing project and we all say we wouldn’t mind living there. He takes us down Peterkin Road, where blacks weren’t allowed to walk once. Their white employers would drive down to the end road to pick up their black employees and take them to the homes where they worked. And finally, as we approach our hotel, he shares that Tamarind was where Harry Belafonte filmed the controversial film “Island in the Sun,” one of the first films depicting an interracial romance. I found this particularly interesting having just watched the Harry Belafonte documentary on HBO. I love learning cool bits of trivia like this while traveling.
We have a few hours before we head to our next festival event, so a few of us decide to head to The Roti Den, just down the street from the hotel. We saw the little painted yellow house when we first arrived and a few other folks traveling with us had already sampled the roti, giving them good reviews. The Roti Den can hold about 5 people max. I know this because the 5 of us were elbow to elbow in the place. As we start to place orders with the young woman in a hair bonnet behind the counter we learn that they are out of chicken, which is what I wanted. I settle on beef and potato and others order chicken with the bone in. We watch her lay out each tortilla-like wrap, add a savory filling and fold it in on itself. Another woman brings out what looks like a bowl of flour and when we look up balls of dough with a ground yellow meal in their centers are lined up in a neat row, the beginnings of the roti wraps. When I get back to my room, I am anxious to try my roti. I’ve never had it before and I figure this is the place to have it. As I sit on my veranda, I peel back its foil wrapping and take a bite. The potatoes are good, well-seasoned but not spicy. The beef is another story. It was tough, chewy and sinewy. I would hear from other folks that went on the roti run that the bone in chicken was really boney and my mind turns to the roosters that we passed on the side of the road on the way to The Roti Den. This was the first culinary miss in Barbados.
But our experience at the festival’s Ambrosia event later that evening erased any memories of chewy beef or scrawny chicken legs. The Lion Castle Polo Estate sits atop a hill overlooking St. Thomas Parrish’s twinkling lights below and the estate is awash in purples, blues and greens, the colors of the festival. It’s almost magical. We aren’t sure which way to turn when we enter the hall. There are wine tastings in the center of the room and food stations featuring Bajan and celebrity chefs line the room. We scatter in a food frenzy looking for what we want to taste first. I start with a flavorful and colorful tuna tartare, dotted with beads of red, green and orange-hued fish roe and garnished with a crisp plantain chip. My second bite was more like a meal with a healthy piece of lamb chop accompanied by a cheesy potato side. I connect with Gai and Lorna and we hit the stations of all the chefs we’ve been watching and wondering about. Paul Yellin is a celebrated Bajan chef known as the Rhum Chef and for putting up the best plates in Barbados. He’s caught the attention of food critics off the island, too. He catered President’s pre-inaugural dinner at Union Station in DC, so we look forward to his dish. He serves us a delicious piece of pork belly over his take on the Bajan national dish cou cou, a mixture of cornmeal water and okra. His seems to have yucca or plantain in it as well. It is a scrumptious mix. We aren’t as impressed with Marcus Samuelsson’s offering at this event. It seems to be his take on pork and beans, featuring a thick piece of spicy pork bacon on top of red beans with a coleslaw on the side. The bacon was a bit too spicy for my tastes. I wish he’d made more of that lemon ginger chicken we had earlier. Then we make our way toMing Tsai‘s table. The former Food Network chef and owner of Boston’s Blue Ginger restaurant is in rare form. You could see why he had his own show. He’s got jokes for everyone. We learn when we reach him that he’s really got to go, as in use the facilities. He’s pretty open about it. Asking staff what he’s got to do to get a bathroom break and threatening to go outside the event’s tent. He’s being funny, but the poor guy is serious. He manages to serve us our ahi tuna, seared before our eyes with some sort of hot savory liquid and topped with crunchy, sesame rice. It was fabulous and he appreciates our praise.
This event seals Barbados’ title as the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean,” per Food & Wine magazine, with Bajan chefs representing along with world-reknowned ones. At this point, I’ve probably consumed 7 or 8 plates of food and I feel gluttonous. So, I cut myself off from food and get a rum and coke from the Mount Gay Rum area, instead. Mount Gay is the oldest rum in the world, founded in 1703 and it’s got a smooth taste, so smooth I can barely taste it. I start to wander around and really take in the scene. That’s when I spot Tom Colicchio from “Top Chef.” He’s deep in conversation with someone so I linger close-by waiting for a break in conversation before I make my move for a photo. I’m not sure what reaction I’ll get because he comes off as kind of surly on “Top Chef” at times. But a broad genuine smile broke out across his face when I told him I was a fan of the show and asked to take a picture. I’m sure he’d been told this very thing hundreds of times, but he showed no sign of annoyance. Further celebrity spying is rewarded when we run into Marcus Samuelsson’s model wife, Gate Haile, who is striking at 6-feet-tall. She’s with Damaris, our dancing model friend from Friday night, and when I ask for a photo they strike the perfect pose on cue, like they were born to give face. Maybe they were.
So, a few of us hadn’t quite succumbed to a food-induced coma yet, and we decide to keep the evening going with a trip to the Bajan party spot, St. Lawrence Gap in Christ Church. Every city has a place like St. Lawrence Gap. It is the place where locals come to unwind listen to good music and have a drink and where tourists come to let their hair down. In DC, it might be 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Several bars and clubs line a section of the street and we decide to visit the Reggae Lounge first. It’s a funky spot.
The long green bar features a painting of a Medusa-haired woman and there are colorful chalk drawings along its walls, one exclaims “Irie.” We take a look at the drink specials on a chalkboard and wonder about a wine called Jagra, so we ask for a taste. It tasted like Robitussin. There’s no other way to put it. I opt for another rum and coke and feel compelled to take a picture of the Jagra bottle which boasts that its contents were made with “authentic horny goat weed.” I’m glad that I decided to stick with a rum and coke. The Bajans outnumber the tourists here and we hear more hip-hop than we hear reggae. A few of us make our way to the dance floor where a big video screen hangs. When Lil’ Wayne appears, the crowd goes nuts. There’s a guy that we are certain wants to be Lil’ Wayne with tight jeans sagging and locs flying. Once again, I am reminded of how universal music is and it makes me smile.
The Bajan-to-tourist ratio is flipped at McBride’s, the club next door, and the music is solidly ’80s pop. There is much better people watching here. We are particularly intrigued by a man in a pin-stripped zoot suit complete with fedora and chain hanging from his waste. He could have been one of the regular dancers on “Soul Train” back in the day with the way he commanded the dance floor. There was some spinning, and some poppin’ and lockin’, especially since they were playing “There’s No Stoppin’ Us” from the movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.” The DJ really went back for that one. Then, there was a woman who felt so weighed down by her purse that she decided to wear it around her neck instead of on her shoulder, or maybe she’d imbibed a bit too much. We watched in disbelief as she attempted to pull a uniformed police officer onto the dance floor. When that didn’t work, she thought she’d try to make him smile by physically putting her fingers at the corners of his mouth and forcing a grin. We were sure we were about to witness an arrest, but the officer kept his cool and the woman with the purse around her neck gave up and started dancing with the zoot-suited man. It’s close to 3 a.m.; we’ve gotten an eyeful and we’ve had very long day, so back to sweet Tamarind we head.