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Creole no more fine cuisine not cutting it with locals
Three years ago, master chef Khalid Mohammed set out to take local creole cuisine into a fine dining setting with the establishment of his restaurant Chaud Creole, on Nook Avenue, in St Ann’s. The menu featured an array of succulent gourmet dishes like burnt sugar stewed pork, black pudding en croute, provision risotto and dasheen bush fondue. Established as a spin-off to his first restaurant Chaud which opened in 2008, Chaud Creole was never able to pick up momentum in the way that Mohammed expected. Last week, he announced that he would be closing the restaurant and converting it into an event venue—a decision that must have shocked many who have come to regard Mohammed as one of T&T’s top chefs. When the T&T Guardian caught up with him earlier this week in a telephone interview, the cuisinier said the ultimate reason for the decision was that Chaud Creole was not attracting enough customers. The explanation for this, he said, was simple. Restaurant-goers continue to see creole cuisine as “home food;” not something worth going out to eat. The decision has come as a major disappointment to Mohammed, since he saw Chaud Creole as the first and only original idea of his career thus far. In 2010, after notable success on the local culinary scene, he decided it was time to open a restaurant that celebrated T&T’s indigenous flavours and introduced creole food as something gourmet. But it seems customers had a hard time grasping this concept. “People didn’t support the idea,” he said, “Forget the business part of it. The concept, I thought was great. I felt we didn’t celebrate creole food and I felt that I needed to be the chef to change that. But people still don’t see creole food as something special enough for fine dining.”
This is Mohammed’s first major blow in his culinary career and at the moment he says has no plans to take on a similar venture anytime soon. The 43-year-old chef told the T&T Guardian that for as long as he could remember, he had an interest in cooking and he spent much of his childhood observing his mother in the kitchen. This interest was further stimulated by frequent family trips to parts of Europe and North America which exposed him to some fine dining restaurants. But it took a while before he saw cooking as a viable career option. “Back in my day, having a passion for food didn’t mean that you were going to become a chef,” he said. “I was cooking from an early age with my mother but I didn’t really see it as a career until much later on. Back then, there was no Food Network with any of these cooking programmes and competitions to inspire you.” Despite the limited encouragement, when Mohammed left school he started a small catering business out of a relative’s home where he would take orders and prepare lunches before delivering to them to customers.
With no formal training, he was preparing and selling around 100 lunches each day. The success of the business caught the attention of his father who agreed to allow him to start his training at the French Culinary Institute in New York at the age of 23. “That is when it moved away from being just a love for food, when I went and walked into a professional kitchen and saw all these chefs in uniform. Working in a big commercial cooking and learning all the rules of the culinary profession made me realise that cooking was a real process.” There, Mohammed received a diploma in culinary arts with a specialisation in classical French cooking. He graduated valedictorian before being invited back to the school to serve as an assistant chef instructor for two years. Soon after, he secured jobs at well-known restaurants such as L’Ecole, Cafe du Pont and Flavors in New York before returning to the French Culinary Institute in 1997 to complete a classic French pastry programme.
After six years abroad, he returned to T&T and took up a job as executive chef at the Crews Inn Lighthouse Restaurant in Chaguaramas, where he spent two years learning the ropes of the local restaurant industry. It was here that his name began creating a buzz but it was at the Battimamzelle Restaurant in Cascade that he really established a place for himself in the local culinary world. As the head chef there, Mohammed was able to gather a large following, while gaining experience as a hands-on culinary professional. “That is where I really started to grow as a chef. I got to purchase the food, talk to the suppliers, hand-pick my staff, and cook what I wanted. I made a name for myself locally by being fully involved in the day-to-day aspect of things.” In 2007, he left Battimamzelle and began work on his own restaurant, Chaud, which opened in January 2008 at its Queen’s Park West location. His goal was to establish what would be the best fine dining restaurant in Trinidad known for “impeccable service, exquisite ambiance and of course, great food.”
Chaud quickly picked up steam and became well known for its impressive and diverse menu that presented a unique blend of Caribbean and European culinary styles. Mohammed said although Chaud is almost six years old, he continues to tweak and make additions to the menu, as he tries to keep up to date with what’s going on in the culinary world. He believes a large part of the restaurant’s success is owed to its prime location, as it overlooks the open greenery of the Savannah. “Our location is amazing,” he said. “To me, the Savannah is such a landmark in Trinidad. There’s always so much going on there and it means so many things to different people. I think customers appreciate that they can look outside and really soak in the beauty around them.” Added to this, the restaurant’s interior design features high ceilings, massive open windows, art work displays and hues of brown and green that Mohammed says create an undeniably Caribbean feel. Chaud quickly picked up popularity largely by word-of-mouth advertising and continues to be a top choice for those looking for a night out.
But things weren’t as easy when Chaud Creole opened. He said while there was a good response soon after its launch, customer numbers dwindled after a while and were largely inconsistent. “Most of our customers were foreign visitors or local business representatives hosting international visitors,” he said. “The support from locals simply wasn’t there.” Three weeks ago, after months of consideration, he finally made the decision to close Chaud Creole’s doors. Now that it is closed, Mohammed plans to use the space as a venue that can be rented for luncheons, dinners or parties with catering provided by Chaud. He’s currently thinking of a new name for the spot and is hinting at the possibility of it being Chaud at Nook Avenue. The Chaud Creole kitchen will now be converted into his main space for all his catering jobs. He sees this as a silver lining of sorts, since his catering business is booming and he can maximise use of the space to lighten his workload and improve their catering capacity.
Asked whether he is considering taking up the Chaud Creole venture sometime in the future, Mohammed said it’s unlikely. “Maybe if I tried it again it would be in another country. I’ve never really been in a situation where something I tried didn’t work. This is really the first time I think I’m facing failure in my career but I’ll continue to come up with other concepts and keep trying.” For now, he remains focused on improving Chaud and ensuring that it remains one of T&T’s top fine dining restaurant. He is also considering the possibility of expanding another venture of his—Chaud Cafe. Chaud Cafe, located at One Woodbrook Place, is a coffee house and nighttime wine bar which he says could soon have other branches around the country. But Mohammed has by no means given up on local cuisine. He plans to continue to integrate it into his servings at Chaud. “I love our food. I think that we have a great and diverse culture that is reflected in our cuisine. I’m inspired by our food. Maybe someday people will catch on and realise that. “Who knows? It might take a foreign franchise to come here and make people value creole food as something special.”
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