Plantains for Breakfast? in London? Caribbean Chef Introduces a Taste of the Tropics to Conservative British Palates
Wendy Sloane,, The Christian Science Monitor
After working for 15 years in a large London hotel, chef Brian Benjamin finally decided enough was enough.
Armed with a lifetime of culinary experience and the ability to convince banks to lend him money, he decided to open his own restaurant - one that would reflect a childhood of spicy, home-cooked fare in his Caribbean island home of Grenada.
Three years later, Mr. Benjamin is the proud owner of BB's Crabback Caribbean Restaurant, a small eatery tucked away on a tiny side street in a West London suburb. Business is good, and his income is improving month by month. Most important, for a country with a large Afro-Caribbean population and few Caribbean restaurants, his clientele is a mixture - albeit an uneven one - of black and white. "My Caribbean cooking came directly from my grandmother, who worked in a hospital kitchen in Grenada," Benjamin says in his orderly kitchen, where bowls of tropical fruit compete for space with plates of imported fish and curried goat. West Indian food relies heavily on spicy fish and meat dishes served with side platters of tropical produce. Vegetables abound, like plantain, green banana, pigeon peas, dasheen (a starchy vegetable similar to a potato), yam, and breadfruit. But despite the palatability of Caribbean cuisine, it is not nearly as popular in London as other ethnic foods, such as Indian, Thai, and Chinese. "That's the difference between Caribbean people and the English," jokes Benjamin. "If you ask an Englishman about the Caribbean, he'll talk about the sun and the sand and the beach. But a person from the Caribbean will talk about the food." Benjamin hopes to change all that. His food has captured the attention of several London-based publications, which have praised the authenticity of items ranging from seasoned parrot fish in lime sauce to "crabback," his specialty crab with cream and two cheeses. The key to his success, Benjamin says, is the quality of his ingredients - and the fact that he does all the cooking except on weekends when an extra chef helps out. "It's important to me the message I'm trying to get across," he says. "The reason I entered the restaurant business is because people are traveling more away from home, and they need a place to come to relive their experiences. So I try to keep the food as Caribbean-orientated as possible." His recipes, are "98 percent Caribbean" and come from a number of islands. "The food is very authentic," says patron Agnes Quashie, whose family runs a catering business that specializes in Caribbean food. She was enjoying a fillet of red mullet served on a bed of spinach-like callaloo, with a side order of plantains. "It is very, very good," she says. Initially Benjamin thought that getting fresh conch and exotic fruit would be a major stumbling block, but that hasn't been the case. He buys most of his produce from central London wholesalers who ship it in from tropical climes, although he occasionally relies on local suppliers if he runs out of a specific ingredient. …