Chef Irie Sinclair: Putting an Irie twist pon Di tings
It was quite special to get a chance to catch up with Chef Irie Sinclair and better understand his journey in the culinary industry and what propelled him in this field years ago. I first encountered the Jamaican born chef when he participated in Gout et Saveurs Lakay, a food and spirits festival held in Haiti, I tasted his cuisine and was in awe. Since then I have been keeping up with his latest endeavors through social media. Some may have seen him and rooted for him when he competed on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. Or this may be your first time seeing his name, but he is for sure a Chef to watch and keep up with, and if by chance you have the opportunity to enjoy one of his savory meals don’t hesitate!
Photos provided by Chef Irie Sinclair
CE: Where were you born, where did you grow up?
C I: I am a son of the islands. I was born in Jamaica at the hospital in Kingston and grew up in St. Catherine on Caymanas Estates, a sugar producing company where my dad worked as a bookkeeper and my mother was a seamstress and culinary entrepreneur.
CE: Who influenced your cooking and the type of things you like to make?
CI: My influences are not so much driven by whom but more so by the what. Being from the Caribbean is my biggest drive. I'm inspired to cook the flavors of our region. There are so many cultural elements that provide diversity in all culinary representations. I draw inspiration from all the islands, chefs I’ve worked with, my childhood, and yes of course some from my mother.
CE: What sparks you imagination in the kitchen?
CI: Imagination in the kitchen comes from many things such as a conversation with another chef or friend, watching videos or a cooking program, magazine articles or pictures. Videos and pics from various social media platforms. Oftentimes it can just be a random thought. Creative juices often flow too, when I’m thinking about how to redefine traditional Caribbean dishes I’ve learned how to make over the years. Or simply, the ingredients of the region. Putting an Irie twist pon Di tings.
CE: What some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
CI: Fresh ingredients are always the best to start with. As a chef you come across new ingredients to work with all the time. Which means you get to experiment and play with flavor profiles. But understanding the use of scotch bonnet peppers and other chili peppers is something that interests me. Spices are the next best ingredients. There are so many that you can cook for days coming up with different flavors. Understanding the subtleties and nuanced complexities of spices and herbs is the mark I believe of a good cook. When you have really good quality spices and herbs, your dishes sing beautiful notes.
CE: Can you share a bit of your journey in the industry, and what have been some highlights thus far?
CI: This journey has been more than just an interesting ride since deciding not to continue pursuing architecture as a profession after graduating from University of Florida and enrolling in Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. Being a chef has afforded me the opportunity to cook for some really cool clients - NFL and NBA players, entertainers, families, charities and other various organizations.
My knives, talent and personality have taken me places and allowed me to win awards and organize food events - Thanksgiving food distribution for single moms - to help others through my foundation, Chef Irie’s Food on Fiyah Foundation.
Other highlights include being the host of Taste the Islands, the first Caribbean cooking show to air on American Public Television and also aired on Create TV and PBS affiliates. I’ve been on teams representing Jamaica cooking at the James Beard House and the United Nations building in New York. I became an author when the cookbook for Taste the Islands was published in 2020.
I’ve travelled on invitation to several wine and food festivals including St. Lucia, St. Croix and Haiti. I’ve been invited twice to be the guest chef on Holland America Cruise lines. I competed in Season 6 of the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. I was robbed, lol. Yes, this culinary journey has had many highlights that I’m extremely proud of.
CE: What is the most unusual thing you’ve eaten, what was the experience like?
CI: There are two things that come to mind. One I ate as a kid, the locust fruit or lovingly called Jamaica’s Tinkin toe. The other I ate as an adult after I became a chef when I was traveling in Singapore, Durian. They both stand out because they stink to the highest heavens. You really need a strong stomach and a nose of steel to develop the affinity and palette for either fruit. As a kid you didn’t want to be a wuss around your friends so you ate the Tinkin Toe. A word to the wise, have water close by cause you will choke. Eating Durian by itself was a mental exercise because you really wanted to get past the smell. This didn’t seem a big issue later when I tried it desserts. I must say, it was actually pretty decent. I think I’d love to challenge myself to make something with it in the near future. Yup, call me crazy.
