WITH sun-kissed beaches and blue skies overhead, gently swaying palm trees and crashing surf, chef Paul Wedgwood could hardly have been further from the typically rain-spattered Royal Mile and his busy restaurant.
He’d arrived at the beautiful island of Barbados intent on bringing a taste of his award-winning fine dining to Bajan palates. What he got – to his bemused surprise – was one very fussy diner, an eye-opening introduction to island cuisine and an unexpected but very welcome twist to his career.
What Barbados received in return, was perhaps one of the most unusual versions of Scotland’s national dish imaginable.
Thanks to a bizarre quirk of fate, Paul is today as close to a celebrity chef as Barbados has ever had. A regular on island television and radio, the 39-year-old award winner has been in high demand as a star chef at the island’s top hotels – including one owned by supermodel Jodie Kidd’s mother – and has introduced initially wary locals to Scottish favourites like haggis and cranachan, each tweaked with a surprising injection of Bajan flavour.
Having gradually won over initially wary tastebuds, his Bajan haggis laced with local rum, Caribbean spices and with meat from Barbadian black belly sheep is now an island favourite.
Paul has now strengthened his ties with the island and gone into business with a new chain of quirky bistro-style restaurants.
Early next month, he will set off once again from his award-winning Canongate restaurant, this time to proudly represent the UK at a glittering reception hosted by the British High Commissioner in Barbados to celebrate the arrival of the Commonwealth Games baton.
All of which is remarkable given that until three years ago the Caribbean island was for Paul – as it is for most of us – simply a place to dream of visiting.
“It is a bit crazy,” he agrees, reflecting on the lunchtime at Wedgwood the Restaurant when two customers arrived with an unusual off-menu request and set the wheels in motion for a whole new exotic chapter in his life.
“Two diners asked if I could do a taster menu of what I considered to be my best dishes,” he remembers. “It was lunchtime, we weren’t massively busy, so I thought ‘well why not?’
“At the end, it turned out that one of the diners was Petra Roach, vice president of the Barbados Tourism Authority. She said, ‘Would you be interested in being head chef of the Celtic Festival in Barbados?’”
It’s fairly obvious what his response was.
Not only did the idea of fronting a festival that celebrates Celtic food, drink and culture on a tropical island provide an opportunity too good to miss, so was the chance of heading into fresh territory to learn more about a style of cuisine and fresh ingredients he hadn’t yet dabbled with.
What he didn’t know at the time, was that while Barbados has a bountiful natural larder of fresh seafood, livestock in the form of Barbados black belly sheep and wild herbs and plants to play with, some diners were initially reluctant to embrace dramatic change.
Weaning them from a diet dominated by flying fish, fried chicken, cou cou – corn meal, okra and Creole-style sauce – or their favourite pudding and souse, a combination of pig’s trotters, cheeks and ears baked with sweet potato and served with pickled cucumber, would be trickier than it sounded.
“It’s a very simple cuisine,” he explains, recalling his first trip to Barbados to prepare for the Celtic Festival, an annual extravaganza of food, music and culture.
“They tend not to utilise all the local ingredients they have and they actually import a lot from America.
“While they eat a lot of fresh fish, they rarely deviate from having three vegetables and two starches with each meal.”
To prove the point, he recalls his first night as guest chef at one of the island’s most luxurious hotels. He’d taken care and time to come up with a top Wedgwood-style menu, only to be met with a stubborn diner resistant to change.
“I had locally-caught tuna which I’d battered out and stuffed with herbs. It was immediately sent back with the demand to ‘tell the chef I want grilled tuna, starch and veg’.
“It was a bit soul destroying but it told me how difficult the job was that lay ahead, trying to change the perception of good restaurant food and fine dining.”
He rethought his approach. And by the time the Celtic Festival had started, Paul had created new dishes that reflected the best of Scottish fare, but with a Bajan tweak to encourage locals to tuck in.
It included his now hugely popular Bajan haggis, which he’s since recreated at his Royal Mile restaurant. “There’s a big Scottish presence in Barbados. There’s a Scottish Society that celebrates Burns’ Night every year,” explains Paul, who opened Wedgwood seven years ago. “They used to get a haggis of some sort, somehow, but I thought I’d try a Bajan haggis – the world’s first.”
