Ignite 2019, Chef Simeon Hall‘s signature summer event sought to showcase the culinary talents of 12 local and international chefs in tandem with expressions of Bahamian life through its colourful cuisine, culture, music and art.
The challenge would have the chefs prepare mouthwatering meals for guests before their eyes, without the conveniences of electricity, gas and modern equipment, transporting attendees to periods of yesteryear where these methods were commonplace among our ancestors in food preparation.
Nearly 200 persons found the concept sufficiently alluring, yet with a touch of obscurity, to venture out. The venue for the evening was picturesque Villa Doyle in Nassau, Bahamas. Built in the 1860s and the home of the Bahamas’ first Chief Justice, the property was later acquired by the Bahamian government and restored as the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB).
Considering the cultural component promised by event organizers, the grounds of the NAGB were appropo. At the appointed time, guests arrived at wrought iron gates, were checked in during a seamless process and directed to Fiona’s Theatre, the Gallery’s outdoor amphitheater. Keeping our seats warm, proverbially speaking, were brown paper bags of room temperature popcorn which we sampled during the cultural component of the evening.
With temperatures in the mid-90s and heat index in the 100s, the tropical fruit iced beverage was surely a welcomed drink providing a reprieve from the sun’s scorching rays which blazed through the triangle sun sail shades above us.
To the beat of a single drum, a storyteller from Ubuntu decked out in a two-piece Junkanoo costume shared Bahamian folklore while servers passed various treats to the crowd assembled.
The first was an iteration of a childhood favourite, ‘salty sausage’. Rather than the thinly-sliced smoked salami placed in a baggie (plastic sandwich bag) and smothered with hot sauce, the hotter the better, we feasted on spiced sausage made from donkey meat. I was amazed by the fact that I was eating donkey and found the meat to be leaner compared to the higher fat ratio of pork salamis. The pepper sauce also provided a necessary heat to the snack.
Crispy plantain chips served with papaya salsa made the rounds as the tempo switched to a playful upbeat segment of song and dance by vibrant entertainer Bodine. The bright flavour of the salsa was a perfect match to the colourful and provocative lyrics and innuendo filled Bahamian music.
Oil-laden, cholesterol raising fritters were also shared which I opted out of.
Still not entirely certain as to what was to come, guests were ushered away from the amphitheater and to the grassy area of the gallery. On the stroll, we got the first views of the mechanisms used to cook the food we would partake of. These included a four-tier vertical smoker filled with chicken pieces.
Horizontal grill grates were covered with lamb, pork and goat and basted with a herb brush.
There was also the largest frying pan contraption I’d ever seen. Picture a six-foot tripod with a bowl suspended nearer to the base filled with coal. This is where the fritters and fish were fried.
We would dine at 16-seat tables with tablescapes composed of sea grape branches, coconut husks and driftwood with ambient lighting provided by kerosene lanterns. Though I had not seen a rock oven, I almost expected a basket of freshly baked bread to be placed on the table to prime us for the meal ahead. This was not to be. We were advised that the meal was buffet style. While awaiting instructions to stand in queue, guests took the time to make new acquaintances and catch up with friends.
Joining the line about 40 minutes after the first table was invited to join, we bided the time it took getting to the front by taking selfies and the like. A cup for soup and dinner plate in hand, we arrived. First things first, salad greens were mounted on the plate, two types, the dressing container had to be tilted to the side in order for the mini ladle to capture sufficient vinaigrette to coat the salad. Someone further ahead in the line advised that there was no more crab soup to be had. Myself and the persons behind me in line placed our soup cups down a little deflated. As we made our way down the line, we came across two empty bowls with items that had not been replenished. Rather than moving ahead I stopped and requested that they set out to replenish the items on the table. Replacing the empty bowls were what was found to be a couscous-esque salad and potatoes as there were no written descriptions of the food as would be expected. A chef refilled a platter with pieces of pork. The other protein remaining on the line was roasted chicken. Also on the line was corn and bean and rice. Like the crab soup, other missing items from the buffet dinner were the lamb, goat, fried fish and who knows what else as a full menu was not shared.
Seated back at the table I dug in. The vinaigrette on the salad and bean and rice were the highlight of the dish. The couscous-esque salad contained grapes which I liked. The balance of the food was cold, the meats overcooked and practically inedible. The potatoes were undercooked.
Setting my utensils down, it was then I remembered Chef Simeon’s guarantee earlier in the evening that no patron would leave the event hungry and find their way to Bamboo Shack. I was second guessing him at this point and determining the nearest route to the fast-food eatery. Still unsatisfied, we listened as the dessert options were described. The presentation of the desserts were 10 times better than that of the mains.
Served on sea grape leaves and assembled by Chef Erika Cline, there was a scoop of ice cream, brown sticky rice with a candied pepper topping, a brownie piece and a fruit salad. The brownie was the winner on this plate. Guests also had the option of sampling one of three Sun and Ice ice cream flavours topped with a wafer by Chef Wayne Moncur. I was comforted by the guava ice cream.
Ignite 2019 had all the ingredients to be a successful and memorable event. 12 international chefs, a great concept and a gorgeous venue. Unfortunately, there were elements which made for an underwhelming experience.
- Beautiful venue – Once the sun set at Villa Doyle, the temperature become pleasant and the evening more enjoyable.
- Cultural show – The storytelling component by Ubuntu and entertainment by Bodine were quite enjoyable. Live art by artist Allan Pacino is always a great watch.
- Decor – I appreciated the use of local flora in the tablescapes.
- Appetizers – I loved the plantain chips and papaya salsa. The donkey sausage was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.
- The pleasant servers.
- Meeting new people and socializing with a familiar ones.
- The concept conveyed having food prepared before our eyes. With the exception of meat being grilled, there was no other food preparation that took place. The desserts were assembled on the sea grape leaves and ice cream scooped up in our presence however.
- Not being served a plated meal considering the price point for the experience.
- Standing in a buffet line for extended periods. If buffet was the only option, perhaps having multiple stations to accelerate the service would have been favourable.
- Missed opportunity for interacting with the 12 chefs, seeing them in action and being party to artistic style plating.
- Having no labels on food items or having someone stationed to share what was being offered in addition to which chef may have contributed the dish.
- During the dinner, the bar ran out of glasses so one had to hold on to their existing one in order to get new drinks.
- Entertainment during the dinner was lacking; there could have been some live music or at the very least a DJ.
- Not made aware of specialty drinks.
- Obstructed view of the screen display by some tables .
- Leaving the event hungry.
- Not planning sufficient amount of food for confirmed guests, especially the crab soup which I heard from multiple persons was pretty good. If there was a limited supply, perhaps there should have been servers on the buffet line to manage distribution.
- Meeting empty containers on the buffet line and having to make requests to have them refilled rather than a member of the culinary team keeping watch and making the call themselves.
- Cold food, undercooked potatoes.
- The food was flavourless with the exception of the bean and rice.