Walking into the kitchen at the Lone Star Restaurant on the West Coast of Barbados, there’s a white plastic wipe board on one wall. Scribbled across the board are dish ideas, ingredients, food pairings, and anything else the kitchen star has come up with for inspiration to make new items for the menu.
— By Joanna Fox
— Photography: Kenneth Theysen
Every single day, executive chef Dean Butler encourages his staff to think about food differently. Be imaginative, and don’t be afraid to make something that could taste amazing, or could be a total failure. In his eyes trial and error is an essential part of succeeding. It’s here, at the Lone Star Restaurant, that Butler’s extensive culinary background and inquisitive, inclusive nature — combined with years of hard work at some of the world’s best restaurants — have gone into making this one of the best dining experiences on the island.
Butler will be the first to admit that a chef is only as good as the men and women who surround him and when I visit him on a hot, sunny day during the quieter summer months, he’s very proud to tell me about a swordfish special that’s on the menu. “One of the guys in the kitchen came up with it,” he explains to me. “And although it needed a bit of tweaking, it’s been a bestseller all season. It’s got a Mirin-like glaze and a pickled ginger and sesame sauce and it works really well.” Butler’s tone is excited and you can tell he’s really pleased to give credit to one of his staff members. His philosophy is to be both encouraging but firm and honest, delivering his advice in a very tough-love, kitchen sort of way. “If you’ve got an idea, come up with it and we’ll all talk about it in the kitchen and if I think it isn’t very good, I’ll tell you so. But if I think it’s good, I’d be more than happy to put it on the menu. I really try to get the kitchen team involved. Not everything works, but then they don’t just get the bored routine of doing the same thing all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’m very confident that when high season comes around, there’ll be things on the menu we’ll keep.”
Butler had a young intern working with him and his brigade over the summer. “We had a couple of interns from the catering college and they came right over Christmas and New Year’s and spent three weeks with us. One of them asked if he could come back because he’s on holiday now, so we have him in the kitchen and as long as he’s enthusiastic I’m more than happy to have him. I told him to be a sponge and see how much he can learn.” When Butler was about the same age as his intern and just starting out in the industry, he had a similar experience. He got his first real taste of kitchen life in London while also still enrolled in cooking school. He was lucky enough to land an internship with the famous Swiss Chef Anton Mosimann. “I remember having my pristine knife sack and walking up and down the hallway and just being petrified.” But he made it through, and performed so well that Mosimann rang him up afterwards and offered him a job. He hadn’t even finished college.
Butler’s interest in food started long before he decided to pursue cooking on a professional level, however. “I used to make this salad every Saturday night for my mum and my dad and I really used to enjoy doing it. I’ve just always been interested in cooking. When we would go to my Nan’s place on Sundays all the kids would just play and I would cook roasts inside with my Nan.” That interest progressed to a more serious pursuit of the trade at a catering college in Hampshire, England, where Butler grew up. From there, he worked with Mosimann in London on and off for several years, made his way to Germany, Switzerland, Dubai (at one of the world’s most famous restaurants, the Burj al Arab) and even cooked regularly at 10 Downing Street. When he had the opportunity to make his way to the Caribbean and Barbados, it was a no-brainer. After working at Sandy Lane and doing private catering jobs, Butler eventually landed the job as executive chef of the Lone Star and has been there ever since.
Through all his culinary success, Butler has never forgotten his roots and when he goes back home to visit, he makes a point to go back to his former culinary college to talk to the students who are just starting out in the industry. “A lot of them say they think they want to be a chef and I always say ‘if you think you want to be a chef, you might want to go and do something else.’ And I don’t mean that horribly, because if you really want to be a chef, I’ll be the first one to say go for it, but you need to be prepared to work hard. If you think you want to be a chef, you might want to think again. It’s not an easy industry, and if you want to progress there’s a lot more downs until you get to the ups for sure.”
For Butler, helping shape the next generation of chefs is just as important as sharing his food philosophy, which has made the menu at the Lone Star so successful: Less is more. “I think a lot of the chefs at the moment are over-complicating food. I don’t like sitting down and reading a menu and thinking, that’s like ten different flavours. I say to the guys, ‘if we just put three, maybe four flavours together on a plate and use the produce and product as you should use it, there’s no reason to have more than a few things going on’, and that’s what we try and do here. We’re not trying to reinvent anything, but simple things done well. Mr. Mosimann used to tell us that: ‘Simple things done well are the best, simple things done bad are terrible’ and I’m a firm believer of it. If we just do a nice simple fish dish, we execute it right and we cook it nicely, the job’s done. Simple food done well is the key here.”
The night before my visit, Butler’s intern was talking to him about a dish idea he had. It had to do with beer, peanuts, and fish. When Butler asked him why those ingredients, he replied that when you drink a beer, peanuts are a perfect pairing. And since they’re in Barbados, the obvious protein would be fish. Butler told him to try a recipe on his day off and see what happens. “I hope he comes in tomorrow and says it worked! I don’t know what he’s going to do, nut crust, or beer batter or beer sauce, I have no clue. But I think it’s just getting the guys not to be afraid.”
As much as Butler believes his kitchen staff upholds him, he also plays a huge part in elevating his staff. His approach to his kitchen is a model for all chefs and aspiring chefs out there. And if that beer, peanut, fish dish ever sees the light of day, I have no doubt that its biggest champion will be Dean Butler.