Chef abroad: a blog by Stuart Ralston

The Staff Canteen

Barbados: the Balance to working in Paradise

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.

When the question comes up, “Where do you work?” and my answer is of course, “Sandy Lane in Barbados”, it is always met with, “Wow that must be amazing,” or “You are so lucky to work in paradise.”  Whilst it is partially true; there are aspects of life here that most chefs, family members and guests don’t realize that make up a much more complex working life if you want to be a success in this sunny, beautiful island.

I am talking about something I never really thought about in my previous years working abroad, mainly in New York City, and that is how history shapes the present. What do I mean by this? It’s something that has a lot to do with the reasons for the way behaviors and attitudes are formed in countries and societies.

Things happen in countries and those actions are directly responsible for the way the people of that country think. This might be obvious on the surface to some people but, at the risk of sounding stupid, before I came here, I never really thought of it like this before in my life.

Historically, in most westernized countries, the lower classes eventually escaped a feudal system of life to enjoy the freedom of being able to carve their own destinies. Whilst in most Caribbean Countries the history was derived from mostly monarchial countries forcing people to come here and work as slaves for the entirety of their lives, carving a value system based on personal relationships to survive.

In most Westernized countries (especially superpower countries) it’s all about ambition, climbing the ranks, being competitive and getting all the things you desire at the youngest possible age. In comparison, Barbadian people (or Bajans) don’t necessarily value, say, the position or rank they are at in the workplace, but rather they appreciate the fact they have a job to be a provider for their children, or families.

Our careers are our major priority and we put everything into it, sometimes even choosing work over spending time with friends and family, whereas here Bajans value spending time with family, providing or caring for family over working to “get ahead”. You may be asking yourself, what does all this history have to do with working as a chef abroad?

Do I have to become a world history major to live anywhere else? Well, specifically, I work in Barbados, in the Caribbean. When Expat chefs come here, they usually think they already know of how a Hotel/Restaurant/Resort works (i.e., in very much the same manner as it does in the UK or US) but they very quickly learn that it is very different than their expectations.

It is vital to understand why Bajan culture values different things than we do. What I am trying to get across is that while I am lucky to be working at Sandy Lane and working in Barbados, and I am grateful for the time I have spent here, it is also important to realize how different it is here and how I had to adapt and change myself, my style of management and how I interacted with people to get the same results I have had in previous jobs and the reason I was hired.

It’s naïve to think that holding a Michelin star or working under a great chef entitles you to these positions. You have to have an understanding of people’s cultures and you have to be able to adapt and know how to handle certain situations based on your knowledge, appreciation, and respect for another person’s country that you came to. For example, in most Michelin-starred kitchens, it is definitely common place to hear some choice words and high tempers that will drive fear into the underlings and get the desired results.

But in Barbados, this type of approach will more than likely lead you to the next British Airways flight home. I used to think of myself as a pretty ruthless chef. I used to be obsessed with the pursuit of perfection, standards and awards, sometimes at the cost of many staff members leaving me because I was difficult to deal with and had a temper to go with it. I realize now that after working in different environments I am better for it and now have a really close knit team who produce world-class food everyday with no choice words or flared tempers.

I have learned to motivate people to strive for perfection through a more positive reinforcement. Since working at Sandy Lane, I have had countless chefs contact me about available positions and I often wonder if they’ve considered the complexities of this job.  I believe the resounding answer is “no”! The only thing in their mind is the crystal clear sea water, white sand, and palm trees.

But that’s not what matters here. I know that you must be able to put aside your own ego and do what’s most important for the guest and for the betterment of the company, how many of them can honestly say they could do this?

I have nearly completed my contract and I am happy that going forward I have a better understanding of not only my industry on an international level but also about living in another person’s country which I think has added a layer to my personality and enriched me as a chef, and human being.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th June 2013

Chef abroad: a blog by Stuart Ralston