As a foodie there is nothing better than getting to cook with a chef. It is the closest you can get to learning from a professional without actually working in a restaurant. I was lucky enough to win a blogging competition with Slow Food Barbados’ ‘Slow Seven Local Food Competition’ which meant I got a cooking class with Chef Rhea Gilkes of Fusion Restaurant.
Meeting Chef Gilkes was a delight. She is instantly recognizable with her signature dyed hair and warm smile. Her plan for us was to make something easy enough that I could do at home but impressive enough that it would amaze guests. Pasta was the perfect answer. She put a lot of thought into the perfect thing to make, which I really appreciated. It felt like she put as much thought into planning our class, as I did into wondering what we may do. She picked two pasta dishes: an egg yolk ravioli and a mushroom goat cheese tortellini. She also told me she wanted to pick things that weren’t too expensive. Very thoughtful.
After our introduction and letting me in on the plan, she asked. ‘What does slow food mean to you?’ This question kind of caught me off-guard. Not that it wasn’t a good question; but rather, I thought I was going to be the one peppering her with questions. I strung together incoherent thoughts about sustainability and eating locally, then turned the question back on her. Luckily, she was more prepared. She explained that for her, sustainability starts with using local produce; however, there are several factors that must be considered. Just because a product is local, does not mean it is sustainable, conversely just because a product is foreign doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. You must get to know your food and the ingredients you are using in order to make educated food choices.
As she showed me how to combine the ingredients to make the pasta, Chef Gilkes revisited a very interesting topic, sustainability versus authenticity. There are many different types of cuisines cooked in Barbados and as a result it is not always possible to get some genuine ingredients. For example, our tomatoes are not the same as those in Italy and local wasabi is not a reality. However, we have many restaurants with Italian and Japanese influences where these ingredients are integral; as a result, cooks must adapt. You must balance between being true to a recipe against the products available. Our world is so well connected that products from halfway around the world are still available to you, nonetheless this begs the question, ‘should you use it?’
That is a complicated question to answer. Every cook must choose their products based off of their resources. What can you afford is usually the big deciding factor; however, more and more cooks are making decisions on factors far beyond the plate. Sustainability being one of the main concerns, begs the question ‘how does this ingredient affect the world?’ While you can argue ribeye steak won’t destroy the world, many people forget scale. If six billion people make that choice for one hundred years, then your argument goes up in flames. Chef Gilkes did a wonderful job reminding me that’s what chefs must do every day. It is not just about making the menu, it is about purchasing. You know the ingredients you need but are you going to go for high end products that are expensive? Is it best to go local? Who will you purchase from? For example, mangos are seasonal but in Barbados mangos are on several menus year round. Consistency is key. A ripe mango is a completely different product in comparison to a young mango. What may start out as a decision to use a very local product, may later require you to use one which is foreign depending on the time of year.
Going over these issues in my head was made even more difficult by trying to concentrate on copying Chef Gilkes as she worked. Weighing my personal impact on the world regarding food is already heavy, add in trying to not destroy a egg yolk while I closed my ravioli and it becomes almost impossible. Watching the master at work made it look simple; however, much like the food choices she must make, it is incredibly complicated and requires a delicate but firm hand.
It is important that you ask questions about your food. Demand answers even if they aren’t what you want to hear. Learn about the food you are eating and adjust to suit. Experience is the only way to have an worthwhile understanding of the goods you are using.