Saint Lucia. A tropical country found in the Caribbean waters, nestled between Martinique and St. Vincent. You’ve probably heard of Saint Lucia, but truthfully, how much do you really know about it? This was the purpose of a moonlight dinner – hosted by the culinary ambassador of Saint Lucia, and Top Chef Season 11 runner-up, Chef Nina Compton at the St. James Cathedral’s Deanery – to promote tourism for this island gem. And what better way to introduce us to Saint Lucia than through its cuisine.
Food and travel have always been hand in hand, at least for me. Local cuisine (and I stress the word ‘local’) can tell you a lot about the place that you’re visiting. For instance, the simplicity or complexity of a dish, and the techniques used for its preparation, say a lot about how the locals live their lives. The ingredients that are used tell you what animals, plants, and spices are indigenous to the area. Whenever I think back to my most vivid travel memories, food inevitably comes to mind, so I was very excited to discover Saint Lucia in a culinary way.
Chef Nina Compton is based in Miami, Florida, but is originally from Saint Lucia. Ask any Top Chef fan and they will tell you that Chef Nina is one of their favourites from last year’s competition in New Orleans. Interesting fact – she is also the daughter of Sir John Compton, the late Prime Minister of Saint Lucia. This evening, Chef Nina and her team prepared a three course meal that was Saint Lucia inspired.
The evening began with some canapés. The cocoa dusted tuna tataki and mango came first. The slight bitterness of the cocoa and the brightness of the mango complemented the perfectly cooked tuna very well. The pumpkin arancini with cocoa nib aioli came next. It was light, crisp, and delicious. There was also chocolate BBQ meatballs, which unfortunately I missed. After these canapés, it should have been obvious to me that cocoa and chocolate would be recurring themes in the night’s menu. Cocoa from Saint Lucia is regarded as being very high quality, so it’s not surprising that this ingredient was featured.
Before dinner started, Chef Nina gave a quick demonstration of how to make a cocoa tea martini. As a chocolate lover, to me this cocktail was just awesome. A lot of the other chocolate-based cocktails I’ve had never quite got the chocolate integrated well into the drink. Through her demonstration, Chef Nina was charming and endearing, easily drawing in the crowd with her every move. She’s every bit as lovely and personable as I remember when I watched her compete on Top Chef.
The first course was a spiced chocolate soup with foie gras and baby vegetables. The presentation was delicate and impressive – the foie gras and colourful vegetables stood out in the white bowl, and were then subsequently drowned in a sea of chocolate soup poured by our server. The flavour of the soup was very intense. It was a mix of salty, sweet, and spicy all at once. I ate every last drop.
The main course was a chocolate braised shortrib with polenta and vegetables. This had to be one of the most tender shortribs I have ever eaten. Chocolate is a challenging ingredient to incorporate into a savoury dish, and here it just worked perfectly.
The dessert course was a pumpkin budino, with salted caramel and chocolate crumble. This dessert was delicious. The sweetness of the pumpkin did not overpower, and balanced well with the saltiness of the caramel. It was also very texturally rich, with the chewiness of the caramel, the crunch of the chocolate, and creaminess of the budino. What a great dish to end the meal.
So what did I learn about Saint Lucia from this dinner? I now know that its cuisine has many influences coming from its history and its neighbours. On this night, European and Caribbean ingredients, textures, and styles were at the forefront. Saint Lucian cuisine is sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and bitter – and can basically tickle the entire taste palate even in a single bite. It excites me that a sun destination can also wow with its food, and not just its weather and beaches. And there’s a lot more to Saint Lucia to discover – its landscapes and world class diving just to name a couple. I’ll be sure to consider Saint Lucia for my next warm weather vacation.
Photos by John Tan.