From farm to table: Eat fresh and stay young with the best organic food
Underneath a sky so cloudless and blue it feels like something from a dream, the green tarpaulin of the Lion’s Share cafe ripples in the breeze. Roadside, tucked behind the Warrens KFC and the Sol gas station, the simple food concession truck sits, its outdoor dining tables and chairs in the shadow of CGI Tower 2. It’s a basic set up and there are signs that say foods to keep you young or for health and longevity and even flavours you can see. They adorn the lemon yellow trailer with a promise of a kind of magic. It’s the kind of food that you wouldn’t normally expect to find by the side of the road in Barbados.
It hasn’t always been this way explains the cafe’s owner, Steven Whittaker, 36, from St Michael. He describes his earliest customers as people who wanted to eat traditional Bajan food; mac pie, white rice and peas, fried chicken, pork or cheese cutters. As he moves around the galley kitchen taking the lids off various pots, the mouth-watering aroma of cooked rice laced with coconut, molasses and cloves and the fresh scent of herbs seems to promise a new, healthy style of Bajan cuisine that’s fresh, local and insanely delicious. These days, the menu offers sautéed vegetable and fresh-herb pasta, creamy daal, dandelion leaf salad, perfectly spiced bean burgers with avocado hummus and all the trimmings in chewy spelt and rye buns. There are cheesy burritos with tangy freshly made tomato sauce in soft, floury wraps and for dessert, rich cocoa and coconut fritters.
A lot of the food is vegan (they do sell grilled fish a few times a week), wholesome and mostly gluten free but it’s anything but bland and boring. I’ve tried a lot of eateries on this island, and believe me, I almost cried with delight the first time I ordered a platter of food from this place. Each mouthful was pure pleasure. And at around $15 it seemed too good to be true.
Everything, from the sauces to the burger buns and wraps at The Lion’s Share is made from scratch using wholesome, unprocessed ingredients. Even the spices are freshly ground. This place really does offer exceptional quality. It’s the kind of food I wish Barbados’s prime restaurants – those with stunning views – served.
It’s a bit tucked away – and yes, it’s that place that you’ve been meaning to try. If you haven’t seen the bright chalk-board signs around Warrens, promising tasty bean burgers, you’ve been driving with your eyes shut. Once you finally go, I promise you’ll be hooked.
I knew this was a good spot he says gesturing to the area around the cafe. An old horse cabin that he bought in 2005 for $8,000, the trailer sat on a field next to his parent’s house for a couple of years while Steven, who studied joinery and architectural draftsmanship at the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic, renovated it, fitting out the interior and building the kitchen by hand. His plan was to rent it out to a third party so that he could have a subsidiary income. But after it being run in other people’s hands for a year or so, mainly serving as a cafe for the CGI Tower construction workers, trade slowed to a halt in 2009.
When the building work on the tower was completed, I realised that I’d have to run it as a business myself in order to make some money from it he says. A few months later, Steven moved the trailer to a patch closer to the road, just twenty yards away from the tower. After winning the land owner’s approval he cleared the land, creating a raised dining area and a concrete floor inlaid with tree stumps.
Although he had no experience in running a food business, Steven admits to being a natural cook who was brought up, along with his three brothers, on a farm in St Michael, by his father and mother who owned a small catering company. When he describes his ‘free range’ childhood and the days he spent foraging in the fields near his home, it’s easy to see where his creativity with food and his passion for local ingredients come from.
I knew my Bajan cherries from my gooseberries, my julie from my pawee and my mango long, I knew where to find donce and ackee.
We’d climb up into a fruit tree and stay there until our bellies were full.
With no TV or computer games to keep them occupied, Steven and his brothers learned how to make things with their hands from the materials they came across.
One day I’d be building a chest of drawers using pieces of wire for nails and a rock for a hammer, the next I’d be frying pieces of eggplant in the kitchen and making sauces from the herbs that grew in the garden.
Standing at his mother’s side in the kitchen, Steven learned how to cook basics like rice and peas at the age of eight or nine. He’d gather collard greens and kale for her to cook from the garden.
Cooking came naturally to me, you know? I wasn’t like the other kids at school. I was the odd one out in home economics class because I already knew how to cook – I even ended up showing the teacher how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. But I was just lucky because my parents encouraged us to be creative.
To try new things, yea man, and come up with our own ideas.
As an adult, Steven became interested in fitness and combined his childhood passion for cooking and gathering fresh local ingredients with his newly acquired knowledge of nutrition. So when he began putting together the Lion’s Share menu with his business partner, he wanted to include some of his favourite foods and when the cafe re-opened in January 2011 it offered quinoa and brown basmati rice alongside Bajan staples such as white rice and peas and mac pie.
