Soul food: dishing up the past with chef Liam Barker

smiling chef preparing food

Ahead of his Soulful Sundays event at Shoreditch House, the Caribbean chef talks to us about serving dishes from his youth and the inspiration behind his menu

Photography by Hayley Benoit

A new generation of British-Caribbean chefs are reclaiming their culinary heritage. Among them is Liam Barker, host of our Soulful Sundays event at Shoreditch House. He talks to us about the flavours of his youth and how he’s pushing Caribbean food into the future.

What inspired your menu for Soulful Sundays at Shoreditch House?
‘It was inspired by a recent trip to Barbados. Cou cou is its national dish, and the Callaloo I served it with is the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago. These are the two islands my parents are from and I wanted to bring them together in one dish.’

What would you say the essence of Caribbean food is?
‘Flavour and love. When I was growing up, I was taught everything had to be properly seasoned. I didn’t know any other way of cooking other than overnight marinating with a variety of herbs and spices. You might have to wait for your food in the Caribbean, but it will always be packed with flavour.’

Where did you learn to cook Caribbean food?
‘I learnt to cook watching my mum in the kitchen, along with regular trips to Trinidad and Tobago in my younger years. There’s a cookbook everyone knows called The Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook. It’s like the bible of Trini cooking. It has all the recipes you will ever need.’

Does cooking make you feel more connected to your cultural heritage?
‘Absolutely. Every year, we make my grandma’s black cake – fruit cake with rum-soaked fruits and browned sugar. Last year during lockdown, we had a family Zoom call and made it together. It felt special that a recipe from 20 years ago could unite us. When you understand the stories behind food, you learn to appreciate it more; it makes you feel more connected to what you’re cooking and eating.’

chicken dish

Do you think there are stereotypes attached to Caribbean food? If so, how are you trying to change that?
‘Caribbean food has had a tough time – I think mainly due to socioeconomic circumstances. Mostly, shops have been hole-in-the-wall takeaways. Love goes into the food, but it’s not served fresh to order, as facilities are limited. Also, many dishes are very labour intensive, so it can be hard to make it worthwhile as a business. For me, the way to change that is to adapt cooking methods to allow dishes to be cooked to order.’

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff recently said that we are ‘witnessing the rise of a new generation of British-Caribbean chefs who are reclaiming their culinary heritage’ and bringing it to a new audience – would you agree?
‘Yes, I would. I feel like a lot has happened in such a short space of time as well. The great thing is we have access to the ingredients we need. Our parents paved the way to get to this point. They were the ones who opened the shops and started shipping over ingredients. Now, we can really do them proud and reap what they have sown. Ten years ago, if you asked someone where to get Caribbean food in London, they would invariably tell you about somewhere that sells jerk chicken. Now we have the likes of Chuku’s, Limin Beach Club, West Indian Bake Co, and Caribe. Plus, we’re getting opportunities to shine with events like Soulful Sundays and The Future Plate.’

How would you say you’re developing the tastes of the Caribbean?
‘I’m just letting individual and lesser-known flavours shine through, and giving more of an education on them. This way, we can feel more comfortable trying something we maybe don’t know so much about.’

What’s next for you?
‘It’s been an amazing year for me. I’ve cooked at festivals and venues I could have only dreamed of a few years back. I’m about to launch a new project called Food Education on YouTube, as I feel that something is lacking in terms of food education for us. We eat to live, but I for one at school didn’t learn much about food and where it comes from.’

woman cooking food
chicken dish
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