Chef Kevin Baker had worked in a variety of kitchens and cuisines around South Florida. On South Beach, there was 1826 Restaurant and Bar on Collins Avenue. He helped open the Foundry in Pompano, with its New American flavors, and worked at the Ritz-Carlton doing, well, Ritz-Carlton-style cuisine. But when he got the offer to run the kitchen at Steelpan Kitchen & Bar, the new restaurant at Sonesta Fort Lauderdale Beach, he had to look a bit further back for inspiration.
“I grew up sitting watching my parents, my grandparents cooking Caribbean food,” the native of Jamaica says. At Steelpan, which bills itself as a “Caribbean-American fusion kitchen,” and also offers live music several nights a week, he got to fuse the modern cuisines of his professional life with the Caribbean flavors from earlier.
The result is a menu that will be familiar to people who don’t know Caribbean cuisine, while also offering a few more educational dishes. There are burgers, shrimp pasta and a mahi sandwich (hey, this is Fort Lauderdale). But perhaps also try the callaloo artichoke dip or the jerk chicken and dumplings. The whole baked snapper comes wrapped in a banana leaf and the crab and corn chowder is made with a coconut curry broth.
Chefs often cite “freshness” as a goal, but Baker notes that if you’ve got a Caribbean-style restaurant in Florida, you’ve got a practical advantage – all this interesting, fresh product right on your doorstep. One goal he has is to take advantage of that. Another is to offer island flavors that also incorporate the other cuisines he’s gotten to know. For starters, he notes, there’s no one cuisine in the Caribbean. What’s called “cassava” on one island is “yucca” on another and likewise, similar dishes have their own unique twists.
“In the Caribbean,” he says, “everybody has something different.
“On the menu we have Shrimp Calypso, which is originated from Trinidad. We have jerk wings, which are originated from all over the Caribbean. We have whole snapper, which is one of the main fish we find all over the Caribbean. The theme for our restaurant is Caribbean influenced with multi different cultures.”
And those aren’t just cultures within the Caribbean. For many dishes, he’s taken those Caribbean staples and broadened them out. For example, take the jerk chicken and dumplings.
“The dumplings we have on the menu are a form of gnocchi, an Italian form of dumpling,” he says. “This dumpling represents multiple different cultures. In Europe they have dumplings; the dumpling transfers to a different name, gnocchi.”
He wants to transform, create, and put something on the table that emerges from the many traditions he’s been able to see and work in. “It takes a journey from childhood,” he says, “growing up working with different cuisines, seeing what different people are eating, what they’re seeing in their culture.”
The Dish: Caribbean Jerk Wings
- 5 pounds chicken wings
- Barbecue sauce
For the Marinade
- 1 cup rice wine vinegar
- 3 ounces water
- 1 cup low sodium soy sauce
- 5 ounces dark brown sugar
Bring the liquids to a simmer and stir in the brown sugar until it completely dissolves.
For the jerk barbecue sauce
- 5 cups of ketchup
- ½ cup of Jamaican Pride Jerk Spice
- ¼ cup of the marinade
Combine all ingredients, mixing well.