Cheers to Champers: Celebrating Twenty Years
Chiryl Newman was a fan of Cheers, the popular American television show that ran for over a decade, from 1982 to 1993. The premise of the show, set in a Boston bar, revolved around the bar owner, the staff, and a slew of quirky regulars.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
Around that time, Newman was managing a travel agency in her native Barbados. When a client who owned a small champagne and wine bar approached her to see if she knew of anyone who might want to buy it, it piqued her interest. “I thought ‘Great!’ because it was this small property on the west coast and I thought ‘Wow, what a great thing to do.’ I just liked the idea and back in those days Cheers was really big. I thought it would be a fun thing to do without any experience or anything,” Newman recalls with a laugh. “The price that he was asking for the business was a little bit more than I had just paid for my car so I thought, ‘Well this is doable.’ I went and got a loan and I took on a partner.”
Nowadays, the idea of a bar or restaurant and the reality of one are quite different things. It’s easy to get swept up in the allure of having a fun place where friends and family can come to drink and have a good time, versus the hard truth of a very competitive, challenging, gruelling industry. Even though Newman was new to this line of work, she was smart, driven, hard working and she made it happen. Not only that, she was really good at it. The champagne and wine bar was extremely successful, and after five years of being in business, she and her partner were given the opportunity to move to a bigger space on the south coast, where Tapas is located today. It was when they made this move to the new location that Champers was born. After two years, she and her business partner decided to part ways. She bought him out and became the sole owner of Champers, and remains so to this day.
Champers thrived at this location for 10 years, until an old house on a cliff overlooking the whole southern coast went up for sale. “When we first saw this very old house – it was built in 1860 – it was very derelict. The lady who had owned it died and her daughters were all married, so the building had just run to ruin. What we were looking at was the view and not so much the property itself. The potential.” Newman and her husband bought the property and he helped her renovate it. Bit by bit they fixed the place up and slowly expanded to what is now the Champers that everyone knows and loves.
With arguably the best view in the south (and possibly all of Barbados), Champers is bright and cheery with a feeling of warm Bajan hospitality and an incredible, open-air covered terrace that has ocean on all sides. With the waves literally hitting the restaurant’s walls, Newman has created a truly exceptional dining experience with an international reputation. An absolute must for anyone visiting the island, Champers is also a favourite among locals, something Newman prides herself on. “We are really fortunate that we get a really big local clientele, unlike any other upmarket restaurant on the island. People feel comfortable coming here. They don’t feel intimidated and that’s something that we have been striving for with our menu. If you read our menu, it’s very simple. There are not a lot of big French words where you have no idea that that’s a potato. It reads so you can understand. It reads very simple and it’s not complicated and that’s truly what we were striving for. It’s good, comforting food, and that’s what we aim for: we’re not going for nouvelle [cuisine], we’re not going for classic French, or anything like that. Just really good, tasty food.”
Celebrating their 20th year in business, Newman can’t believe how far she’s come, although she hasn’t done it alone. Along with her loyal staff and family, her executive chef, Pedro Newton, has been with Champers for 10 years. Newton learned how to cook as a young boy helping to prepare dinners for all of his younger brothers, and this skill progressed into an extremely successful culinary career. At Champers, Newton likes to keep to his Barbadian roots, all the while drawing on years of classical training. “The food that we prepare here is West Indian but with an international twist to it. We try to use a lot of indigenous products from the island,” says Newton.
He also likes to keep his finger on the global food pulse by travelling all over the world, both as a guest at culinary festivals and participating in food fairs and conferences. “I try to take trips to the US at least once a year. I also try to do festivals in North America and Canada. I’ve done The Shellfish Festival in Prince Edward Island and the Street Food Festival in Nova Scotia [in Canada]. I got to go to the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago and saw what inspires the other chefs there and what ingredients are new and trendy. I get newsletters from the Culinary Institute of America.” In short, Newton knows what’s up.
With the internet and his vast network of chefs around the world, Newton is constantly bringing inspiration to his menu at Champers, but he’s still influenced by what goes on at home in Barbados. “For my special occasions, I like to go to The Cliff [restaurant]. I use the chef at The Cliff as a benchmark for this institution, as a benchmark for us, as a benchmark for the quality that we serve. The thing that he always has is the presentation of his food. It’s something that I can take away and it helps us create our dishes here.”
With more local chefs serving as executive chefs on the island than ever before, Newton is proof that the food scene in Barbados is only getting bigger, stronger, and on par with restaurants all over the world. He’s not only a role model for younger cooks in the industry, but he represents his country and Bajan cuisine on an international level. For Chiryl Newman, so much of her success and the success of Champers is due to the fact that for her, nothing ever seemed impossible in Barbados. Newman always found a way to make things happen, and this attitude is reflected in her business and what she has built with her restaurant over the past 20 years. It’s the energy that she gives off and it’s why Champers works so well.
“What I like about Barbados is that there is always a lot of opportunity,” Newman explains. “I came from a poor background, a poor family but I never felt poor. I felt like we were rich even though we weren’t rich, but I didn’t know that. I felt rich because we had great food on the table, great family, and we always had what we needed. And because family was so big, I could never fall. It was a huge net. Even now, my cousins are all grown up and practically in every aspect of business I have a family member, which is lovely”.
After all these years, from those first few starting off with her small wine bar, to today with a 200-seat restaurant, Newman has exceeded her dreams of having her very own version of Cheers. And although it is not a little champagne and wine bar anymore, her philosophy has remained true to her nature: to cultivate a place without pretensions, where you’re greeted with a smile, and you can eat, drink, and have a good time. So cheers to that.
Wine Bar & Restaurant