Chef Raquel Fox is a master of Bahamian cuisine, and she is determined to share her culture’s flavor packed food with the masses. I talked with her about her passion for food, storied culinary journey, and current projects.
It is no surprise that she is the official chef working with The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Toronto. She definitely made me want to hop on the next flight to experience the beautiful Islands of The Bahamas and tropical cuisine!
When did you start cooking and what made you fall in love with it?
My memory flashes back to my toddler years. I would follow my mother into the kitchen and watch her make my milk formula. The following day, she found me standing on top of the stepping stool following the recipe as I was independently making my own bottle!
It’s funny because I can still remember the delicious taste of that formula. In the Caribbean, [Nestlé] Lactogen Formula had a flavor profile of chalky-milk candy, it was heavenly. That was a recipe I learned at two years old, and I think my love of food and cooking [started there].
As I got a bit older, I became my grandmother’s sous chef at 5 or 6 years old. Mary Campbell was my inspiration and was known to feed the neighborhood. Anyone who was hungry, homeless or down on their luck could knock on her door at any given time and she would feed them.
Dinner was ready every day at 3:30 pm sharp and I would usually rush home from school as it was the highlight of my day. Her meals were healthy, scrumptious, and left you feeling fully sated. A typical Bahamian meal was protein, peas and rice, and plantains was a must. We would have vegetables but honestly, she always overcooked it, boiled until they were gray… All the nutrients were in the broth [laughs].
Early Exposure to International Dishes
Please talk more about growing up in the Caribbean. How did life in the Bahamas shape your perspective on food?
The Bahamas is a chain of 700 islands scattered across 100,000 square miles of a large archipelago in the southwest Atlantic Ocean. However only 30 islands are inhabited–each one with its own unique charm. Exuma is known for its jewel-like turquoise waters. Harbour Island, Eleuthera is known for its natural glistening pink sand beaches, which is a product of coral as well as seashells that wash up on the beach.
I am from Nassau, the capital, where most tourists visit. [We call it] the Disneyland of the Bahamas. I am also a descendant by way of my grandmother from Andros (land of the crabs and the world’s most famous blue hole systems) Island. I attended international schools that were integrated with expats from Europe, the Caribbean, and the U.S. They all brought their cuisines on International Food Days, and there was so much great food and similarities [to be found]. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike…than we are unalike.” I enjoy diversity and learning from one another.
Everyone has their rice dishes, their traditional sauces, soups and stews and history that prove how our cultures are connected. I would go to friends’ houses and [rather than hanging out with them] I was more interested on being in the kitchen with their moms. I remember trying [Italian] osso buco and thinking, it is a slow braised dish, kind of how we cook our oxtails. I couldn’t wait to share this delectable recipe with my family and friends.
Entering the Food Industry
Did you go into the food industry right after high school?
Although I loved cooking, I was also a fashionista. I got my fashion merchandising degree in Ft. Lauderdale and began working as a fashion and visual merchandising coordinator where I would also travel and work in New York City.
However, it seems as if I received more rave reviews for cooking and entertaining and truth be told, that is where I was the happiest. It quickly turned into a business as friends would offer to pay me if I would cater for them as well as family. I realize that cooking was a form of sharing my talent and making other people happy and that this would be my career.
My husband Ruben and I were high school sweethearts. We decided to open The Wine Lounge back home in Nassau, Bahamas. It was a warm, intricate but personable restaurant in an old historic house from the early 1900s that we totally transformed into a gem of a restaurant with only 20 seats. It quickly became very popular. USA Today voted us as one of the top ten lounges in the Bahamas. We were honored to receive attention from the producers of Top Chef, who requested to record an episode at the restaurant. However, we were still renovating final touches at the time.
Our menu was Caribbean food with some fusion of our travels. Dining to me means that the food and atmosphere should tell a story and take the customers on your journey. For this reason, we embraced the concept of tapas style (or small plate dining).
I wanted customers to experience a variety of exceptional plates, taking their palates on a local journey with some worldly exotic fusion of flavors. A popular request was our Island Charcuterie Board, with Guava bell pepper jam, mango chutney, and our famous crab cakes wrapped with seaweed and served with tamarind chutney. However, ask a fellow patron and they would say that the thin crust pizzas were also to die for.
It was definitely a great run and we were in business for several years, but when the economy in The Bahamas tanked in 2009, we were forced close our doors in 2012. Therefore, I comprehend first hand what so many small business restaurant owners are going through in this time of living in a pandemic.
