By Alexander Britell
Simply put, Nassau’s Graycliff is one of the elite restaurants in the Caribbean, and a unique culinary experience — indeed, it was the first five-star restaurant in the region. At its helm is Executive Chef and Grand Bahama native Elijah Bowe, who has worked across the Bahamas and combines high-level, classic acumen with a definitive Bahamian flavour. Bowe also oversees the hotel and restaurant’s Graycliff Culinary Academy. Caribbean Journal talked to Bowe about his path to Graycliff, the identity of Bahamian cuisine and the global reach of Caribbean cooking.
How did you end up at Graycliff?
I’m from Grand Bahama, and when I came to Nassau to go to culinary school, I was living with some cousins, and one of my cousins was dobbing the same programme. So they were showing me different places around the island. And I remember my cousin saying to me, “that restaurant right there, when you come here to eat, you have to sell your house to afford to eat here!” And I said, “yeah, that’s the restaurant — I’m going to be the chef there someday.” And that was in 1989. So it’s been awhile! But in terms of becoming a chef, that was my lifelong dream — that was what I always wanted to do. My grandmother had a small restaurant, and I used to wash dishes there, and do little things, like bus tables. My dad was a super cook — he wasn’t a professional, but people used to call our house and ask, “what are you cooking today, brother Bowe?” So I always had an appreciation for food. And I like to eat — so being the person that liked to eat, I learned how to cook.
What did you do before Graycliff?
Well, when I left high school, I had this grand dream that I was going to get a job in a hotel and work my way up — and I fried hamburgers and hot dogs for two years before I realized that you don’t make it like this. So I decided I needed to go to culinary school, and I came to Nassau — back then it was Resorts International. I did my apprenticeship there, and got the basics, the foundation, the philosophy behind cooking. I used to work at Compass Point, which was another nice resort owned by Chris Blackwell. So I started taking jobs strategically, places that meant something. I worked in Andros very early in my career, and it taught me a lot. Because being on an island sometimes, you don’t have the resources — you have to be sharp. I used to have to improvise a lot, and we used to get some pretty good clients — so I had to make do with what I had. And one my biggest resources was fresh seafood — I always had fresh lobster, fresh fish. So I’d have to make it work, because sometimes I might have to give them fish for five days. Because back then, everything depended on the mail boats, and if the boat didn’t come, you had to work with what you got.
Talk about the way you work with young chefs.
I get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping students who want to get into the culinary field, and give them the best advice I can. Jamie Oliver was a big influence on what I do, in terms of helping other people, especially young people. I have former students in different culinary institutes around the world. My latest one, she went off to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and she just came out of high school. So I’m just hoping they go forward and one day, I’ll look up and say. “I remember them.” To know that I could turn on the TV and ee someone on the Food Network, or even their own restaurant, know that back when they weren’t anything, I was the one to guide them in the right direction.
How would you describe the state of Bahamian cuisine?
It’s really diversified. That’s why when I cook, or when I create dishes, you will find that, somewhere in the dish, I am always true to my culture, to my country. I will take a local product that is indigenous and I’ll maybe cook it in a French fashion, or use it in a Mediterranean way. I’m always true to who I am. Six years ago, I went to a culinary school in Louisiana, and what I appreciated most was that Louisiana cooking, or Creole cooking, or Cajun cooking, is very, very similar to Bahamian cooking. So we may be a small country, but we have our own personality, what we like and the way we do it. But it goes beyond being a small country. And I saw that when I went to Louisiana.
How has your cooking changed, and how much does it continue to develop?
I’ve grown. I’m true to my roots, but you have to change with the trends. What’s good is always good, but what is trendy today is obsolete tomorrow. So you’ve got to try to strike a balance between what’s new and what’s classic. I think I’m more old school, but I try to keep up with the trends. I love the classics — some of the dishes that I made when I first started my culinary journey, I think that they’ve been around for a long time, and they’ll always be around. That’s another thing I love about working here — you get great, high quality stuff. I like big food — big meats, big fish. You can eat a sirloin steak here, and eat a sirloin steak at a different restaurant, but it’s the quality that’s going to make the difference.
How would you define Caribbean cuisine? Is there culinary interaction within the region?
I’ve worked with chefs from other islands, like Trinidad and Jamaica. Every island has its own culture. But it’s all in some way connected — they all have the same basis. The local ingredients are what give it its identity, and the person who cooks it makes it even more personal. I worked in a local Jamaican restaurant in Miami, and saw what they did with the stuff we have over here, but we all have the same connection in the foundation of what we do with the food, and how we prepare it. But I think Caribbean cuisine, it has a place. I see it being recognized more in other parts of the world, especially America, and to an extent Europe. Even in England now, the national dish isn’t fish ‘n chips, it’s curry, which is very prominent in Caribbean cooking. So Caribbean cuisine is going into other countries and making its presence known — it’s actually spilled over into other bigger countries, bigger nations.