Where have all the Bahamians gone? The short answer: home. Seems like when I moved here a little more than a decade ago, Bahamian culture was dominant, and its influence was reflected in the epicurean scene -- as in, nearly every menu, from low-end to high, boasted conch fritters and spicy chowder. Islands-influenced, colorfully painted shacks served pigeon peas 'n' rice, boiled fish, stuffed land crabs. You couldn't turn a gastronomic corner without crashing into spiced chicken wings and grouper fingers, let alone a rich, golden rum cake.
These days, when I glance around at the ethnic restaurant collective in Miami, I see plenty of Cuban joints, both long-running and debuting. A host of Haitian establishments, which always seem to be in flux. And more Argentine eateries than cows in the pampas. But I haven't come across the launch of a Bahamian-style restaurant since Sugar Reef opened on Ocean Drive ten years ago -- and promptly closed down.
A stable political situation is most likely to blame for our current dearth of conch-pounding chef-owners. Higher education is a priority for many Bahamians, but while they leave the islands for college abroad, they usually return. Frankly they have every reason to explore the outside world but no real motive to permanently flee. With no grounds for expatriates, we here in South Florida are just not getting any immigrants who have no choice but to cook for a living.
And that theory only covers the mom-and-pop shops. As far as fine dining goes, the Bahamas has begun to corner its markets. Previously the big hotels and casinos would hire foreign chefs, catering to visitors who equated European cuisine with upscale, all-inclusive vacationing. But during the past several years, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has come to realize that the islands' indigenous national character is its best selling point. Consequently those citizens interested in the culinary arts are encouraged to graduate from the College of the Bahamas' School of Hospitality and Tourism Studies and apply for positions in the local resorts.
The tourist-oriented properties are being similarly exhorted. According to the crusading Minister of Tourism the Hon. Obie Wilchecombe, "There are no jobs in the hotel industry that are beyond [the locals'] reach. An executive chef [position] carries with it much prestige and, in fact, outside this country it is a well-sought-after career. We want to assure aspiring young Bahamians that this government will be vigilant in its quest to ensure that our people get their rightful opportunities to access these high-paying careers, and we call on the partners in the hotel industry to identify career paths for Bahamians and avoid throwing needless obstacles in their way for whatever reason."
To that end, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism has established a multi-pronged mission statement: To develop national pride in agricultural and regional foodstuffs; to inspire native chefs to create "new masterpieces" utilizing these products; to host food festivals on Bahamian land; and to promote Bahamian cuisine at international food festivals. The first point is extremely important, the cornerstone for any regional cuisine. Wilchecombe notes that at the moment, the Bahamas spends about $250 million importing food, and only about $70 million making, growing, or catching it. "We need to let the Bahamian farmer know that now is the time to bring his product to market, so it will wind up not only in the homes but in the hotels."
The second goal is already being realized -- five years ago, only two executive chefs were Bahamians. Today six hold that position, and an untold number more are chefs de cuisine, sous-chefs, line cooks, and prep cooks, all of whom got to show their stuff at the fifth annual Bahamas Culinary Classic Weekend this past September. "The two most important commodities for chefs are time and expertise," claims festival organizer Vanessa Riley. Along with the achievement of high-level hotel positions, the Culinary Classic is just one of the opportunities for local chefs to display their hard-earned craft.
I was fortunate enough to taste firsthand their skills, when I served as a judge at the "Celebrities Choice Cocktail Reception," one of the competitions among nine polished hospitality teams. Each group had selected a Bahamas-related theme and cooked anywhere from seven to a dozen bite-size items according to it. I probably most favored Our Lucaya Resort's extremely clever "Winter in the Bahamas" table, which reflected the long-ago tropical snowfall we also experienced here in South Florida. A fluff of fake snow, steaming mango-almond coffee laced with Nassau Royale rum, and miniature Christmas puddings underscored the near-hundred-degree evening, and damn if I'm not a sucker for irony.
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But I was won over most by the reinvention of familiar ingredients á la New World cuisine: steamed dumplings filled with salt beef with a pigeon pea-soup jus; crawfish and fevergrass fritters partnered with dried fruit chutney and mayonnaise spiked with mint and goat peppers (a local name for Scotch bonnet peppers); yard pigeon roulade seared with rosemary oil and accented by a seagrape marmalade.
Indeed the Grand Bahama and Paradise islands, to name two, currently seem to be on the South Florida timetable for international recognition. Sure, I still sampled plenty of conch fritters. The Bahamians do like to brag about how many ways there are to prepare the signature shellfish. It's such an emblem that cookbook author Lady Darling, in her recently released collection Many Tastes of the Bahamas, includes a picture of a conch coming out of its shell, along with about 34 recipes. Also known as "the giant of the ocean without a bone," conch, joked Craig A. Woods, the master of ceremonies at the Culinary Classic Awards reception, is "next to Viagra the best thing there is, and cheaper, too." And you can do the math with me: Nine stations multiplied by an average of ten dishes, and there's bound to be some repetition and lack of insight somewhere.
But for the most part, originality remained the credo of the evening and the weekend. As a result, I chowed on everything from sugarcane-speared shrimp to shredded lamb tongue preserved in aspic, served in a soup spoon over tropical slaw. Yes, even in the Bahamas some weirdness achieves greatness -- the latter dish helped the British Colonial Hotel take first place at the cocktail reception.
As far as presenting New Bahamian cuisine to the rest of the world, the medal winners of the Culinary Classic, such as the College of the Bahamas and the Radisson Cable Beach Resort, will have the opportunity to do just that at international culinary competitions. The playing fields include the Culinary Olympics. Chef John Kinsella, coach of the 2004 Bahamian team, summed it up at the conclusion of the ceremonies: "We've got the cooks. We've got the chefs. Now we've just gotta get there." Likewise, I might add, for those South Florida food professionals and diners who still remember the Bahamas as bastion of the conch pizza.