Despite its vibrant and exciting flavours, Caribbean food pretty much remains a mystery in the UK. Although healthy and packed full of fruits and vegetables, to non-regular diners the cuisine has gained an unfortunate stereotype for largely being too hot to handle. Produce Business UK talks to chef Patrick Williams about bringing the Caribbean to the foodie forefront by inspiring change in consumers and suppliers alike
“We need to get Caribbean food into people’s mindsets – not for the hot chilli sauces, but for the wonderful array of delicately spicy, sweet and sour, textured food it is,” says chef and entrepreneur, Patrick Williams, who, after training under chef Marco Pierre-White, began a career cooking at restaurants like Oxo Tower and The Ivy before eventually owning The Terrace, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Ultimately, he ditched his chef whites for the outdoor life and street food movement, opening his stall Soul Food at Borough Market in London.
“It’s been 10 years since the likes of [British-Jamaican chef] Levi Roots made the news with his Caribbean sauces and got through to people a little, but it still seems to be a mystical food to the majority,” Williams continues. “UK consumers practically take on every other food. Thai and Vietnamese are recent hits and Indian food has been manipulated into the British food scene and has almost made itself British.
“Caribbean and British relations have been in place for as long as the previous generation can remember, so it’s a puzzle as to why it can’t get recognised. Is it the lack of Caribbean produce knowledge? I don’t know, but Caribbean food outlets generally only exist where there are people of Caribbean descent. There is so much for other people to discover.”
On visiting Williams’ street food stall, which offers a food fusion of African, Caribbean and South American influences, the preconceptions you might have about Caribbean food disappear, and the careful combinations used to ensure certain ingredients shine are obvious.
In particular, Williams believes there is room in the UK foodservice and eating-out market for Caribbean/British fusion food. For instance, he suggests a spicy Irish Stew, or oxtail soups and variations of BBQ food that feed off the many dishes created by Scottish and Irish settlers in the Caribbean.
What’s on offer
Serving from large paella-esque cooking pots and a griddle, on the day I visit the Soul Food stall Williams is tempting customers in the market with jerk chicken Caesar salad wraps; a version of jollof rice with chicken, sweet potato, butternut squash, onions, turmeric, garlic and ginger; traditional rice and peas; and all kinds of meat, fish and vegetable wraps, including a ‘surf and turf’ king prawn and steak number with a sweet chilli and mango sauce.
“You have to diversify your food to suit your customers’ tastes and comfort zones, but this comes quite naturally to Caribbean food, as it has been influenced so much from the various different cultures that have come and settled over the years,” says cookery book author Williams, who started Soul Food a year ago and plans to launch a pop-up restaurant in 2016 under the same name.
“Workers from India, China, France, Scotland and Ireland have come [to the Caribbean] and passed on their food knowledge and preferences. It’s a melting pot of influences that has resulted in some great food.”
Confessing that he has reversed the now common career path of street food vendor to restaurant chef, Williams says with street food or pop-up restaurants there’s a lot more scope and freedom to cook what you want your customers to experience.
With a “license to mix up the menu” every day, the classically trained chef, who has appeared on television cookery programmes such as Saturday Kitchen, Rachel Allen: Bake! and Market Kitchen, enjoys introducing consumers to the likes of sorrel juice, and jerk chicken and watermelon salad.
Sourcing restrictions the industry could exploit
But sourcing traditional fruits and vegetables can be a problem, as most suppliers aren’t educated in Caribbean cooking essentials.
“At the moment sourcing plantain is difficult, which is generally because as one season ends, and moves over to the beginning of a new one, plantain is either too sweet or too green,” explains Williams, who has worked with the same suppliers since starting his business and also sources specialist fresh produce from consumer markets himself. “If I don’t want to eat it, then I don’t serve it. I am very lucky as a pop-up chef to be able to run with whatever I have at the time.
“Breadfruit [from the fig family] is hard to come by due to it’s size and general lack of popularity but it’s great for chipping, baking whole or sliced, and using in stews as it’s very starchy.
“Chayote [otherwise known as chow chow], which is used both cooked and raw, is known for its texture rather than taste – it takes on flavour rather than gives it, and is good in ceviche.
“I also use a lot of Caribbean-style pumpkins, which are massive in size, as are Caribbean avocados, which are difficult to get in London unless you go to a specific Caribbean area. They taste quite different to the European avocados we are used to in the UK. And, a good selection of yams is always a plus.”
Opportunity for produce suppliers
With so many fresh fruits and vegetables required in Caribbean cooking, to tap into the market Williams recommends suppliers visit street vendors to discover what they need and what they can offer.
“That’s how I met some of my suppliers,” he explains. “The current butcher I use came up and introduced himself and gave me a price list. Most of my suppliers know the growers as well, and they know what’s happening with the season so I can make my decisions on the menu. It’s different to restaurants because street vendors need fresh food throughout the day – service is a 7-hour window, so you need to be well stocked.”
Williams says his business is built on close relationships. “A lot of it is about the people – I got on well with my butcher and he supplies a good product, so you stick to what you know. It does help to pick things out yourself though – it’s helpful to chose from mobile suppliers.”
Street food remains on trend
Awash with diverse and tasty fresh produce, Williams’ stall Soul Food is right on trend for the pop-up and street food market. “It’s a step towards Caribbean food being taken seriously,” he says when I ask why the food movement suits him.
“Caribbean food should be as popular as Thai or Indian, but it isn’t. It will change eventually, but only if the cuisine travels outside of major cities where you currently struggle to find anyone who eats Caribbean food.
“Street food is one of those trends that’s here to stay,” he continues, pointing out that suppliers have an opportunity ahead to tailor their offer to smaller set ups. “I know how hard restaurants are to run – they are easy to open but not so easy to keep open. With a stall, there is none of the prestige of owning your own place, but also none of the stress. I think more chefs will move in this direction, as well as [opening] pop-up restaurants and casual residencies.
“The key is freshness – with a chef’s background and after experiencing working with the best, you want to emulate that wherever you are and apply best practice. It’s good quality ingredients that win every time. I work with [wholesaler] Paul Wheeler at the [Borough] market and lots of small guys. When it comes to good quality, you know where it’s from and that it will come with a fair price. I find if you stick with the smaller businesses there is more experience in that particular food item, as well as the product being fresher.”
Take a trip to Soul Food
Where? Borough Market, Green Market, 8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL.
When? Open Monday to Wednesday, 10-5pm. And Monday to Saturday every other week. Open till 6pm on Fridays and from 8am on Saturdays.
What? Bearing in mind that no two days are the same, you’ll find a fresh menu pretty much every time you go to Soul Food. Some of the wraps (£6-£7.50) include salt lobster roe, prawn, chicken, slow-cooked BBQ lamb and grilled rump steak. There are curry boxes (£6.50-£8) featuring curried goat, rice and peas, a ham hock box and the Trinidadian classic of Chicken Pelau, as well as daily soups that vary in price. Portion sizes are big and the food is tasty, so bring an appetite.