Elevating Caribbean Cuisine
Every chef has at least one dish that stands out in their mind as the one that made them fall in love with food. It’s the meal they dream about after a long week of work and the one that they can taste when they close their eyes. It’s that special food they strive to recreate their whole lives, trying to prepare it just like they remembered.
— By Joanna Fox
It’s usually something their mother made, or grandmother, or sister, and they can tell you exactly how it was put together, step by step, like they can see it happening in their minds.
For Michael Harrison, the executive chef of Camelot Restaurant at Cobblers Cove in Barbados, this dish is buck-pot pork. A buck pot is a Bajan term for a cast iron pot that you can basically cook anything in, and when I ask Harrison, who was born and raised on the island, to describe this dish, his voice fills with enthusiasm.
“My aunt used to show me how to make this pork that’s flavoured overnight with lots of herbs and seasoning and cooked in a buck pot with a little butter and water. You let it go for a really long time, making sure it browns on all sides, and when you finish with it, it becomes golden brown and all the meat just falls right off the bone. It has to be the tastiest dish. I used to just eat the fat and the bacon… Oh man! I can still taste it now. Those buck pots are very difficult to find nowadays and my aunt had this pot for years and years so it was all worn-in and used to cook the best. I still can picture it now, up to this day”.
Chef Michael Harrison’s earliest and fondest food memories involve cooking with his aunt. It was always on a Sunday, the day of the week when families in Barbados gather together for their biggest meal. His aunt would put Harrison in charge of making the salads, cooking the vegetables or frying the chicken. Harrison always had to help her out in the kitchen before he was allowed to go play outside with his friends. Despite being teased reluctantly about his “girly” habits by the kids in his neighbourhood, Harrison didn’t care. He was already hooked.
By the time Harrison was 13-years old, he was preparing entire meals for his whole family. He would make everything from the macaroni pie to the salads, vegetables, pork and chicken. One day his cousin told him that he should really consider going to cooking school and just like that, the seed was planted.
After completing a two-year program at the local Barbadian hospitality institute, Harrison began his culinary career. Ironically, one of his first jobs was working at Cobblers Cove, but not as a cook, as a waiter, while he waited for a position to open up in the kitchen. When it finally did, all his co-workers thought he was crazy to leave the front of house, a position that paid twice as much as a cook. Just like the kids who made fun of him cooking as a child, Harrison shrugged them off and began work in the kitchen. The chef saw something special in Harrison and took him under his wing. Harrison swiftly moved up in the ranks and was taken along to do promotional events in the United Kingdom. “When I arrived in Europe and I saw the respect the chefs had for food and for the kitchen and for people in authority, I said to myself that if ever I were to become anything in this profession, this is the place that I have to be”.
It didn’t take long for Harrison to want to travel and experience the greater culinary world so he got a job with Michel and Albert Roux at Le Gavroche in London. For Harrison, getting the job was the easy part, getting to London was a bit more complicated. “In order to get there, I had to sell everything I owned. I sold my cds, my clothes, I sold anything that anyone would buy just to get on that plane. I arrived at Gatwick airport with £99 (160 USD) to my name. I was so naïve”.
Once Harrison realized that such a small sum of money wouldn’t get him very far in one of the most expensive cities in the world, he did what any young person on their own for the first time would do. He panicked. In order to survive, he needed at least £400 (630 USD) for food and shelter. Unsure of who to turn to, he approached the only person he knew: chef Michel Roux.
“I said ‘Chef, I’m having a bit of a challenge at paying my way, I need an advance on my salary’. He looked at me, didn’t even blink an eye, said ‘no problem’, and gave me the money. At the end of the month, when the time came to repay him, he told me not to worry about it. I will never, ever forget that. That’s where my career really started”.
That gesture of faith and kindness enabled Harrison to not only survive in London, but to thrive under the watchful eye of Roux, who eventually became the single most influential man in Harrison’s career. Under his mentorship, Harrison learned to become the unique and talented chef he is today.
When Harrison finally returned to Barbados, he took a position at the very place his career had started all those years ago: Cobblers Cove. Harrison now had a clear vision of what he wanted to represent with his style of cooking at their signature restaurant, Camelot, and he was the man in charge. He was now the executive chef.
“At Camelot, what I try to bring that’s unique is a part of my culture, a part of my childhood, from my aunt and from other people who influenced me along the way. I’ve been able to create Caribbean cuisine from what I’ve been taught from my travels and have combined that knowledge with ingredients that are indigenous to Barbados and the Caribbean. Then I present these reimagined dishes in a more contemporary way”.
What Harrison is trying to do with his food at Camelot is make the restaurant known for utilizing ingredients either grown or produced on the island. He recently received an entire cow and sheep from a local farmer and was able to create dishes for the restaurant using the nose-to-tail philosophy that is now becoming the norm.
“It was amazing! It really opened my eyes and gave me a new love and passion for using more local ingredients We got the whole animals in and used certain parts for certain things. Talking to the guests about it afterwards, it showed me even more that that is something people want to eat more of. My goal is to really make the cuisine at Camelot more contemporary Caribbean. That’s my style of cooking”.
When it comes down to it, Harrison not only wants to use local items, he wants to use them in a way that reflects his history, his culture, his experience and his understanding of Barbadian, and Caribbean cuisine. He wants to use his talents and the ingredients around him to elevate the local, traditional ways of preparing and serving the food he grew up eating.
It’s been a long journey for Harrison, from helping his aunt in the kitchen and watching her make buck-pot pork as a child, to today, where he is the only Bajan-born executive chef in a 5-star restaurant on the island. If there’s one thing that’s for certain, once this very talented man sets out to do something, nothing seems to stand in his way.
(246) 422-2291 Ext. 5106