Moving to Canada
I am so sorry to hear that. What was next for you after that?
My son Rashad was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in 1998. At the time, the medical professionals in The Bahamas did not know or understood much about autism. One doctor said he would never be able to speak or express that he loved me. I remember getting so angry and exclaiming, “you don’t ever take hope away from a mother!”
To make a long story short, with early intervention, Rashad attended mainstream schools and actually did well attending The Vangaurd Boarding School in Orlando, Florida. It was there that his Canadian psychologist advised that we consider moving to Canada, that people with autism are respected and that he could reach his full potential and have a meaningful life.
As a mother, [the wellbeing of my children] comes before being a chef. So we moved to Canada and enrolled Rashad in a well renowned school with other young high functioning adults on the spectrum. He is now 23. He is a pianist, an artist, and very sociable. People say, “Oh, [autism] must have been the wrong diagnosis.” [Shakes head].
I am so glad your son was able to get the support he needed to flourish. When you moved to Canada, you decided to attend culinary school at George Brown College in Toronto. Why did you decide to attend culinary school after having owned a successful restaurant?
I am always a seeker of knowledge but the main driving force was whenever I would win cooking competitions my competitors would say little jabs: “where did you attend culinary school?” Although I had the experience and talent, personally I felt as if I was missing out on fine tuning my craft, so I enrolled in The Chef School at George Brown College, Toronto.
I remember saying to my husband that I was going to be the most inconspicuous student and absorb all of the knowledge as if I’d never cooked before. And then one of my professors asked: “Have any of you ever dined at a Michelin-starred restaurant?” The gig was up! I couldn’t remain quiet any longer, as I am in awe of Chef Thomas Keller, and I had dined at The French Laundry on two occasions and met him personally.
Culinary school was totally worth it as I explored all aspects of cooking, honed my knife skills, refined patisserie, special events and so much more. Everything I learned [growing up] was about cooking from the heart with fresh ingredients, balancing flavors. Culinary school was an elevated level of methods, technique, taste and presentation. I had no idea what mise en place or the mother sauces were when I enrolled. Now I know [the importance of having] everything in its place. My whole world was coming together full circle. The knowledge was refreshing.
After completing the program at George Brown College, I was hired as an instructor for the Caribbean Cuisine Class, a six week continuing education program that takes students on a delicious excursion to The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Haiti and Cuba.
How has living in Toronto impacted the way you think about food?
I have always been exposed to multicultural flavors. Toronto reminds me a little of New York City in that way. We have a great diversity of foods here, It’s a chef’s haven. I’m all about supporting the small business local restaurants, the mom and pops as opposed to the larger chains. Many of the fine dining restaurants here are on par with Michelin starred restaurants worldwide.
Defining Bahamian Cuisine and Its Diverse Influences
Your cookbook, Dining in Paradise, pays homage to the food of your homeland. Why was it important to you that the book highlighted Bahamian cuisine?
Bahamian cuisine will never, ever be bland. We are all about utilizing fresh local ingredients and seafoods purchased daily from fishermen, prepared respectfully for the best flavor. Bahamian spice is balanced with citrus and sour orange, which is a cross between a lime and an orange–similar to Cuban mojo.
Everything is fresh. We season meats and seafood with citrus. We cook with rum and spices like thyme and allspice. We want our food to taste like the ocean so sea salt is the preferred salt of the islands. [The island of] Inagua is the salt capital, and I am currently working on exporting this magnificent salt to produce my Island Gurl seasoned salt blend complemented with island spices.
How do you define Black food?
Black food is the food of our ancestors. It is soul food that derives from slavery. Slaves were given the tough meat, like the pig’s foot, ears or intestines. These ingredients that were thought to be inedible, were processed and skillfully cooked. Fast forward to today, they are now on the menus of many fine dining restaurants.
Bahamian cuisine reflects a diverse history of influences from many cultures, including African, British, French, Spanish, Latin American, Caribbean and Southern U.S Cooking.
Our national dessert is fashioned after England’s figgy pudding that dates back to the 16th century. U.S soul food brought along macaroni and cheese, grits, fried chicken, and fried whole snappers. Sauces and stews with chopped pieces of bone in meats derive from African methods. Beans and rice and conch salad (or ceviche) are from our first inhabitants, The Lucayans (500-800 A.D), who were direct descendants of South America, and johnny cakes from the Indigenous Arawaks.
At Home with Chef Raquel
What are the five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
- My seasoning salt mix. You can use it in stews, soups, meat, pork and poultry.
