Jason Howard, modern Caribbean chef

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th July 2015

Jason Howard came to London from Barbados seven years ago – his aim was to be the first Caribbean chef to get a Michelin star for cooking Caribbean cuisine and it’s a goal he is still passionate about achieving.

Arguably creating some of the most aesthetically pleasing dishes we’ve had on The Staff Canteen we caught up with him to talk about his loyal Instagram following, how he is refining Caribbean cuisine and his favourite ingredient – the scotch bonnet!

With over 16,000 Instagram followers, how important is social media to you?

smoked river cobbler with  sweet potato cubesfresh coconut shavings & squash puree with plantain and vanilla sponge with a light cream of fennel & thyme sauce

smoked river cobbler with

sweet potato cubesfresh coconut

shavings & squash puree

with plantain and vanilla sponge with a

light cream of fennel & thyme sauce

I think the reason I have gained a lot of response and love from Instagram is that I share everything. Some chefs don’t and they keep everything to themselves but I don’t see the sense in discovering something and not sharing it.

People will take my ideas, try them, and not give me credit but my followers will always say something so I don’t have to. Instagram is important because as chefs we need to share our discoveries and then people spread the word about you and more people come to try your food.

People always ask where my restaurant is and where can they try my food or can they come and work with me. They are always amazed that I do all my dishes from home.

You do pop-ups and private dining, is the next step to have a restaurant of your own?

Everyone keeps telling me I need to open a restaurant so I’ve been looking for the right place. Right now I operate from home, we do all the prep there then go to clients.

Things have started to get exciting as I’m now being asked to be a guest chef in restaurants back in the Caribbean and I’ve been recognised for my images on Instagram by EAT the Caribbean, they placed me number two on their list of Caribbean chefs. Stuff like this keeps pushing me in the right direction but I don’t jump at every opportunity I get because I want to keep my vision of what I want for Caribbean cuisine.

Jason's top five ingredients                      1.Rum for braising, flavour infusion and deglazing. Due to the fact that rum flavours vary from island to island in the Caribbean and the ageing process in the barrel imparts additional flavours and aromas. As rum is molasses based you will have a natural caramel colour and sweetness, that works with herbs and spices.                                                                      2.Red cabbage juice for marination or pickling, juiced red cabbage offers a combination of sweet and pepperiness to dressings or seasoning.                                    3.Sweet potato - exploring this not just for taste and texture, experimenting with dehydrating it into a powder/flour to create dumplings and as a seasoning or garnish.                                                                   4.Micro herbs great not just for garnish, but for additional flavour accents that add to the dish and surprise the eater.             5.Scotch bonnet pepper - flexibility to add flavour and heat across sweet and savoury dishes. Love using it dehydrated as a powder or dust or combined with salt and spices to make custom seasoning recipes for meat or fish.                                              6.Thyme -  love the earthy woody flavour for stocks, bases, sauces and flavouring rice and I use micro thyme for garnish and also cook with it as well.                               7.Red onion - dehydrated and grinded with salt into a powder great for seafood and fish dishes.

What made you want to be a chef?

I was a porter when I was younger in the Caribbean, I was working in the five star establishments in St James in Barbados. I watched what my colleagues in the kitchen were doing and I told myself I could do exactly what they do. I got an opportunity to cross train and within three months I was a commis chef, then after six months I was demi chef and I just kept progressing. In 2009 I lost my house to a fire, so I migrated to London.

I was in a whole different hemisphere, I felt I needed to forget what I knew from the Caribbean and become serious about what I was doing. I started at the First Floor Restaurant as chef de partie and within a year I was sous chef. From there I went to The Connaught and worked as one of Hélène Darroze’s sous chefs. Now I am working for myself, doing Caribbean food the way I see it.

What did you take away from working at the Connaught?

I took away alot, the processes of dishes – Hélène did a lot of research on her dishes. I worked in Espelette which she ran, it was two rosette and we worked with her menus and stuff. It was brilliant, she’s quite inspiring.

How do you go about refining Caribbean food?

Some people are novices to Caribbean cuisine, when they hear Caribbean cuisine they think heartburn! But it’s just like French cuisine, it hasn’t always been refined, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m refining my dishes, compiling my recipes so when I get my restaurant I will know what I need to cook and how I need to cook it. I’m going back to the past.

I research the history of the cuisine and from there I build a dish from the past into the present. I use the Caribbean heritage, so French, Polynesian, east Indian – I use the cooking techniques of these past dishes. In the Caribbean how we do a fish stew is similar to a French bouillabaisse – I can see the similarities even in the way my grandmother stewed meat or braised meat. I draw on that but I keep the Caribbean flavours prominent. I don’t tamper with the flavours, I play around with portion sizes, get rid of excess bones – chefs often think Caribbean cuisine has to have a big bone in it!

