Cyril Sammy: Caribbean Chef of the Year

Meet the man who won the most coveted title in Caribbean cooking

Photograph by Kenneth LeePrizewinner Cyril Sammy at Grafton Beach

It was Plantain Pie that made Cyril Sammy the 1992 Caribbean Chef of the Year.

Each year, chefs in Caribbean hotels are invited to send in recipes of their own devising. At stake is the title Caribbean Chef of the Year, a trophy and a cash scholarship award, sponsored by American Express and the Caribbean Hotel Association. Competition is fierce. But in 1992 it was Cyril Sammy’s way with plantain that brought the trophy to Tobago, along with a picture of a smiling Chef Sammy at Paradise Beach in The Bahamas, receiving his trophy.

Cyril Sammy had been determined to be a chef since the time he left school in Trinidad. He was one of 16 children, all of whom had to help out at home; it did not take him long to discover that the household chore he liked best was cooking. He left school at 15, and went to stay with an elder sister in England, working at night to pay for his training as a chef. When his course was complete he worked in a London hotel for a year.

But a great chef needs broad experience; for the next 13 years he explored the culinary secrets of dozens of countries all over the world by cooking on Danish cruise ships. Each country he visited widened his knowledge of international tastes and foods, and taught him new dishes.

He married a girl from home and returned to the Caribbean, working in Grenada, in Trinidad, in Tobago, venturing into the restaurant trade on his own, discovering that he preferred hotel work. In 1989 he went back to Tobago to take charge as executive chef at the new Grafton Beach Resort. He was given the kitchen of his dreams and an enthusiastic staff, nearly all Tobagonians, whom he set about training. Grafton Beach was aiming to become one of the best hotels in the Caribbean, and Chef Sammy was determined that the food should be tops too.

High quality ingredients and the skill of the chef are only half the recipe for pleasing guests, Cyril Sammy believes; the other half is presentation. He is particularly proud of the decorative ice-carvings and butter sculptures with which he tempts visitors to try something new from the buffet tables at Grafton Beach. While he does not neglect the international cuisine preferred by less adventurous guests, he says that most enjoy the breadfruit balls and croquettes of dasheen and tannia he offers them. Each unfamiliar dish is lovingly presented to catch the eye and tempt guests to take a holiday from potatoes, rice and corn.

Many of Chef Sammy’s clients do come prepared to enjoy the special taste of Caribbean food. His one disappointment is that so few are willing to try exotic fruit drinks. Home-style orange and grapefruit juices are still the choice of most overseas visitors. But those prepared to try his passion fruit, soursop and barbadine juices and punch (he worked as a barman while he was studying in London) find them a revelation.

Imaginative local dishes using local ingredients are what Chef Sammy likes to prepare best. Good quality meat being in short supply locally, he often surprises his guests with tasty, carefully-presented goat meat: a special marinade of local herbs, spices and rum produces goatburgers with a taste quite different from the hamburgers visitors are used to. But fish is probably a visitor’s best bet in Tobago. Caught in the early morning by fishermen at Grafton, the fish appears on the restaurant table for lunch and dinner with that unmistakable fresh-caught tang.

Perhaps the main reason why local dishes appeal to guests from overseas, says Cyril Sammy, is that people all over the world are becoming more health-conscious. The cream, butter and wine that is indispensable to French haute cuisine is not exactly cholesterol-free. World tastes are moving away from rich food, however tempting, towards the spices and herbs native to the Caribbean: to plain food dressed with natural seasonings.

Because Chef Sammy loves to cook, it is no surprise to find him in the kitchen working alongside his staff at six in the morning. His enthusiasm is contagious. He is only too keen to share his experience and expertise to help train a new generation of first-class Caribbean chefs to take his place when (if ever) he returns to Trinidad where his wife still works and his only daughter, now 20, is studying at the university.

It’s obvious what really won Cyril Sammy his title this year. Not just Plantain Pie. It was experience, innovation, hard work and an infectious love for what he does.

TWO FAVOURITE CYRIL SAMMY RECIPES

Stewed dolphin, Buccoo style (This is not a relative of Flipper but a true fish, better known in the United States as mahi-mahi.

4 Ibs dolphin fillets
1 Ib fresh tomatoes
1/2 Ib onions
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons chopped celery
1 teaspoon hot pepper(chopped)
4 ozs Golden Ray margarine
4 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup blended coconut milk
1 tablespoon roucou juice
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1/2 Ib flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon white pepper
1litre cooking oil for frying

Clean fish and marinade in salt, white pepper, hot pepper, garlic, celery, chives and lime juice. Chop tomatoes and onions julienne style and add to the fish. Leave to marinade for one hour. Remove fish from marinade, dust with flour and fry till golden brown. Melt margarine in a hot pot, add the marinade and simmer for 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk, roucou juice and tomato ketchup, and boil for 5 minutes. Place the fried fish into the simmering sauce and continue to simmer for another 5 minutes. This tasty dish can be accompanied by Breadfruit Pie.

Breadfruit Pie

2 firm breadfruits, whole
12 eggs
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 litre full cream milk
1 Ib onions
1 hot pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 Ibs breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper

Peel breadfruit, cut into strips, and boil until cooked but firm. Mince garlic, onions, hot pepper, chives, thyme, celery and basil in blender until they liquefy. Remove breadfruit from boiling water and strain into a colander. Place breadfruit into a mixing bowl; add eggs, full cream milk, blended seasoning, salt and white pepper. Mix for 15 minutes. Place the breadfruit mixture into a greased baking pan, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and bake in a 350° oven until golden brown.