- Coconut oil. Toast rice in it to give it a coconut flavor. Sauté vegetables in it for island flavor.
- Fresh fragrant thyme leaves. They are great in soups, stews, and curries. If I smell thyme, I am knocking on your door!
- Citrus. We make our marinades with it.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It is great for sautéing.
What is your favorite dish to cook at home?
A sauce very important to Bahamian cuisine is steam sauce. It is a tomato-based stew that is slowly simmered to develop the sweet and tangy flavor from the tomatoes. [Canadian] CTV Vancouver recently had a steam sauce competition between the hosts of the show, and I had a great time judging and selecting the winner.
I’m on a mission to share this remarkable and tasty stewing sauce with the U.S. and Canada. It complements chicken, pork, seafood, tofu, and veggies. My husband and sons, Rashad and Ruben, Jr, are excited whenever they smell the alluring aromas coming out of my kitchen. It is home to us, our heritage and now it’s available for purchase at www.islandgurlfoods.com.
What tip would you give to home cooks who want to improve their skills?
Rinse your meat and rice! During my cookbook tour, I remember having a debate on CTV The Social on whether to rinse our meat or not. The Caribbean girls Marci Ien and I agree to always rinse as it is an island thing. How many times have you purchased protein from the supermarkets and that chicken does not smell as fresh or it’s wrapped up and covered in residue? It’s just our way of prepping the meat.
What could you eat for the rest of life?
This world is so full of flavor. I cannot relate to people who travel and refuse to try the cuisine of the country. Instead, they select the “safe route” with popular restaurant chains that they experience at home. They are missing out on delicious life changing cultural experiences.
If I had to choose one food for the rest of my life it would be conch. Conch fritters are popular in The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Key West, Florida. Seeing it on a menu brings me so much joy. Conch is a large sea snail with white meat similar to clams and calamari. Creamy, with a slightly sweet taste. It’s rumored to be an aphrodisiac so blame it on the conch salad. There are many conch stands throughout The Bahamas where you may experience fresh conch salads (ceviche).
My childhood alter ego, Chef Tula, would answer the question a little differently. She is a little bougie, and would say truffles!
Foodie Dreams and Role Models
What is your dream food destination?
Anywhere with truffles. Truffles just do something to me. My heart rate increases, those feel good mood changers are activated. So maybe revisiting Italy would be nice.
Who do you look up to in the food world?
Dr. Ryan Whibbs, my former professor at George Brown College in Toronto. His work ethic is outstanding. He’s selfless and exemplifies willingness to go above and beyond to enable his students to flourish. He’s a remarkable Chef, Food Historian, Academic Chair at The Manitoba Institute of Culinary Arts and he does it all with such modesty.
Worldwide, I look up to José Andrés. The work that he is doing to help with food insecurity and national disasters [is commendable]. When hurricanes and natural disasters occur throughout the Caribbean, he is one of the first responders and I’m in awe with his spirit of altruism.
Also Johnny Rivers, who was the chairperson of the World Congress of Chefs. He won gold medals in the Culinary Olympics in Germany and Singapore and also the former proprietor of Bahama Breeze Restaurants. I have had the pleasure of meeting him. He was quite impressed with my line of culinary sauces that were in the development stage at the time.
Are you working on any projects now that you would like to share?
I’m looking forward to the release of Joanna Fox’s (Montreal-based food writer and editor) Little Critics Cookbook. She reached out to me for recipes with warm anecdotes or short stories behind them, and it was an honor to come aboard on her project.
During these unprecedented and challenging times, I am enjoying teaching virtual cooking classes at Hyr Live, where I go live on Sundays at 5 pm for an exciting Sunday Dinners Class sharing instructional Caribbean recipes with their subscribers. I enjoy my platform of being a regular appearing chef and television personality on CTV Your Morning, The Marilyn Denis Show as well as CP24.
I also released my Island Gurl Foods culinary sauces in December 2020. These sauces are meant for consumers who don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen but still want a delicious home-cooked meal in 30 minutes or less. The kit includes a Bahama Steam Sauce, Mango Jerk Sauce, and Island Flavour Pepper sauce available online at www.islandgurlfoods.com or shophyr.live.
I am also in the process of writing a second cookbook. It will be pescatarian and focused on outstanding seafood and healthy vegetable dishes from the Caribbean. There is so much more flavor throughout the Caribbean to be discovered and I intend on bringing it to the forefront.
Follow Bahamian Cuisine Expert Chef Raquel Fox @islandgurlfoods for Hyr Live classes and delicious island dishes!