Chef Brian Lumley & fiancé Mishonie Swack. Photo Cred: The Jamaica Observer
Google ‘Brian Lumley’ and you’ll find both the British fantasy author and the Jamaican culinary prodigy. Interestingly, both are shaping narratives in their own right, with fiction and the food scene as their respective canvases. For the latter, years of gastronomic globetrotting earned him his latest title, Executive Chef at District 5 in Kingston, Jamaica. The sky is truly the limit for Lumley at his swank, Skydeck eatery which recently ranked on Eater.com’s ‘29 Essential Restaurants in Kingston.’ He’s wasted no time-making award-winning moves despite the global standstill. In July, only 7 months into existence, the restaurant won the Observer Food Award for Best Sunday Spot, adding to Lumley’s decorated profile, which includes the coveted Caribbean Chef Of The Year Award.
Before taking off to Qatar for advanced training in 2015, the plucky Capricorn scored another feat from the marquis event. As the then owner-chef of 689, Lumley took home Observer Food’s Best Restaurant in Social Media trophy that year. It’s clear that the chef’s chops and his charm are a mealtime magnet.
Before our interview, Lumley spent the morning at the farmer’s market sourcing the foods and meeting with the folks that keep his kitchen running. He’s already asked about the day’s reservations by the time he sits down in comfy slacks – pens and a red Sharpie pinned to his chef’s jacket sleeve. Equal parts passionate and perfectionist, Lumley’s trademark, even now, is adding a personal touch.
In this interview, I ask the chef about creating connections in socially distant times, his obsession with documenting the region’s gastronomy, and find out whether he’s a Merlot or Moscato man at heart.
1. How would you describe Jamaican cuisine?
How I view Jamaican cuisine is just like our motto: Out Of Many One People. All the groups that have passed through Jamaica during different eras – French, Spanish, etc – have contributed to the melting pot. Our job as culinary professionals is to ensure we don’t lose our identity. It will change with the times, and you’re going to have a new modern Jamaican cuisine, but whatever shape or form it takes, do not lose the Jamaican identity of it. My job is to create a product that locals recognize but present in a different format, while that same dish would still be identifiable to a traveler, so both can appreciate the cuisine. An example of this is our merger dish, Oxtail Cannelloni.
So I view Jamaican cuisine as one that is so rich and diverse that it’s untapped, we haven’t sophisticated or documented it enough. There’s room to adapt with the times.
2. What are the top 3 things you learned on your travels that you’ve applied to make the space the Sunday spot in Kingston?
When I was in Qatar, I realized that people love going out. There’s a lot of expats working in Qatar of various age groups. The kids would go to the club, the adults would go to the rooftops, which is just like a club vibe, but it’s more of a grown experience. I realized a mature crowd is looking for experiences to remember, young people are looking to get wasted. So, I took the fundamentals of that experience: comfort, layout and ease of service, and those were the most important things to people of that demographic. They’re busy people who just want to eat something good and experience something euphoric.
So those are the three elements that I took from my travels and each of these elements worked. It just so happens that the open air works for us especially now that we’re in COVID.
3. The pandemic placed considerable pressure on your industry, yet you’re now being awarded for adding social value in such wild times. Was this one of your goals coming into the venture?
Well to answer your question directly, there was a lot of uncertainty when developing this concept. I came in when there was no restaurant, they had just renovated the kitchen and they brought me in to really put some life into it. When I came in, the pandemic had hit and the Board of Directors were going through the pivoting phase and asking “Why put more money into this?”
They were hoping to just “ride out” the pandemic; I was not into that mentality, I was like ‘this is a significant opportunity to hit the ground running’, and we had debates about it.
I told them, ‘Give me what I need and let me make it happen. If I fail, then it’s on me. But I will not fail.’ The restaurant experience from before was a huge asset, back then I was figuring it out. Now I knew exactly what to do. The first thing to do was to seek the opportunity out of the panic. I know my following and I know what they want.
I told the board that everything is shut down and while there’s a significant loss for some people, other industries are rising. Those people have a significant amount of disposable income and can afford to dine out, so you’re missing a significant opportunity. Once I was able to present that, that’s when they got the confidence in the Sunday Brunch concept. One thing I learned from my travels, give people value.
