This was originally posted on https://jimbyerstravel.com/2020/08/31/awesome-barbados-food-tour-and-a-david-beckham-story/ by Jim Byers
BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS – Chef Michael Harrison is on the steps of the Marhill Street market in downtown Bridgetown, talking about Bajan cuisine and the fresh fruits and root vegetables he uses when he cooks.
“We have something like 100 types of sweet potatoes on Barbados,” he tells us as he explains different ways to cook them. “At my restaurant we use as many ingredients from Barbados as we can. We try to change things around, make the dishes more modern or more sexy.”
Harrison is guiding a group of visiting Society of American Travel Writer (SATW) journalists on one of his regular Bridgetown tours, called Island Markets and Food Vibes. Earlier we had toured the lovely and historic Parliament Buildings in downtown Bridgetown. I loved it, but I’m a little more interested in his cooking work and his thoughts on Barbados food.
We step inside the open-air market and chat with vendor Kim Ramsay, who shows off her fresh golden apples, impossibly deep pink watermelons and deep orange papaya, all of them grown on the island.
“This isn’t Whole Foods or some fancy shop,” Harrison tells us between brief interruptions from his cell phone, which is buzzing frequently on this weekday morning. “The fruit isn’t all round and consistent and polished. Sometimes it’s knobby or a little lumpy, like people. It’s about the taste, not the looks.”
Ramsay shows off large Bajan avocados, which are smooth-skinned and much larger than the ones we see at supermarkets in the U.S. or Canada.
From there we wander over a few feet and chat with Priscilla, who shows off some deep yellow-green-red mangoes and a series of plastic packets of spice; nutmeg, ginger, turmeric
Harrison reaches for a loofah that’s wrapped in plastic.
“What is that,” he asks, examining the plastic with a puzzled look.
Priscilla bursts out laughing.
“It’s not a fruit, it’s for the bath,” she says, mimicking scraping her skin back and forth.
Harrison breaks down in giggles, then stops to pose with Priscilla.
We go to leave, and she insists on giving the assembled journalists a big, Barbadian hug.
Seconds later, Harrison announces it’s 10:30 a.m. and “time for a, um, coffee.”
We realize from his inflection that we’re likely not heading to the nearest Starbucks. Instead, he takes us across the road to a faded building called the Old City Bar, with peeling paint that used to be some kind of shade of red but has been pounded into submission by years of baking sun and tropical rain.It’s one of hundreds of delightful rum bars in Barbados, and Harrison wants us to try some simple Bajan cuisine; spicy fish cakes and a cold Banks beer, brewed on the island.
I usually try not to drink before 10:45 in the morning, but I make an exception in this case and down most of a Banks, along with a couple of small, round fish cakes that are roughly the size of a Tim Hortons Tim Bit donut.
From there it’s on to the city fish market. As we make our way on the bus he’s set up for us, Harrison talks about how Bajans pretty much baste every type of meat they serve with lime and salt, usually for an hour or sometimes two.
“Then you take out the fish or the chicken or whatever it is and rinse it off, then you add island spices and cook it. I don’t know why we do this; maybe it’s a cleanliness thing or something like Kosher. But that’s pretty much how everyone here cooks.”
The fish market is busy at this time of day, with fresh fish of all sizes being cleaned and sliced and diced at several stations. Local men and women stand at stainless steel tables, their knives flashing to and fro. Behind them and all around them, workers with powerful hoses send fast-flowing streams of water all around, whisking the unwanted bits off to the side and keeping things clean.
Harrison introduces us to Judy Sobers, who he tries to buy most of his fish from. She shows off some lovely Mahi Mahi on ice that was caught early that day.
“The fishermen work hard,” Harrison explains. “If they’re after big fish, they have to go out quite a way and might be gone for seven or eight days at a time.”
Harrison shows off the fishing boats. I sneak away for a brief second to watch a group of men playing cards. I can’t understand their accents, and maybe they can’t understand mine, but the language of male banter around a table of cards is universal.
Harrison wants to take us to lunch over on the east coast of the island, so we hop on the bus and drive through lush fields of sugar cane and fruit. As we roll along, Harrison tells a powerful story about how he got into the business and became one of the Caribbean’s top chefs.