The business was doing okay but as the months passed Steven grew more dissatisfied with the dishes he was offering.
Everyone kept telling me, “You got to serve fried chicken, you got to sell burgers” but it didn’t feel right. I’d look at the list of ingredients on the frozen burger boxes and think, man, what is all this stuff?
So, instead of selling processed burgers Steven set about making beef patties from scratch – a change that was a big hit with his customers.
People were amazed. They’d ask how I made them and tell me how good they tasted. It was crazy really. It was like they’d lost touch with real food. The taste and texture of it. Where it comes from. And it made me want to cook even more. To try out new things!
But it wasn’t just a matter of making his food taste better. Steven noticed that, by buying raw frozen minced beef and making burgers from scratch he was actually cost-cutting and even making more money. Before long he started to notice other cost saving opportunities.
We were spending a lot on cooking oil and one day I just thought, why don’t we try cooking without it? Why don’t we just grill the chicken and fish?
More changes were to come.
The cafe was gaining popularity with the island’s vegetarian and Rastafarian communities who encouraged him to broaden the range of dishes on offer and provide more meat-free options.
Running the cafe was great because it enabled me to meet a wide range of new people. I was introduced to herbalists, organic farmers and raw foodists, and realised that there was a need for the kind of flavourful wholefood that I wanted to make.
After a spate of unreliable pork and chicken suppliers, Steven began to re-think whether he wanted to include meat on the menu at all. He started to develop new dishes where pulses were gently cooked with spices and local starches like sweet potato and breadfruit. Before long he was experimenting with dandelion, blue vervain, souce sickle and moringa – the very herbs and flowers from his childhood. He also made the switch from stock cubes and pre-ground spice mixes to fresh whole spices and started using vegan ingredients such as nutritional yeast flakes in place of cheddar cheese.
In 2012, Steven decided to undertake formal cookery training and completed a Biogenic food course in Barbados where he learned the nutritional principles that were to form the basis of his current menu. Very on-trend in the UK and US with the new wave of fashionably healthy celebrity cooks such as the Hemsley and Hemsley sisters or Ella Woodward (aka Deliciously Ella), Biogenics is an approach to food that focusses on its nutritional value and promotes a wholefood, mostly vegan diet.
The idea is that by that including sprouted cereals, seeds and nuts and organic fruits and vegetables in your diet, you’re consuming foods that generate life and cell renewal. The alternative is processed and fried food that puts strain on the body and accelerates the ageing process.
With the creation of a new menu, and a new business partnership with Tina Marshall, a former prep chef for a vegan cafe, Steven set about forming relationships with suppliers of the best fresh, local, organic fruit and vegetables the island has to offer. Now the cafe hosts regular meetings for the Barbados Organic Growers Association.
A friend told me that Saturday morning at Cheapside is the place. There are a few organic sellers who are there every week and I now buy most of my ingredients from them he says, showing me a thick brown paste of organic raw cacao with an intense chocolate aroma that he’s bought from there.
In order to create a reliable supply of high quality organic herbs and green leaves such as kale, red lettuce, collard greens and fresh herbs, Steven has also set up an elevated mini greenhouse system behind the cafe that uses hydroponics to grow high quality plants. It’s a process that’s economical and requires little effort.
Yes there have been doubters, people who tell me I don’t need to toil the soil to sell food, Steven says.
People who say I can’t make a living out of a cafe when I’m not selling meat but I stopped listening to them. And since then, things have grown.
It’s lunch time and I can hardly wait to taste a plate of Steven’s food. When he presents me my plates it’s so beautiful that I’m lost for words. It was a platter of multi layered coconut quinoa and lemongrass-mint basmati rice pie topped with dandelion flowers. The was also a slice of roasted breadfruit loaf with homemade tomato sauce, earthy ginger lentil stew and avocado humus with green dandelion leaves. As if that wasn’t enough it was topped off with home-picked cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. Once I’ve tried my first mouthful, all I want to do is eat. It tastes amazing.
Cooking this way is like a dream come true for me, Steven says, explaining that he’s currently in the process of deciding what to serve at the upcoming Barbados National Institute for Creative Arts, culinary arts competition. There is no doubt he’s sure to make a big impression.
Steven’s food has arisen out of a small, supportive community who understands that the experience of eating is about so much more than going from empty to full. It’s about food that makes you feel happy and healthy, food that nourishes and heals, food that tastes of sunshine and fresh herbs and spices from the earth. So if you really want to taste the best of what this island has to offer head to the Lion’s Share, order a tasting plate and immerse yourself in incredible food that is ultimately a slice of Barbados //
Yvonne Gavan is a British freelance journalist currently living in Barbados with her family.
She blogs about island life: threekindsofsunshine.com