CE: How did the show Taste the Islands come into play, what is the most challenging part (if any) or rewarding part of hosting the show?
CI: After becoming a chef, a dream of being on a cooking show started to invade my thoughts. So when my friend Calibe Thompson and now the show’s producer, contacted me to chat about life and share her idea of the cooking show, I was quickly onboard. Albeit, it took a few years before it became a reality but it did.
The challenging part of doing the show was knowing that it was being produced with a small budget meant that you couldn’t make too many mistakes. By that time I’d already been in front of the camera doing small spots on local TV - NBC6 and Local 10 News - so I had some level of comfort but I quickly realized that I would need more than that to bring the show to life.
With some tutelage and assistance, I got up to speed really quickly. One of the best part of doing the show was understanding how best my personality fit the screen. It felt like it was the natural place to be. The other was that I was making dishes that brought the audience in to learn a little about my Caribbean culture. The non-Caribbean audience learned this by being introduced to ingredients that might not have been familiar to them and it was fun to showcase those ingredients. It was also fun because I too exposed myself to some dishes that were not very familiar to me. I loved doing that show. Maybe one day I’ll get to do another season of Taste the Islands or be the host of a brand new show.
CE: If you had to describe your style in the kitchen what four words would you use?
CI: Laugh and have fun.
CE: You reside in Florida, do you miss home? If yes what do you miss the most?
CI: Most definitely I miss home. Because I only have a few family members there, I don’t visit very often though I had planned on visiting more often before Covid locked us down. I miss the freshness of the food, being able to just lyme and vibe. I miss stopping on the roadside to buy food such as fruits, roast yam and salt fish, cow cod soup, fried fish and bammy, peppered shrimp, pan chicken with bread. I miss a drive out to the country. Mostly though, I miss the people and feeling like you belong.
CE: How would you describe Jamaican cuisine?
CI: Rich, bold, complex, simple, layered, full of attitude and overflowing with culture. The island has 14 parishes which means 14 different interpretations of dishes through flavor, cooking techniques, cooking style, equipment, and presentation.
CE: You participated in Gout et Saveurs Lakay in Haiti, what was your experience like?
CI: Participating in Gout et Saveurs Lakay was an amazing experience. So much so that I’ve done the event now three times. Boy I could tell you stories about what Rhum Barbancourt did to me, lol. It has to be said though that the festival experience can’t be spoken of without mentioning the experience of Haiti itself. She has her bruises and cracks but those seemingly fall away when you get to see more of the country, visit with the people and eat her foods. Haiti is beautiful and so are its peoples. Go learn some things.
I can say that the best part of the festival, each time that I’ve been, was meeting and working with all the chefs that participated and the personnel responsible for putting on the festival. They all made me feel like I was home. Now that’s hospitality. Because of all these folks, I have an endearing spot in my heart for Haiti. She calls me now. I feel like I need to stay a whole month next time I get to go.
CE: Did you have a chance to eat some Haitian food? If yes where and what was your favorite?
CI: Well you certainly shouldn’t be in Haiti and not eat any Haitian food. I sure did. Seeing that I live in South Florida, Hatian food is not uncommon to me, but just like all the islands in the Caribbean, there's something about the food when you are eating it on the island. It’s like your palette curses you for indulging in foods where you live. For me, that’s the US. There’s a fresh and truly organic quality represented in the foods and the dishes that get created with them. Soup Joumou, Griot, Banane, pikliz, Mayi Moulen and Sos Pwa Nwa were some of the usual suspects eaten for sure. I can’t really say I had anything bad to eat there. I just know that because of this interview I will now have to go and find some good Haitian food and some 5 star Rhum Barbancourt. I have stories. Lol.
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