Eating Island Heat
Have you ever felt the sway of a palm tree tickle the roof of your mouth?
Well, neither have I.
But this week’s preview of Taste of the Caribbean, hosted by Chef Theo Gumbs and the talented students at St. Pius X Culinary Institute, led me to believe that such scenes might actually be evoked by a single bite of food.
It’s not like anyone’s ever needed to twist my arm to consider the benefits of a Caribbean séjour, but Gumbs and crew went two steps further: they sparked me to book a trip sooner than I thought, and proved that true tastes of the tropics are alive and well right in our own backyard.
Offering a sampling of May 27th’s Taste of the Caribbean event at Marché Bonsecours, Gumbs and students served up a carefully curated menu fusing techniques, traditions and flavours of several Caribbean regions. Opening with a dense puck of yellow tail snapper topped with a passionfruit vinaigrette, Gumbs showed that fishcakes go far beyond the classic minced haddock variety I grew up eating in Nova Scotia. There was nary a miss on this tight set of courses, receding nicely into a post-modern palate cleanser replete with instructions (“suck on the sugar cane, then slowly taste the liquid”), before, in Gumbs’ words “kicking it up a notch” with a rich and complex chicken breast beurre blanc stuffed with crab and sweet potato gratin.
But the star of this show was the upside-down banana cake. Topped with the woody, unsweetened shavings of a coconut that had been split only hours before, the first few mouthfuls felt like a grandmother’s warm embrace, laced with a suggestive punch of rum.
I was bowled over by the addictive contrasts in this petite dish, considering I had almost abstained—being not usually a fan of desserts right after a meal.
Montrealers will have the opportunity to try hundreds of these flavours under one roof all while helping the city’s underprivileged gain a culinary education. Oh, and (for a few extra bucks) douse their palate with limitless island booze.
Gumbs, who has tussled with Iron Chefs from Cat Cora to Robert Trevino, will be making a repeat appearance in Montreal on May 27 but he won’t be alone. The joyous hall at Marché Bonsecours will also welcome five other guest chefs, as well as a host of local producers and restauranteurs steeped in Caribbean cuisine.
But before I lose you, running off as you now might to this swanky Old Port party, I must also mention the unpretentious St. Pius X Culinary Institute. Housed inconspicuously in the basement of St. Pius X High School on Papineau just north of Sauvé, the Culinary Institute offers full-time and professional-standard culinary training programs … at very accessible rates. This ain’t the French Culinary Institute, where would-be chefs graduate with $33,000 in debt. Instead, the school welcomes people of all economic backgrounds, while competing at high-calibre culinary standards and providing connections to local employment. And most importantly to you eaters out there, they make restaurant-style food at cafeteria prices! For example, a three-course table d’hôte near the end of April was priced at $10.
As for those swaying palm trees, I’m not here to dissuade you from jumping on a plane to the Virgin Islands. But if it’s gastronomical island heat that you seek, your vacation may be only a short metro ride away.
Taste of the Caribbean begins at 2 p.m., Sunday May 27 at Marché Bonsecours (350 St. Paul Rd. E.). All-you-can eat for $50, or and VIP tickets (including early previews and booze) are $125. A portion of proceeds will go towards scholarships for students at St. Pius X Culinary Institute.
To dine at the pocketbook-friendly St. Pius X Culinary Institute, it might be safest to reserve (514-381-5440 or email@example.com ) Lunch: Thursdays and Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.; Supper: Friday 6:30-8p.m._