Minute on the clock: Collin Brown, executive chef, Turtle Bay
The executive chef at Turtle Bay started his training interested in French and Japanese techniques before offering a taste of his upbringing at the Caribbean restaurant chain. He talks to Jungmin Seo
You started your career in Jamaica. What first brought you to London in 1998 and what was that experience like?
When I was working in Jamaica, it was kind of hard because the hotels were all-inclusive, so I went to work in the Cayman Islands for a while. Then, I wanted to go to Europe to study, so I was looking at France as I had a massive interest in the techniques used there. I soon realised I didn't even speak the language, so I settled for London.
I thought it would be smooth sailing, but it wasn't that easy. Back in the day, there weren't any Caribbean restaurants, so people wouldn't even look at my CV. After over a year of not getting anything, I realised that if I wanted to work in a restaurant, I was going to have to own one.
What were the steps to opening your own restaurant?
I didn't know a lot of people here – there were no investors – so it was impossible to get anything from the banks. I started to make cakes and bring them to the takeaway shops on credit. After doing it 10, 15 times, the money started to come in. I did this for over three years; I stuck with it because I had to and there was no other way.
I also couldn't afford to go to college, so I went to the library to study cookbooks on Japanese techniques and food styling. I studied that for just over a year and then I started to do it myself with Caribbean food. In 2008, I got a rosette at my restaurant [Collin Brown, which opened the sam year] in Canary Wharf. I remember the inspector described the rum cake as "light as oxygen, as deep as philosophy". It was so cool – I can never forget it.
You closed your restaurant during the financial crisis, returned to Jamaica, and then came back to the UK. What had changed by the time you arrived?
The bankers weren't coming out anymore, so we started losing money and I had just had a child with my wife, so we decided to take some time out. I went back to Jamaica and was working as an executive chef of a hotel group. It was one of the best times I ever had, because I didn't have the stress of owning the restaurant. When I returned to London, I had spent nearly three years in Jamaica and everything had changed again. It was easier; you had places popping up like Rum Kitchen and Turtle Bay. When they reached out to me to do some consulting, it was a no-brainer, because I literally knew exactly what they wanted.
What do you enjoy about being executive chef at Turtle Bay?
I'm privileged to be able to educate so many British people about Caribbean food. To know that more than three million people will enter our doors in a year to taste the food that I create – this for me is one of my biggest achievements. If you have one restaurant in London, you're only reaching a few people, but now I'm communicating with people all over England and Wales and giving them a taste of how I grew up. We have 600 chefs in the company and I travel the whole length and breadth of the country just to meet the chefs.
What ingredients are you excited about working with on a mass scale?
The ackee, which is the national fruit and vegetable of Jamaica. It's like a vegan scrambled egg. When you taste this thing, you cannot believe it's a fruit. Callaloo is a type of green and we steam it down with coconut milk, onions, spring onions, fresh thyme and scotch bonnet pepper.
Also, I made this rum barbecue sauce for our new menu and I catch people taking shots of it in the kitchen.
Your new menu is 40% plant-based and and a few of the dishers are allergen free. What does that mean?
We're trying to remove all the allergens from the food. We're stuck with gluten and there's a few bits of whipped cream, but we don't use butter. It's challenging to find a supplier who can supply gluten-free flour to 48 restaurants and be consistent, but we're pushing for this so that we can just say you can drink and eat responsibly in our brand.
What's it like on a bottomless brunch day at Turtle Bay?
So cool! The kitchen is crazy busy because we are very responsible and make sure that we give the guests enough food so they take longer to get drunk! In a busy weekend, we can do 500 to 800 covers in some restaurants, so we probably do 1,500 on the weekend in one restaurant. There is a strategy to this madness.
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