Michelin-starred English chef Tom Aikens shares his love of all things Bajan and gives Andrew Doherty the inside track on his involvement with the Barbados Food and Rum Festival.
Barbados is an island bursting with gastronomic treats, from succulent jerk chicken to crispy fried flying fish and, of course, rum.
Celebrating its eighth year this November, the Barbados Food and Rum Festival showcases a mixture of traditional food and drink.
Alongside events such as a cook-off at the island’s fish market, Oistins, and an afternoon of polo and rum tasting, English Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens hosted an evening of fine dining at Tides Restaurant as part of the festival roster.
The festival wasn’t Aikens’ first brush with Barbadian life. In 2001, he acted as private chef to Lord and Lady Bamford at their house in the island’s Heron Bay. It was this experience that influenced his decision to get involved.
“I really like Barbados, I like rum and obviously I like cooking; the festival ticked all of those boxes,” Aikens recalls. “When this opportunity came up, I thought that it was such a great chance to cook there after all that time.”
Speaking about his favourite eateries on the island, Aikens says he loves the off-the-beaten-track beach shacks.
“When I was working with the Bamfords, I was taken to all these local places by my colleagues. Most of them were little shacks and I wouldn’t say they were proper restaurants. I think that way of eating is much more fun as you get the real flavour of what the Caribbean is like, and especially of Barbados.”
And it’s not just the food that Aikens remembers fondly – the island’s rum made a lasting impression on the gourmet chef.
“I remember doing the tour of the Mount Gay distillery and the one thing that always stayed with me was sniffing the various proofs of rum. The ones that are unfiltered – upwards of 60% alcohol content – burned my nostrils,” he says.
During the event, Aikens hosted a meal at the Tides Restaurant.
“I prepared a four-course menu comprised of dishes that I’ve done previously in England. I tweaked these to incorporate some of the local ingredients and herbs and spices. It was so great to showcase my own style of food to the Caribbean and Barbados,” he says.
Aikens also lists several big-name chefs who were also in attendance at the festival: Jean- Georges, Chris De La Rosa and Damian Leach to name a few.
“It was nice to hang out with some of the local chefs. I always like seeing Damian Leach – he won Caribbean Chef of the Year at Taste of the Caribbean in 2016. It was also great to see their take on the local food. As a chef, it’s a fantastic learning experience to explore destinations and see how people use the local ingredients, spices and seasonings.”
And on the subject of rum, Aikens reports that he is a fan of the classic cocktails.
“Rum is one of my favourite drinks for cocktails,” he says. “Of course, you’ve got the daiquiris, the Singapore sling and the good old pina colada. One that I personally love is the dark ‘n’ stormy, which is ginger beer, rum and a bit of lime.
“Rum works really well with food too, particularly sweet and sour. A lot of the cocktails that were produced at the festival had that sweet zingy hint of lime. You get so many different layers of flavour with the aforementioned cocktails.”
When pressed on whether he will be involved with the Barbados Food and Rum Festival next year, Aikens remains hopeful that he might get another invitation.
“I wouldn’t say no, that’s for sure,” he says. “I think Barbados is a special island and one of the main Caribbean nations that people want to visit. It’s also one that people keep going back to. There is so much to do – the people are super friendly, there’s lively night life, great restaurants and the beaches are amazing.”