As anyone you know who ever headed to Barbados without a budget will tell you upon their return, The Tides restaurant is beautiful and Whispers on the Bay is splendid, too - but The Cliff is something else. It may simply come down to the relaxed elegance of the place. Or the extraordinary view of waves rolling up on the beach below, afforded from a rail-side table on the torch-lit balcony. I especially appreciated the spotlights affixed on the shallows, which made such dramatic silhouettes of the stingrays hunting for dinner in the surf.
It had me in the mood for a little skate wing. But the menu was out of my hands, and completely in those of the celebrated Tom Colicchio, founder and owner of the Craft restaurant empire, and - more accessibly - a producer and head judge on Top Chef, which is now in its eighth season. On this particular evening, he was the guest chef for the $250-a-plate headline event of the Food & Wine magazine-sponsored Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival.
You may not have heard of it - because this was its inaugural running. Then again, you may not have heard of it because everyone seems to have a food festival these days, especially in the Caribbean in wintertime, when celebrity chefs and New York magazine editors alike are so easy to draw away with a free trip to the beach. And especially to a beautiful place like this one - with its discreetly attentive staff perpetually at the ready to replenish our glasses of Gevrey-Chambertin.
It must sound like a perfect picture. But it was not, and the reason was right there on the plate in front of me: cavatelli with braised rabbit, honeyed chestnuts and celery root.
Let me explain. I have never met Colicchio, but I admire him. I like his culinary philosophy, which emphasizes sound technique and great ingredients over superfluous flash. He has published fine cookbooks. And as a judge on Top Chef, he has always struck me as fair and judicious rather than gleeful in his deployment of criticism.
Not so much, though, that if a competitor had presented him with this cavatelli, he would have failed to point out that the rabbit was badly overcooked. But never mind; it happens with distressing frequency when chefs cook in borrowed, unfamiliar kitchens. In any case, it was not the quality of the dish that was irksome so much as its content. And that of what came before and after. I mean, honey-glazed roast chestnuts? Braised red cabbage? And braised duck with figs? Seriously?
If cooking for an ultimate al fresco meal on a Caribbean beach had been a Top Chef challenge, Colicchio was a contestant, and I, the judge, I would have stuck it to him. "Look, Tom, your prep chefs back home worked hard cooking all this for you, and vacuum-packing it so that all you had to do was reheat it when you got here. Would it really have been too much to ask that you tell them first where you were going, so that you didn't arrive on a hot, humid beach, with food designed for a winter's evening in New York?"
In my mind's eye, the embarrassed silence that follows is punctuated only by Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi's vigorous nods of agreement. But no doubt, like me, she knows that the trouble with these celebrity food festivals is that all that the attending celebrity chef is expected to do is show up with a suitcase full of a premade signature dish of foreign ingredients, and at most, personally oversee its plating.
For example on the evening previous, all the big name attendees save for Colicchio had presented dishes at a communal event at the Lion Castle Polo Estate in St. Thomas. The first dish I sampled in flying fish country was celebrity chef Ming Tsai's wasabi-drenched sushi hand roll wrapped in oily smoked salmon. Marcus Samuelsson served a nice shrimp and grits. Fergus Henderson brought lettuce-wrapped ox tongue. And our man from Vancouver, Rob Feenie, relied like everyone else on a dish he had made famous way back - in his case, butternut squash ravioli with beurre blanc and truffles, from Lumière.
But on that front I can happily report a twist. Feenie did not actually show up with his stuff ready-made by his crew back home at Cactus Club. He instead actually did a little research before departing for Barbados, located an organic farm called Hunte's Garden that was growing Bajan belly pumpkins, and used their product to make his signature dish with a local ingredient. And unconnected though it may have been, his raviolis were definitely the most popular dish at the event: I saw people rejoining his queue while they still had a half-eaten plate of his ravioli in hand.
Nice for him, I suppose. But for the festival organizers, his enthusiasm for cooking was possibly excessive. The American idea of a Top Chef food festival is as much about appreciating celebrity as what they put on the plate. Feenie's designated festival event, the $100-a-plate "Setting Sail with Rob Feenie" cruise, was scheduled for the following afternoon, and when Feenie asked what he should cook for an encore, he was told that his job was to relax, have a rum punch and mingle.
To come clean, I had begun harbouring doubts about the festival at the opening-night kickoff event at the Hilton hotel. There were bona fide Bajan chefs at this one, and while sampling their wares one after another I asked them if they could recommend the best spot to enjoy some Barbados Black Belly sheep. Much bafflement, no recommendations - until finally, a chef from the Hilton itself was summoned to try to deal with my demands.
"Can you come to the staff meal tomorrow?" he asked.
I considered it, until the next morning my wife and I first confronted their breakfast buffet. "Prison riots have started over better food than this," I said to her, and we promptly resolved to instead set out on our own.
At the foot of the hill, a five-minute walk from the Hilton, we came across a roadside fish shack, with the name of its cheerful chef-proprietor, "Cuz," painted on the mural of its plywood front wall. Cuz made me a grilled marlin sandwich for $3 - and the fish was fresh and succulent, the lettuce crisp, and the hot sauce sprinkled over it vibrantly refreshing in its spiciness.
Next we stopped in at a place called Brown Sugar ("Home of Sweet Bajan Cuisine"), where the highlight of the buffet was a pepper pot of long braised oxtail adrift in a pleasantly spicy sauce sweetened and thickened with molasses. Not great food, certainly - but pleasurable for being more attuned to its time and place than anything we had been sampling at the festival.
Things always taste better where they come from - and by that I mean where a dish was conceived, as much as where the ingredients were sourced. Just ask someone who spent big this weekend to fly to the Cayman Islands to attend the Food & Wine-sponsored Cayman Cookout with Eric Ripert. (He lends his name to a restaurant, Blue, in the local Ritz-Carlton, at which he is contracted, Las Vegas-style, to appear four times a year.)
The food will doubtlessly be good. But anyone who tells you that they wouldn't have been better off eating Ripert's finest fare at his own Le Bernardin, and sticking with jerk chicken and fried plantains in the Caymans, likely hasn't done much of either - or just has more money than they know what to do with.