“My mom died when I was 13 and I went to live with my aunt,” he explains. “I would help her with the cooking and I hated it. Sometimes my friends would come see me and I’d have flour on my hands. They made fun of me and called me a little girl. I’d try to sneak out sometimes to be with my friends, but she had this loud clap she would make to call me back in.”
He smacks his hands together, sending an echo that reverberates through the bus. This aunt, it seems, meant business.
“I didn’t enjoy cooking at first, but I started to really like it,” Harrison tells our group, which is by now firmly in his grasp. “I ended up going to culinary school and landed a job at Le Gavroche in London,” one of the city’s finest restaurants.
“I only had 99 (British) pounds with me when I got to London. I didn’t realize I had to pay first and last month’s rent. I had to go to Michael Roux (the legendary chef at Le Gavroche) and borrow money from him. When I got paid and was able to pay him back, he wouldn’t take it.”
Harrison said the work was insanely hard. “We would be on our hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. We learned to cook, of course. But it was very competitive. Workers would call me the n-word, trying to get me mad or get me to quit.
“It wasn’t going to happen.”
Harrison left Le Gavroche and worked posh White Barn Inn in Maine.
“I had skateboarded as a kid so I wanted to go snowboarding. I went to LL Bean and bought all these clothes. But it was so hot when I went; I had to peel almost everything off.”
In Maine he cooked for the likes of Mariah Carey and the Bush family, American royalty if there ever was. In the Seychelles, he whipped up meals for David and Victoria Beckham.
“We took the Beckham’s out to this private island one day, where I was supposed to catch fish and make it for their dinner. But I didn’t catch anything. Not a thing. I was in a panic, but I spotted a fisherman and went over and bought a big fish from him. Then I ran up the beach yelling (to his celebrity guests), ‘Look what I got. Here’s your fish!’”
Harrison has been back in Barbados for a few years now. He’s worked at a variety of restaurants and now is head chef at the posh Sea Breezes Beach Resort on the island’s south shore. He also runs his market tour.
His personal story out of the way, Harrison points out a road that leads to one of his favourite restaurants on the island, a casual spot in the hills called The Village Bar in a small community named Lemon Arbour. His tours often stop there (I got to try it a few years ago and loved it), but this time we’re heading all the way to the east coast.
We slide over the top of ridge that separates the fairly gentle west side of the island from the rugged east coast and crawl down a steep, winding road lined with giant, leafy banana plants and ramshackle homes in brilliant shades of Gecko Green and Pepto Bismol Pink.
We stop in at a place called The Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay, where Harrison has arranged to have a massive amount of food prepared for us; roasted mahi mahi, whole snapper, fish cakes, macaroni and cheese pie and lots more.
“I think Caribbean food deserves a better reputation,” Harrison says. “It’s amazing food, and it’s very diverse.”
Because this is the home of Mt. Gay, the oldest rum making outfit on the planet, our lunch also includes generous samples of Mt. Gay Black Barrel.
Harrison explains that, if we were at a casual rum bar, we would take a few drops and spill the liquid on the floor as “a memory to friends and family gone by.”
It’s a lovely thought I make a note to remember for my next time.
Harrison earlier had explained the island’s fascination with homemade, fresh juices and talked about how thousands of folks gather abundant fruit or veggies and make juices every day from ginger plants, mango, papaya cucumber or sorrel. He passes a few bottles around the table for us to try with the rum, but I prefer mine with a bit of water or a couple ice cubes. “Hold the junk,” as my Dad would say when he orders a martini.
Our final stop doesn’t involve food, but we get a chance to check out the posh swimming pools, sparkling blue-green water and lovingly decorated units at Sea Breeze Beach House, where Harrison works as executive chef.
We’re dropped back off at the Hilton Barbados, where our group is staying. The next day we’re getting ready to leave and one of the staff members comes rushing out to our taxi cab to say goodbye to our group, which admittedly includes a senior member of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Initiative from New York City.
“May the lord bless you and keep you safe in your travels and all you do” the man says. The doors are about to close as we head for the airport, but he can’t resist another blessing. I wasn’t taking notes, but I think involved our finances and our families.
I look around the cab. We’re all grinning from ear to ear.