Les Alexander: A Matter of Taste

Les Alexander, chef at Barbados' fames Cobblers Cove, reveals some of his kitchen secrets and favourite dishes to Roxan Kinas

Chef Les Alexander at Cobblers CoveFleurs de courges farcies aux legumes (Stuffed pumpkin flowers) avec sauce pomme d’amourPoissons multicolores (Scottish smoked salmon and smoked kingfish). Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerSoupe de courge et poireau (Pumpkin and leek soup in a base of a butternut squash). Photograph by Eleanor ChandlerTerrine de banane et sauce hibiscus (Banana terrine with hibiscus sauce). Photograph by Eleanor Chandler

For people who know about good food, a favourite Caribbean haunt is Cobblers Cove, the intimate, elegant restaurant and hotel in northern Barbados.

The restaurant’s quiet success is due in large part to its chef, Les Alexander, who has developed an impressive repertoire of international recipes that make good use of indigenous produce. The way he deploys local fare to create the most sophisticated international dishes is legendary.

Les Alexander has been with Cobblers Cove for five years. He grew up in Grimsby, in northern England, where he spent much of his time “working in the fish markets”. In fact, he remembers, “I was weaned on the smell of fish.” One reason, perhaps, why seafood holds such a prominent position in his repertoire now.

Certain of his career goals from young, Les went straight from his City and Guilds training onto the hotel circuit. He gained experience in several top hotels in England and France, steadily moving up in rank. By the time he arrived in Barbados in 1986, he was a well-established executive chef.

Since his arrival, Cobblers Cove has developed an affiliation with La Bonne Etape Hotel in the south of France. Les and other members of the kitchen staff travel there every year for continuing specialized training. The hotel is also a member of the prestigious Relaix & Châteaux, an exclusive French-born (now international) restaurant/hotel rating association. In 1991, Cobblers Cove was the only establishment in Barbados, and one of three in the West Indies, to meet its strict membership guidelines.

Since seafood is such an important part of Caribbean cuisine, Les says, “the first thing I did when I came here in 1986 was get to know the local fishermen”, with the result that an entourage of boats delivers fresh fish to the hotel daily. Because of the “delicate and subtle flavour of fish”, the big challenge is to prepare the sauces. “They must be very special so they do not mask the flavour. The ingredients must highlight the meat or fish — not bury it.”
Les Alexander’s technique is based on defining and blending flavours. “Dining,” he says, “should be pure, unadulterated flavour of the highest quality; the food richly satisfying. Each dish is always a combination of flavours, a combination of textures. You have to marry them together for the overall pleasure of the guest. There are lots of things you can do for effect and showmanship, but ultimately you have to aim for the guest’s overall pleasure to the palate.

For Les, this is the greatest fascination of being a chef. “How flavours linger and interact with each other. Some flavours rest on the palate, while others dissipate. It is a chefs understanding of the nuances and combination of flavours that brings out the best in food.” An accomplished chef “must have a good eye for colour and understand texture and taste, and how these all interrelate with the palate and one another. It is not just the cooking, it is the creating and how much of yourself you actually put into it that makes a great chef.

Les’s skill in using local ingredients for international dishes grew from necessity as much as from choice. “Faced with all these new flavours and textures, I had to change my whole repertoire when I came here, and that became the new style and standard of my work. Coming from the UK, where you can get virtually everything you want, to a Caribbean island where the range of vegetables and game is more limited, I had to be a lot more creative and learn to work with local produce.

Health and climate also influenced Les’s work in Barbados. “People coming to this climate can’t eat the heavy, greasy foods –no one should, for that matter. After a meal like that you can’t feel active, revived, or sexy.” By contrast, Cobblers Cove “can serve a five-course meal which leaves you fully sated, yet you are not bloated. You feel awake, recharged.

Priding himself on his relationship with his patrons, Les enjoys floating around the dining room, talking to guests. “It is important to develop that attachment. You learn what they like and get a handle on their tastes.”

 

LES ALEXANDER’S COBBLERS COVE SAMPLER

 

Starters

POISSONS FUMES MULTICOLORES (Multicoloured smoked fish)

Presented in a sailboat motif, smoked salmon and king fish are layered between varying seasoned butters, then garnished with piped cremes for a wave effect.

FLEURS D’COURGETTES FARCIES AUX LEGUMES (Zucchini flowers stuffed with vegetables)

Vegetable flowers filled with finely chopped zucchini, sauteed in olive oil and garlic and “perfumed with basil and mint,” are slowly braised in a vegetable stock, then presented in a pinwheel shape napped in a delicately seasoned tomato, garlic and herb sauce.

COCONUT SOUP

Finely grated heart of coconut, soaked in coconut water and jelly, fresh vanilla and essence, are blended and sieved together for a “chilled, snowy white broth of pure natural coconut flavour.”

Entrees

NOISETTE D’AGNEAU EN CROUTE (Stuffed loin of lamb)

Local black-belly lamb prepared with a mushroom and foie gras stuffing and wrapped in a wafer-thin pastry, then baked and served in its own natural juices.

FILLET DE PORC ET POMMES D’OR (Pork fillet stuffed with golden apple)

Pork loin stuffed with finely chopped golden apple and served with a sauce of sauteed golden apple and pork trimmings.

TURBAN DE POISSONS (Turban of plaited fish)

Long strips of poached dolphin and king fish steak are woven together with blanched leek and laid in a circle. The dish is then centered with delicately sauteed leek heart and surrounded by a light shrimp sauce for a turban effect.

SUPREME DE VOLAILLE MANGUE (Breast of chicken filled with mango)

Layers of spinach and slices of firm mango enfold butterfly cuts of boneless chicken breast. The breast is “very lightly poached” and presented on a bed of mango sauce.

Desserts

TULIPE AVEC SORBET TROPICAL (Tulip filled with tropical sherbet)

Tulip-shaped pastry is filled with tamarind, mango and soursop, then topped with fresh mint and fans of mango.

TERRINE DE BANANE ET SAUCE HIBISCUS (Banana with hibiscus flower sauce)

Flambe bananas are layered horizontally in a tureen and set with a jelly made from the flambe, and are presented on a bed of hibiscus flower sauce.