For even the most avid culinarian, Caribbean cuisine can still be an elusive experience. If you’re close to a major metro or lucky enough to travel to the islands, you might get a taste of the complex layers of history and fusion and memory that Caribbean flavors are about.
Barbadian-born and London-based Chef Jason Howard is on a mission to bring Caribbean cuisine to the global forefront and reclaim the islands as a culinary mecca. After almost 20 years in the industry, being a quarter-finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals and named an Iconoclast by the James Beard House, Jason has and still is redefining modern Caribbean cooking.
We caught up with Jason for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s delicious creativity. Read the full interview and get to know Jason below:
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“History. When I create Carribean cuisine it’s done with modern equipment and technique while harnessing historical flavors of the food – not just my interpretation – and keeping in mind people’s tolerance for spice. I’m creating new dishes within the Caribbean ideology of what Caribbean food should be, and it triggered me to do the research.
Working under Hélène Darroze, at first I was not understanding French cooking techniques. I could smell certain things, and I could see similarities between french cuisine and that of my home, so I kept thinking let’s see where this goes. So many things were brought to the Carribean – jerk chicken, rice does not grow in Jamaica – these dishes came from somewhere else. There’s a lot of cured meat in Caribbean and ceviche, and we’ve lost some of these techniques.
This food is not fusion – it’s Caribbean. We have made our own mark in gastronomy. When doing research, I go as far back as can be traced, in books with antiquated spelling. It’s very inspiring for me to read and discover these recipes from the past – what more has been lost? I realized that we are so influenced by American cuisine that we forget our culinary past.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“I don’t know when – it just happened. I associate food with love and appreciation. Cooking is a labor of love. For yourself or others – its nourishment, and I learned through that labor of love.
I started as a porter in the kitchen and saw chefs get things wrong, and I just couldn’t leave it. One day a chef was missing and I just stepped in and did a mango salad and I was the one who finally got it right. The guests loved it and the executive chef demanded to know who made it. I fessed up, and he ripped me, but then called me over after service to see if I wanted to cross-train.
The first thing I ever made as an official chef was a tomato bruschetta and again the guests were sending compliments to the chef. I would never take credit, but acknowledge the chef who showed me how to make the dish.
I don’t like to overpower anything. In my kitchen, I’ll ask my staff to make a soup to see if they understand depths of flavor. Make me a pumpkin soup – if I see thyme, celery, butter, potatoes, garlic and I’m just tasting pumpkin – then why did you add these ingredients? Cook clean with no mistakes and good ingredients to get full depth of flavor.
I’m always reaching beyond the limitations of the kitchen; I don’t wait to be in a kitchen to try new things. Every dish I broke ground on I did in my kitchen at home with kids running around.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“Seeing dishes and tasting new things consistently, you need to taste everything. If you stop tasting you stop growing. If I’m combining alligator and apple, I’ll think the dish needs something else, maybe a sage apple reduction.
Also, understanding ingredients at different seasons – maybe I’ll set aside gooseberries for future use. I do not draw, I take no notes, I prep and keep ingredients around me and keep my prep around me. Every dish I’ve done is freestyle and in the moment. I’m always looking for flavor, texture and depth.”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“Humans like curves and straight edges. I plate with shapes and colors and an understanding when it needs to be tight on the plate. I use green a lot – we see it more vividly and it’s one of the colors humans respond to. Also I’ll use red and yellow herb oils. Then textures: crunchy, silky, chunky – I’ll have different things prepped and then start assembling shapes, colors, texture and depths of flavor.”
Do you feel competitive with other chefs?
“Not with other chefs, but I’m always looking to push myself. I am my biggest critic. Other chefs, I’m happy for them. The culinary world and the world of food is a big world. And there’s enough room for everyone.
I will say it does annoy me when people do not give credit. If people learn from you to propel themselves without gratitude. But I’m not competing with other chefs because we all learn and create at a different pace.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“Scotch bonnet – it’s so misunderstood. The heat can be so gentle and subtle, when treated right and given the time it takes on the flavors of salt, sweet and umami. I use them in oils, even for people who don’t like chiles – it makes an amazing chile oil, you can taste the fruit of the chile and it’s welcoming.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“Something that’s fast (laughs). But I actually appreciate when a loved one cooks for me – even when it’s my kids (laughs).. As a chef we cook amazing food… sometimes it’s intimidating for people to cook for us, but it shows love and attention.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“My peppered prawns and grilled ribeye. I make surf n’ turf for special occasions like Christmas.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Clove – it’s a spice that is medicinal, if you have a toothache grind up and use it as an anesthetic. I use clove in sauces and it adds an element of wow. When you’re cooking rice and veggies, the clove adds a different element. People have cloves in their kitchen for years, but they should be using them more.”
Follow Jason on Instagram at @chefjasonhoward.