Ancestral Kitchen

A sweet hand with a distinctly Caribbean touch


Diners at the Trinidad Hilton Hotel and Conference Centre are experiencing a sweet hand with a distinctly Caribbean touch. Recently appointed Executive Chef Debra Sardinha-Metivier — the first woman in the Hilton chain to hold this prestigious post — promises a return to the kind of cooking that will make you remember how the smell wafting from your grandmother’s pots burned great big holes in your belly. When you taste the food, she says, “You must think about your grandmother and your ancestors.”

The ambitious, 32-year-old chef has visions of combining the flavours of the Caribbean with “world-class” presentations to create a new name for the Hilton’s traditionally international cuisine. Sardinha-Metivier knows exactly what she wants to do with the Hilton’s menus. Her ideas are filled with images of the cornucopia that abounds in the Caribbean: blends of vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices, rich in colour and flavour, and easily identifiable as having a West Indian base.

It’s not that she intends to do away with the international fare of the Hilton — there’ll always be steaks and chops and the like; rather, what she wants to do is to establish the Hilton as the home of internationally-acclaimed Caribbean cooking. While she agrees there is a substantial amount of local cuisine on the Hilton menu already, she feels it has been so far refined that the Caribbean taste has been practically stripped out of it. So her intention is to put back that home-cooked flavour into the menus, while maintaining the attractive presentations for which the Hilton is renowned.

She knows very well how to keep the balance, coming as she does from a family for whom gastronomic delights have always been the order of the day. Debra’s parents, Allison and Kenneth Sardinha, have owned the delightful Blue Crab Restaurant in Tobago for the past 15 years. She grew up in a household where they were always entertaining relatives and friends, and within this ambience she knew from early on that her ambition lay in the hospitality industry.

Debra says she has always been very focused, has always known exactly what she wants to do with her life, and that is why she has had no difficulty in pursuing her goals.

After graduating from Holy Name Convent in Trinidad, she took off for New York City Technical College to do a Bachelor’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. There, she worked and studied seven days and nights a week. So determined was she that she even sneakily added more courses to her list than she was really supposed to be doing, just so she could get it all done fast.

In fact, she was pregnant when she applied for a scholarship to study with renowned chef Madeleine Kamman, and the news of her acceptance came just as she was about to give birth. She says it was a hard decision, but she asked her sister to help her husband, Curtis, look after the newborn while she pursued her goal. “I know it may seem kind of cold,” she says, to go off and leave your baby, “but it was very hard for me.”

She says she did it because she knew in the end it would also pay off for her daughter, Erin, who is now a precocious 18-month-old toddler. Despite her rigorous hours in the Hilton’s kitchens — she spends about 12 hours there daily — she still finds time to manage her household and devote herself to her daughter. It’s part of being a mother in today’s world, she says, having to juggle the career, the mothering, the household management, and the husband. But with the kind of stoic resoluteness that we have come to associate with the Caribbean woman, Debra has found her balance. She is indeed a strong woman, the kind who will certainly bring a new meaning to La Boucan and Hilton’s other restaurants.

When you first encounter her, you are a little taken aback by her diminutive size. She is about 5 feet tall, and her chef’s hat towers above her. But as you talk to her, as you walk with her through the Hilton’s kitchens and see the ease, the quiet firmness and the purposefulness of her stride, you no longer see her as a petite figure in white; rather you feel her presence. And in your mind’s eye she takes on all the attributes of the Caribbean matriarch, complete with the sweet hand.

RECIPE: Cajun Spiced Red Snapper With A Barley Risotto and Roasted Vegetables

Serves 4 persons

Cajun Spiced Red Snapper

4 7-oz portions red snapper fillets

2 tbsps cayenne pepper

1 1/2 tbsps dried thyme

2 tbsps onion powder

2 tbsps garlic powder

1 1/2 tbsps paprika powder

1 tsp black pepper

salt to taste

Combine the powders and rub into the fish fillets. Heat a large sauté pan with enough oil to cover the base of the pan. Add the fish (cajun-spiced side down first) and cook until golden brown. Turn over and finish in the oven. Remove and place on absorbent paper.

Risotto

1 1/4 cups pearl barley (rinse and strain through a colander)

1 tbsp minced garlic

2 tbsps small diced onion

1 flavouring pepper (finely diced)

1/2 tbsp olive oil

60 ml white wine

1 tbsp basil (cut into fine strips)

1/4 tsp minced oregano

1/4 tsp fine leaf thyme

approx. 1–1 1/2 cups hot stock

salt and pepper to taste

Using a medium flame, sweat the garlic and onions in the olive oil until tender. Add the barley and mix well. Add the wine and allow it to reduce by 2/3. Slowly add the hot stock, about 1/2 cup at a time. Stir occasionally until the barley is tender but not mushy. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Roasted Vegetables

onions: 2 medium sized cut into 1/4” slices

eggplant: 1/2 lb cut in half, then cut diagonally

zucchini: 1/2 lb cut into sticks

plum tomatoes: 4 cut into 1/4” slices and seeded

olive oil

salt and pepper

Lay the vegetables onto a sheet tray and lightly brush with the olive oil. Sprinkle some salt and pepper. Roast in a 350 degree oven for 5 –8 mins.

To serve:

Finish the barley with 4 tbsps heavy cream. Place in the centre of the plate. Arrange the vegetables on top and finish by placing the snapper fillets off centr.

Recipe by Debra Sardinha-Metivier, Executive Chef, Trinidad Hilton