Ackee & Saltfish Springrolls (Photo Cred: Instagram)
4. Who’s your favourite Jamaican musician (living or dead) and what dish would you prepare for them if you met them?
One of my favourite dancehall artists is Vybz Kartel, but I wouldn’t cook for him. I don’t know if he’s a foodie like that. Who I also like and have tremendous respect for is Beres Hammond but because of his battle with illness, I don’t know what he’d eat or what I’d cook for him.
For that question, the person I choose might not be a foodie and it makes us as chefs happy if the person is a foodie and would eat anything. They may only be into one thing or not that into food, and to romanticize the idea is not that pleasant (laughs). I don’t know of any artist that I respect that really loves food like that, not to my knowledge. I have tremendous respect for Jamaican artists, however.
5. What’s the best dish you ate in the last country you visited?
When I was in Qatar, I went to a restaurant called COYA. They have amazing ceviche, a Peruvian cuisine. I loved it so much that I learned to make it. It took me three months to learn the recipe, I researched heavily and just tried until I finally got it.
6. What’s your fondest childhood memory of food/ dining?
One of my favourite foods growing up, I used to make my own pizza. I used bread, spread with tomato sauce, mince the franks, fry it up, put the grated Tastee cheese, some herbs, it was beautiful. I used to make this dish every chance I got after school.
7. What’s in Brian Lumley’s fridge?
A lot of greens. A lot of salad. Pak choi, herbs. In the freezer, so there’s like prepped meats, so salmon, lobster, shrimp, chicken, hotdogs.
8. 689’s menu included Curry Chicken Spring Rolls and Jackfruit Cheesecake. District 5’s menu features Ackee and Saltfish Spring Rolls and the famous Oxtail Lasagna turned Oxtail Cannelloni. What inspires your menus?
What inspires my menus is the drive to define our [Jamaican] cuisine. I’m fully dedicated to putting Jamaican cuisine on the map to showcase that we’re more than just Jerk Chicken, Curry Goat and Oxtail. I know that Caribbean cuisine is an untapped area, more so Jamaican cuisine. The Jamaican brand is very popular, reggae music is played all over the world and I’m hoping that within my lifetime Jamaican cuisine will be trending in the same way Peruvian is carrying the swing right now.
9. If you could eat at any Michelin star restaurant in the world, where would it be?
(laughs) There’s so many I would eat at! I’d love to eat at one in every country. One is Per Se in New York. Also in New York is Eleven Madison Park. In France, I’d eat at Alain Ducasse. He changed his entire restaurant menu to vegetarian, and I’m amazed he was able to do that and still maintain three Michelin stars. I thought that was just insane! Joël Robuchon, I’d love to eat at his restaurant in Vegas. Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin also. I would eat at one of my mentors, Gordon Ramsay’s place in Britain. Gaggan Anand, he has the number one restaurant in Thailand. I can go on and on! If I could make a career out of eating at restaurants for the rest of my life, I’d definitely do that, or be a consultant for Jamaican cuisine. That’s my ultimate dream.
10. And lastly, answer these ‘this or that’ questions:
Steakhouse or Cookout?
Steakhouse. I love a good steakhouse. Unless it’s that annual Cayman Cookout event that had Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Alain Ducasse, if it’s that one, then I’d go with a cookout. Otherwise, I’d say Steakhouse. I love steak.
Merlot or Moscato?
Coffee or Hot Chocolate?
Both actually, I like them mixed. I always put hot chocolate and nutmeg in my coffee.
Thanks a lot, Chef Lumley, all the best!
District 5 at the R Hotel is located at 2 Renfrew Road in Kingston.
Sasha Lee is a Jamaican writer who has too many interests, and credits in both journalism and fiction. Her work has appeared in DancehallMag.com, Ellipsis Zine, Sublunary Review and LEON Literary Review, among others. Among her creative endeavors is a monthly column entitled “The Last Bite” – where she shares a slice of paradise in food and music reviews – for MixedMag.co. She can be found on Twitter @ohsashalee.