His approach worked and soon Paul was in demand from Barbados television and radio stations keen to see more of his kitchen skills. He is now a regular guest on CBC TV’s Mornin Barbados. Next month he’ll serve his Bajan haggis to the island’s most distinguished personalities and athletes, at a glittering reception in honour of the Queen’s Commonwealth Games Baton Relay, and at special personal request from the island’s High Commissioner.
“I got a tweet,” laughs Paul, who runs his Royal Mile restaurant with wife Lisa. “It said something like ‘Hi Paul, I’d love to get you involved in an event I’m doing’.
“We did some private messaging and lo and behold I’m invited to showcase food and drink during the reception.
“I’ll do a demonstration in the garden and I’m going to serve Bajan haggis. The only thing that I still need to organise is the whisky.
“So I’d love to hear from any whisky producers who want to be part of it with me – I can even change the spices in the recipe to make sure we get the right blend of flavours.”
All of which brings an official stamp of approval to Paul’s connection with the island, already sealed when he married partner Lisa there last May.
The ties were further strengthened at the end of last year when Paul agreed to become culinary director of one of the island’s increasingly popular eateries, Relish Epicurea, a relaxed restaurant that under his leadership is thrilling adventurous Bajan diners with dishes like Vietnamese Pho-style Hot Soup.
“It’s fun and colourful, more like a brasserie,” he says. “It’s totally different from the normal Barbados restaurant. Over there it’s still quite ‘colonial’, people dress up for dinner whereas this is quite relaxed.”
Paul’s long-distance input means plans to expand the Relish chain can go ahead. Five new outlets are already under way and there are proposals for more, including a showcase branch at the island’s airport.
There’s a chance that a flavour of Barbados could come to Edinburgh – Paul plans to swap chefs between Relish and his Edinburgh-based staff to give all a chance to experience different styles, and hasn’t ruled out the idea of opening an arm of Relish here. I have looked at the idea of bringing it here, it’s a possibility.
“Once we have got the Caribbean sewn up, it could happen.
“There could be a Relish Edinburgh at some point.”
Meanwhile he’s splitting his time between Wedgwood – recently named Scottish Licensed Trade News Restaurant of the Year for the fourth time – and 4500 miles away in Barbados, a tough schedule but one which Paul shrugs off.
“It works well for us. I’m used to working long hours – I used to do 19 hour days in the restaurant and went two years without a day off. Now I can work till 1am, have something to eat, catch a flight at 5am, sleep and be in Barbados for 2.30pm.
“It’s full on but my energy levels haven’t been this high for ages. I’m revitalised.
“I’m doing new things, I’m learning over there and bringing what I learn here. It’s fantastic.
“Besides, it’s Barbados,” he grins. “I love it.”
Pig’s ear serves up something delicious
A traditional Barbados dish is Pudding and Souse, made using pig’s trotters, cheek and ears and served with pickled cucumber. Here’s Paul Wedgwood’s twist on the island favourite.
Soused pig’s head with crispy ears, langoustine, black pudding and red pepper sauce
For the souse
1 cucumber, seeds removed and finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
Juice of 2 limes
1 tbsp hot pepper sauce
1 Scotch bonnet pepper finely chopped
Salt and black pepper.
Mix all ingredients together and leave for a few hours. But no more than six as will start to deteriorate
Half pig’s head, ear detached and reserved, bone removed
8 langoustine cooked and peeled
1 whole pork fillet wrapped in smoked pancetta
12x 2cm dice black pudding
1 red pepper
For the crispy ear, boil for a couple of hours in stock until tender. Place on tray and then put a flat weight on top to press and refrigerate, preferably over night. To serve, remove cartilage and then shred finely. Season and deep fry until crisp.
Cook the pig’s head in stock until tender, remove and reserve stock for later. Pick down meat and add to souse mix. Add a little of the cooking stock until correct flavour is achieved.
For pepper sauce, chop and deseed red pepper and put in heavy-bottomed pan with 50ml olive oil and 100ml water. Boil until soft and water has evaporated. Place in food processor until smooth.
Cook pork fillet to your liking and allow to rest. Carve before serving.
Deep fry the black pudding until cooked, then arrange all ingredients on plate and serve.