Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Authentic Caribbean food. What is it? Should it matter?

If a pimento tree falls in the woods and a chef doesn't use it, would his jerk not be authentic?

Time and time again, Tony and I have had the same discussion about food: does "authentic" matter? Who decides whether or not a dish is authentic? And how does one even define it? Especially Caribbean food, which was born out of so many cultures and varies not only from island to island, but cook to cook. Mind you this is coming from a Caribbean native who cooks and sells Caribbean food.

And who really cares?

Obviously some of you care, as we had a couple folks recently, on separate occasions enlighten us with their wisdom. Yes, they informed us that our food was not, in fact, authentic. We were not "Puerto Rican" enough for one woman, and not "Trinidadian" enough for one guy.

Maybe to alleviate any confusion we should change our name to: "Caribe Caribbean-Inspired Recipes by a Cook Who Doesn't Care if His Creations are Entirely Authentic as Long as they Taste Good Bistro."

Our restaurant does not claim to be authentic Caribbean on our website. And although we do sell some traditional dishes you might find on the dinner table in a typical Puerto Rican home or a traditional sandwich you might find at a Cuban food stand, every recipe has Tony's unique twist to it. He does what he thinks our customers will enjoy, whether or not it's "authentic." Taste is his first priority.

Even though we don't have pimento trees chopped down and imported so the green wood can be used to grill our Jerk Chicken over in an earth pit out back, Tony's version of Jamaican Jerk has gotten some Jamaicans excited. And even though he serves tostones topped with mashed avocado, he continues to get compliments from Puerto Ricans telling him his food tastes like home. Does that make it authentic? Depends on who's mom's cooking we're comparing it to.

Is "authentic" the way a dish was made 200 years ago when it was invented? Or the way it's served today in the country of origin? Ah, but what country did it really originate from? Caribbean cuisine grew out of the influence of several cultures including French, West African, British, American (we brought beans, corn, chili peppers), East Indian (curry), Chinese (rice), Spanish (plantains, fruit trees), Danish, and Portuguese (cod).

I suppose not long ago the islander food snobs of yesteryear complained that the very dishes we speak of today were not authentic at the time. After all, those early "authentic" Caribbean dishes were merely creative concoctions using techniques and ingredients borrowed from other countries, new to them at the time.

History aside, Tony sums it up well, "The only thing that should matter when you go out to eat is if the food tastes good to you. It shouldn't matter if it's authentic. What matters is if you like it."

But what do we know. We're not authentic.


When has "authentic" mattered to you? Do you have examples of your own?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don't overthink it - Creativity in the Kitchen.

As the one who's home while Tony's at the restaurant every day, I love hearing about how he runs the kitchen, especially his creative process. Being an artist myself, I can relate in that more often than not, my best ideas are the ones I don't over-think. The ones from my "gut." The creative cooking process is much like that with art. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones done on the fly.

Not all dishes, sauces and sides on our menu were carefully formulated months before we opened Caribe. In fact, some of our most popular items Tony came up with, on a whim, right before we opened. I admit being a little nervous when we'd discuss the (future) Caribe menu and he'd say things like, "I'll come up with something, I'm not worried about it."

Many of you took part in our menu survey we ran months before even finding a location, so you saw some of Tony's ideas early on. But many of the recipes themselves were not at all figured out or even tested! Tony's jerk chicken sandwich that got a great review by CityPages this month, was a sandwich he had never made before we started the restaurant.

When he needed something to serve with our lunch sandwiches, Tony came up with his pineapple mango coleslaw with a hint of cilantro & just the right amount of "kick." It is as popular as the sandwiches.

Pineapple Mango coleslaw served with the BLT and other lunch sandwiches

When the Chicharrones needed a dipping sauce, Tony came up with the jerk barbecue sauce. A unique blend of ingredients that might surprise you. Time and time again we hear from customers how they either want that sauce "on everything" or that we should bottle and sell it.

Chicharrones (chicken drumsticks and wings) with jerk barbecue sauce

And the Caribe Eggs Benedict was an entire dish, not planned until Tony got in the kitchen and thought it up one day. Now our signature breakfast dish and a good seller.

Caribe Eggs Benedict. Poached eggs on roti, sauteed curried spinach, sweet potato,
tomatoes, onions, & chick peas. Topped with Creole hollandaise.

And the creativity will continue as Tony has the staff come up with our omelets of the day and other specials on occasion. It only seems fair to pass along some creative freedom to our staff, as it was the previous cooking jobs where Tony was allowed some creative freedom that helped him grow as a chef.

How about you? Have you come up with some great recipes under pressure or on the fly?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Chef wants to meet you

It's been about two and a half weeks since opened our doors and I can't tell you what a thrill it is (and relief, considering the mountain of debt we amassed in this crazy venture of ours!) to not only see people coming in day after day, but the same people already coming back with their friends.

Considering these long days, working out the kinks, fine tuning the menu, hiring new cooks, teaching the servers the new menu, serving larger than anticipated crowds with not enough staff, I think Tony and the staff (All of you! You know who you are!) are doing a fantastic job. Is everything perfect? Of course not. We are learning as we go. But when issues arise, we respond, fix it, do better next time. All in all, I keep hearing how people are liking the food and plan to come back and tell their friends. But I don't think it's just the food they're liking.

Tony came home tonight and as if to make a revolutionary discovery, tells me (something I've been saying since day one, thank you very much!), "Ya know, people really like it when I come out and say hi."

I think it's finally sinking in, how much that adds to the dining experience. It's nothing to Tony, he loves to socialize and meet new people. Any of you who know him already know this and are probably smiling and nodding. You know how he is. He is in his element when he can come out and chat with our guests. Even when it's busy, he tries to make rounds in the dining room.

But I was thinking about that more tonight. Trying to think back to all the restaurants Tony and I have eaten at over the years. All of our dating years plus the past 7 years we've been married, and I can honestly say I cannot recall a time when the cook, let alone a chef or owner of a restaurant came to our table to greet us and ask us how our meal was.

Sure, we'd get the occasional manager of a place doing rounds, which is always nice. But there's just something special about the person who prepared and cooked your food (and, in this case, the guy who drove to the bakery to buy that bread and picked up the fresh fish that day) genuinely wanting to say hello, thank you for coming in, and wondering what you thought of your meal. It's nice Tony's finally seeing how much that means to people. Although the social person he is, he'd do it anyway. He's just that kind of guy.

And what you've been giving him back is what's making it a pleasure to be in business. And I don't mean just dollars. The first thing Tony told me when he came home tonight was, "the customers are just so gracious." He's so humbled by all of you. And I get to hear the stories. Since we opened we've had people in from Puerto Rico (and a lady from Ponce, Tony's home town), a couple who drove from Wisconsin just to have dinner at Caribe, a woman who came in and later brought her Jamaican husband in for their anniversary (who loved Tony's Jerk Chicken, by the way. There's no greater compliment than when Caribbean natives approve of the food.). We've had regulars from when it was Jay's Cafe returning. We have people from the neighborhood come in regularly, some several times a week. And even had a local radio personality come in one day, a personal favorite of Tony and me, who's name I won't mention, as he's not one to want to be in the spotlight off-air.

So thank you for all you've given back. It makes our job a pleasure.

Next on my to-do list is an online T-shirt store, since we've had so many requests for the "Caribe" shirts that Tony wears. Watch for that coming soon!