“I literally got here and the first two weeks, everybody quit.” Despite this challenging start to becoming Momofuku Seiobo’s executive chef, Paul Carmichael has since scored many awards (both Gourmet Traveller and Time Out named him Chef of the Year) and he’s been called one of the world’s greatest chefs by his boss, David Chang. The restaurant has received two glowing reviews in The New York Times and been ranked as one of the best places to eat in the world by Besha Rodell in Food & Wine.
Paul isn’t about basking in the acclaim, though. “You’ve got to become comfortable with failing,” Paul says. “We’d make something, it’d be shit.” Then, after a lot of work, it becomes great.
At Momofuku Seiobo, he’s created a one-of-a-kind menu that reflects his upbringing in Barbados. The food is also a way to represent the Caribbean, which people often reduce to holiday-spot stereotypes. “I feel like the way they talk about it, they talk about it like a club,” he says. For Paul, it’s his life – not a gimmicky theme – so throughout the podcast, we talk about dishes from the region: like coucou, which his mother makes with a special stick that’s older than Paul; and roti that originated in India and ended up in Trinidad – which he grew up eating as a kid. A lot of these dishes have travelled.
“It had an origin somewhere, but this is where it ended up being,” he says, “The Caribbean is 500 years of fusion. Maybe that should be the name of my book.” Migration and colonisation also shaped the cuisine – as did slavery, which isn’t as far into the past as we’d like to think.
The chef doesn’t want to “elevate” dishes that have generations of history, but also show that you can present a dish that’s rice and vegetables and prove how it can belong in one of the city’s top restaurants. “It looks like a pile of goop – but there’s so much that goes into it,” he says.
“I love cooking food that is comforting. People would ask, ‘what’s your cooking style?’ I’m like: ’it’s my mum with knife skills’,” he says.
Paul also talks about how people still turn up to Seiobo thinking it’s a Japanese restaurant (five years after Paul introduced his Caribbean menu), how he lived off supermarket specials while Seiobo was closed during the lockdown, using “mum tricks” to stretch Seiobo’s budget in its current COVID-adapted incarnation (where staff wear face masks in the colours of the Barbados flag). We also talk about his favourite budget meal, what to order at his favourite Chinese restaurant – as well as tougher topics: like having to deal with blatant racism and the cops pulling a gun on him just for asking for directions. We also cover the media pressure of taking over a highly acclaimed restaurant, too.
This podcast was recorded last year, but is especially relevant now with Momofuku Seiobo announcing its last service for late June. I loved talking to Paul on this episode, I hope you enjoy this podcast, too.
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