A chef abroad – a blog by Stuart Ralston

The  Staff Canteen

Stuart Ralston first left his native Scotland to do a stage at Aquavit in New York.

From then on he was infected by the travelling bug and soon found himself back in the Big Apple working for Gordon Ramsay. After several adventures documented in his previous blogs for The Staff Canteen, Stuart now finds himself working in Barbados.

Today, I am the Chef De Cuisine of Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados.  I loved living and working in New York and even as I sit here beside the beach and sea I still miss it. It’s very eye-opening both as a chef, expat and a human being observing the vast differences between countries: the hospitality industry, the culture and eating habits of different clientele. For instance, living in Barbados has helped me to realize some of the things I used to take for granted.

When I was in New York, either myself or my Sous chefs would be at Union Square Market every other day purchasing our produce for the days ahead. We would take as much time as we needed to find the best quality and prices, and what inspired us. I can see now that this approach to buying is a dream-like rarity for most chefs in the world.

Our menus and dishes all came about from what we were buying and I found writing menus really easy this way. Having the privilege of speaking directly to these artisanal farmers and being able to touch, taste and really scrutinize every aspect of cooking was a great advantage. Now I am on an island in the Caribbean with miles of beautiful beaches, hot sunshine and crystal clear blue water.

There is no Union Square-style market. Instead, we rely heavily on weekly overseas shipments. I cannot touch the produce, cannot see it before it arrives and I cannot check for its integrity. We still source from a great market – the Rungis in Paris, but I now rely on other people to dictate our menus, which for me is the most difficult adjustment I have had to make in handing that trust to a stranger and adapting to a different source of inspiration. This aspect has been a challenge.

You learn to build a much more solid relationship with the buyer/supplier/producer than you had before. I now am constantly aware of weather patterns, workers strikes, conflicts and other key factors that play a part on what I get delivered as to what we can work with. Things like having  lemon thyme – freshly picked from a picturesque French herb farm and with the soil still hanging from it – arrive at customs only to be incinerated in a huge furnace due to ‘too much’ soil content start to frustrate you immensely.

However, the yin to that yang – and the reason I can still cook great food and be inspired – is because there are a handful of small farmers here who work closely with us to provide us with tailor made produce.  There isn’t an array of food being grown here as the island is difficult to grow anything on due to both its Limestone composition, climate and its under-supported agriculture industry. We use one particular farm that lets us really tell a story.

Natures Farm is ran by an Aussie called Tim who has been on the island for 20 years. He has a farm in St Peters Parish just a few miles from the hotel. He is one of the most innovative people I have met in my travels and he supplies me with some of the best produce I have used. He has introduced a full circle approach to his farm where you see the rainfall fill up the hydroponic raised salad beds and the crayfish farm where from a single batch of crayfish he now has a marine life of four beds of tilapia and crayfish living together.

As nature takes its cycle the crayfish feed off the tilapia and fertilize the water which then gets fed to the surrounding areas of the farm. It’s amazing to see the free range chickens feed off a Fig Tree and then produce the most amazing eggs. Their waste is so nutrient-packed it makes the grass bright green and produces an egg that has been shown to be packed with the highest grades of nutrients.

Our menus are a split of about 80% imported produce versus 20 per cent local. With the size of our establishment and the type of clientele, it is not realistic to be able to harp on about solely using local suppliers, as the island just cannot produce the quantity nor scale of products that we need in order to run a world-class resort to keep the island flourishing, but we commit ourselves to buy what we can.

This side of my position has helped me shape and hone my culinary thoughts and ideas. Without travelling here I would have naively lived in a dream world of wonderful produce, not really knowing the economics, science and importance of it all – all the things that great produce takes to grow before I can put it on a plate.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th March 2013

A chef abroad – a blog by Stuart Ralston