“In the West Indies and the Caribbean, we cook on instinct”

Chef Béatrice Fabignon is one of the major ambassadors of French overseas cuisine, from Martinique to Guadeloupe, through to French Guyana, Réunion and Tahiti. She’s a self-taught 39-year-old who learned the trade by observing her West Indian parents in the kitchen. We meet this passionate woman who, in addition to devising some of the best recipes for curry and cod addicts, launched the first overseas trophy for table service (‘arts de la table’) in June 2018.

You achieved your success quite late, without formal training. Where did you learn to cook?

In my family. During my childhood, uncles, aunts and cousins met every Sunday, one way or another, for lunch. We were easily 10 or 12 around the table and we’d spend the day there. In the West Indies, when we prepare a meal, we get there the day before – even sometimes the day before that. And we don’t do things by halves. We make several starters, a meat dish and a fish dish, and an array of desserts. And everyone comes. I always loved those experiences. I’m also very greedy...

You are an ambassador of overseas cuisine. How would you define it?

It’s a cuisine that takes time, is thoughtful and gives pride of place to seasoning and spices. Overseas, you don’t buy a chicken joint to cook it straight away, out of its packaging. Meat is marinaded the day before with spices, so that the flavour penetrates the flesh. And it’s cooked with an onion, garlic, parsley. In short, we ‘pamper’ the meat!

Is it a cuisine that always uses spices?

Yes – but it’s not always spicy. When you use cardamom or cloves, you give incredible flavours to your dishes, but you don’t set your mouth on fire eating them. In metropolitan France, spices and chillies are often confused.

What’s your favourite dish to cook?

I couldn’t choose one favourite – I love everything. I like making a pork colombo curry as well as fricassés or dombrés – small balls made with flour, water, salt and a little oil, cooked in a consommé of red beans or lentils. But there are recipes that everyone loves. Accras, for example, or Tahitian raw fish. Black pudding is very popular too – but it’s a long process to make. It takes a full day of work.

When you’re in the kitchen, do you follow recipes to the letter?

Not at all – I cook with instinct, with intuition. It’s better not to have your eyes permanently glued to recipe books. That’s normal in the West Indies. Most locals have plenty of recipe books, with laminated covers, tidily displayed in their cabinets. But they almost never use them! That doesn’t mean they cook at random, though. Just that they have the know-how, the quantities and the ingredients in their head. I’m currently putting the finishing touches to a supplement for the daily France-Antilles, which will be released for the Christmas holidays. Ironically, it’s now me – who hates recipes – writing recipes for others!

You have launched this year’s first Caribbean Tableware Trophy. What does this entail?

There are already plenty of cooking competitions overseas, but what was missing was an event to recognise and promote table service. When you go to a restaurant, your food has to look good on the plate – but it also has to be served with flourish. The ambition of the trophy is to highlight both young people in training and practising professionals. The competition has seven categories: reception, table dressing, poultry carving, cocktail making, wine decanting, flower arranging and the preparation of a plate of exotic fruits.

Where does the competition take place?

The first stage took place in Martinique in June 2018. The trophy will then stop in Guyana in February, in Réunion in April and then in Guadeloupe in August, etc. This is a travelling competition. All the laureates – students in training and practising professionals – will then meet for a grand finale in Paris.

The French West Indies