One of my dishes is a compressed oxtail. I braise off the oxtail, then put it out to cool and drain off the liquid. I’ll add red wine and a bit of rum to that, it will be reduced and I add a lot of cloves. With the oxtail we keep half of the fat and discard the other half, we mix the fat up and mix it back in with the meat then we press it and then cut it out. You’re left with a chunk of oxtail, squared off and we serve that with seasoned puff pastry, puree and Caribbean vegetables. So it’s the same process but it’s the technique that I change.

Jason Howard (2)
Jason Howard

You say you want to be the first Caribbean chef to get a Michelin star, is this still at the forefront for you?

Yes it is. What I’ve realised is that I’ve been offered restaurants but they are not going to get a Michelin star, they are not something I can work with and build. I don’t want to work somewhere, put five years of my life in and be no closer to my goals. I’m willing to put the work in but I want to get closer to my dream. If I don’t achieve it myself I would love to be a part of someone else achieving it – I’d be just as happy.

What’s different about your dishes to other Caribbean cuisine?

Every time I go into a Caribbean restaurant, the menus are similar and it’s jerk this and jerk that. Everyone does jerk! Jerk is an experience and a flavour that can be sophisticated. It doesn’t just have to be hot and burning your mouth off. All of my dishes I cook with scotch bonnet, I tell my clients and they all respond by saying ‘that’s really hot!’ But it’s not hot, I’ve broken down scotch bonnet into different elements, so you can experience the heat, the abrasiveness and the subtleness of the pepper. You don’t have to just eat one and then not be able to eat anything else. It’s a mistake people make, they use the pepper and they just throw it in the dish to add heat.

How easy is it for you to source the ingredients you use?

dish mango and passion fruit cheese cake glazed with passion fruit gel and white chocolate sphere with a dark chocolate crumb basefresh mango and coconut meringue

dish mango and passion fruit

cheese cake glazed with

passion fruit gel and

white chocolate sphere

with a dark chocolate

crumb basefresh mango and

coconut meringue

I would love some of the produce from the Caribbean. When I went to Jamaica I got rose apples, they look like a plum but they are like an apple that tastes like a rose. It’s this kind of indigenous produce we can’t source here. I get a lot of my produce from Brixton like jackfruit, mangosteen, pandan leaf.

Is it quite frustrating not being able to get the products you want?

Yes! It’s very frustrating! I’d love to be able to have the rose apples as they would be brilliant for my next pop up as a palette cleanser. It’s very refreshing and I would kill to get some of them.

So, what’s your favourite ingredient? 

Scotch bonnet. It’s my favourite because as a Caribbean chef we need to use it – it’s our pepper! The English have cracked black pepper, the French have Espelette, the Japanese have wasabi, the Indians have cayenne, so we need to use our scotch bonnet. And learn to harness it and get what we need out of it. For me when I focus on an ingredient, I will focus on it for a whole week. I’ll dehydrate it, boil it twice, put it in oil – I’ll do tonnes of stuff with it. Right now I’m experimenting with a scotch bonnet ice cream – trying to find the right flavour!

Is that an important part of your cooking style, experimenting with ingredients?

I think about everything I use. I have a cured red cabbage salmon, this is a first and it’s a brilliant recipe. My Instagram followers have tried it and they’ve all said it’s amazing. And it is quite amazing – the colours are amazing, the flavour is amazing and I realised I needed something to go with it. I needed an oil, so why not make a red cabbage oil? I made one and everyone wanted to know how! It took a lot of trial and error! But now I have red cabbage flakes, red cabbage oil and red cabbage powder. I enjoy making my own things to enhance the food.

How do you put together your menus for each occasion?

Half roasted baby chicken with scotch bonnet & pea puree with  fresh peas asparagus spears & root veg finished with a Caribbean sweet pepper jus

Half roasted baby chicken with

scotch bonnet & pea puree

with fresh peas asparagus spears

& root veg finished with

a Caribbean sweet pepper jus

Sometimes I ask my guests what dishes they like, they might be British or Italian, but I put a Caribbean spin on all of them. But when I’m producing dishes for my pop ups, there is more historical value in them and there are lessons to learn in all my dishes. My last pop up was a taste of British Caribbean and the theme was pirates – Queen Victoria versus the pirates of the Caribbean.

We had a consommé - a brown Windsor soup that we clarified – it represented the Queen as the most pure image, clear, clarified, you could see straight through. There is always a history, I learn the origins of the dishes then I produce a menu. I add the story because with the pop ups you have to offer more than a meal. You have to offer an experience, that’s what people are looking for.

Do you work to seasons with your dishes?

I do with some things, I like spring because there are a lot of flowers so I work a lot with cherry blossom and I go foraging or things like wood sorrel, nasturtium and a lot of different herbs.

Is it just you or do you have a team you work with?

I do it all on my own but I will get a chef to come in on the day I need them and they will help me. When I have my own restaurant I will have my own brigade, but I need to find the right people and then we can start pushing for the Michelin star.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 14th July 2015

Jason Howard, modern Caribbean chef