Born and raised on the tiny island of Barbados, Momofuku Seiōbo chef Paul Carmichael is the middle child of three boys, who grew up in a family of musicians and cooks. Central to this were his parents, Pearson and Orlyn who, “after being married for 52 goddamn years, are basically the same person,” Carmichael laughs.
“I didn’t grow up in a family who used recipes. My family were ‘feel cooks’ – intuitive," he adds. "The reason why I cook food influenced heavily by where I’m from is that I don’t want that stuff to be lost. I want people to understand what the food of my region really is… and that it could easily die.”
“Being three boys in our family, my mum used to say, ‘I want you guys to be 100 per cent self sufficient and not buy into the idea that you need a woman to do things for you… that’s not what women are for.’ So she taught us to cook, sew, clean up after ourselves, learn how to keep a garden… To this day I still know how to hem my own pants (I may not always want to, but I can!).”
"I want you guys to be 100 per cent self sufficient and not buy into the idea that you need a woman to do things for you."
“As far as a food upbringing, I was that kid that as soon as I could walk, I gravitated towards the kitchen. Mum would tell me that I would climb out of my crib at night and go to the kitchen and start pulling pots and pans out of the cupboards… they’d wake up to things clanging on the floor and it’d be me.”
Picking up on the hint, Paul’s mum gave him a chair at the kitchen table and let him be involved. “I know she has pictures of me cooking bacon and eggs at three. I know that’s probably frowned upon these days, but it was always something I loved to do as far as I could remember.”
In the Carmichael household, food was central to commerce as well as culture. “Saturdays were a huge cook for my grandmother,“ he shares. “She made a lot of food to sell, but then Sundays were all about a huge family feast.” A typical Sunday lunch featured dishes like macaroni cheese pie (a favourite), chicken (stewed or fried depending on its age), roasted meat (usually pork), as well as lamb’s tongue, boiled and pickled with cucumbers.
"The reason why I cook food influenced heavily by where I’m from is that I don’t want that stuff to be lost."
“The first thing I ask my mum to make when I go back to Barbados is cassava bakes with salted cod and an egg for breakfast. The cassava is sweet/savoury, with crispy bits around the edges. That, with the salty cod and a sunny egg, it’s so good! I thought about putting it on the menu at Seiōbo, but it isn’t as good as Mum’s so I won’t do it!”
For Paul, some of the most important memories of his mum and food were cooking for strangers. “My mum is a die-hard Samaritan. You know that phrase ‘orphan’s Christmas’? Mum would invite people to our Christmas table who had no homes, elderly people with no family, anyone who needed a meal,” he recalls. “Mum also cooked a lot for the church, like huge functions. I remember as a kid, sitting out in the yard scaling, gutting and butterflying 500 goddamn flying fish!”
“But I never remember whinging about it. Back then, it was like ‘let’s get this done before it gets dark. It’s that sort of thing I did with my mum that I only now look back on and see how much I learned.”
It’s this lesson in generosity both of spirit and hospitality that continues to fuel Carmichael’s approach to food, filled with great humour and a whole lot of soul.