How award-winning Chef Damian Leach is turning the St. Lawrence Gap into a fine dining destination.
— By Amie Watson
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
It’s official: the best seafood in the Caribbean is at Cocktail Kitchen. And after years of restaurant and bar closures, the St. Lawrence Gap is picking up again – with Chef Damian Leach leading the charge. “We opened just after I returned from the Taste of the Caribbean competition in Miami”, says Leach, a young, tattooed chef who was one of two senior chefs on the 2017 Barbados team and helped his country win Team of the Year. He also personally won Best Seafood, choosing to leave the Chef of the Year category to somebody else, since he won that award in 2016. A gentleman and a chef.
The timing of Leach’s accolades couldn’t have been better. Located near The Gap entrance, Cocktail Kitchen is already drawing locals and visitors with its exceptional cuisine, rooftop and main floor patios, outdoor bar seating and well-made mojitos and daiquiris – not to mention the prime people-watching, the soca and rock music that break with the resort tradition of smooth jazz.
“I want it to still look West Coast but at a fraction of the cost”, says Leach, referring to the upscale restaurants and hotels that line that coast of Barbados. Rent is by no means cheap in The Gap, he says, but when nearby happy hours offer two-for-one cocktails for 16 BBD (~8 USD), you have no choice but to keep prices low.
Even for such a lauded chef, opening a restaurant with an elevated cuisine in the up-and-coming area was nerve-wrecking. Though he was happy working days at the casual spot he runs with friends called The Mill and nights for Executive Chef Franco Parisi at Tapas Restaurant, he knew that the dishes he created there would never be his own. “Franco gave me my freedom and the opportunity to experiment, but it was still his menu”, says Leach. “So I talked with my wife and she said it was time now to get my name out there.”
While his opening menu for Cocktail Kitchen didn’t stray too far into fine dining, his more recent revamp incorporates some of the creativity he needed to impress the judges with his award-winning Taste of the Caribbean seafood dish: a five-bite combination of Bajan-marinated snapper; coconut and cilantro-crusted conch; curried corn crème brûlée topped with roast corn and spice-braised eggplant with ginger and scotch bonnet seafood bisque; smoked herring and sweet potato croquette; and spiced conch sausage. “I’d actually never worked with conch before, so when I got the mystery basket, I cried”, he says, laughing. “But I was happy with the spiced conch sausage, blended it up with a lot of spices – curry, cumin, sriracha – then I rolled it into a cylinder and cooked it sous vide.”
That creativity shows up in Cocktail Kitchen’s Lamb 2 Ways, which elevates a traditional recipe to gastronomic heights. The dish pairs Bajan-marinated New Zealand lamb rack with local blackbelly lamb shoulder and smoked breadfruit croquettes stuffed with Bajan goat’s milk cheese.
Leach says: “Usually we’d have a bonfire on the beach and we’d take the whole breadfruit and stuff it with corned beef, tuna or saltfish and wrap it in foil. You bury the breadfruit down inside the fire, then you go drink your rum and an hour later you pull out this breadfruit. On my menu, I’m boiling the breadfruit, then smoking it to mimic the flavour of the bonfire.”
For his variation on Bajan pudding and souse, he cooks pork shoulder sous vide to tender perfection and pan-fries the sweet potato pudding. And as should be expected from a chef who won Best Seafood, he doesn’t offer just one catch of the day, but three: a traditional blackened or grilled option with grilled pineapple salsa; a baked Parmesan catch with pesto cream and tomato salsa; and a coconut-crusted piña colada catch with vanilla-braised plantain purée, coconut-sweet potato mash, coriander emulsion and pickled pineapple.
Some of the original menu is sticking around, though, including his bestselling CK Burger. “You have to have a burger on the menu at St. Lawrence Gap, but it’s not a frozen burger here”, he says. Instead, it’s a home-made beef burger with mozzarella, bacon, tomato salsa and a balsamic-onion compote on a bun made by his wife. She owns a pastry shop and also makes the restaurant’s desserts, including Leach’s favourite lemon-berry-white chocolate-vanilla icebox sponge cake with frozen lemon-cream custard.
Other menu keepers are the pulled pork-style braised oxtail with goat cheese-potato croquette and the ahi tuna poke bowl with sesame rice, wakame, fresh coriander and Asian vinaigrette. “I was never a sushi person. But I saw poke on television once and then had it in New York and Chicago. I mean fresh tuna – I love that. And I’m a massive cilantro fan.”
With a name like Cocktail Kitchen, it’s important for the drinks to match the level of the food. That means no corn syrupy mixes or cheap rum for the piña coladas, mojitos and frozen daiquiris. As for updating that menu, he’s encouraging his bartenders to come up with their own drinks, like Chef Parisi of Tapas encouraged him. Says Leach: “I have two great bartenders, Mex and Narissa. They’re more than talented enough to do it.”
I can certainly vouch for Narissa, who expertly muddled the mint leaves for my strawberry mojito, adjusted it to my preferred sweetness and then danced her way to the other end of the bar with a coconut mojito and freshly blended pineapple-topped frozen piña colada for customers at the outdoor seats of the main floor bar.
And while some people just come for a snack of calamari or coconut ceviche with two-for-one drinks during the 5-7 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. daily happy hours, more and more people are coming (or sticking around) for dinner. “My focus always starts with food”, says Leach. “I want Cocktail Kitchen to be known for something really special.”
For him, that also means working with his neighbours to turn The Gap back into the destination it used to be. “It’s starting to get more lively. And I don’t see that as competition; I see it as benefiting everyone.”
Besides, with his recent awards, he has every reason to be confident. Once people taste his food, they’ll be coming back to The Gap soon.