Brasserie follows tradition with caboose

The days of food from the caboose are back.

In its continuing effort to embrace Caymanian culinary traditions, the Brasserie built a caboose – a form of traditional barbecue grill – last summer.

Caymanian Mackie Powell gave the Brasserie team technical advice on building the caboose and gave them a bit of its history as well.

“Cabooses were common in Cayman, right up to the 1950s and 1960s,” he says. “Even up to the 70s a few were used in East End.”

Unlike modern barbecue grills, cabooses are made of wood. They were kept outside, sometimes in a covered outbuilding with a roof, but quite often right outside the kitchen. For that reason, most older Caymanian homes have doors leading out from the kitchen.

Powell said his family didn’t have a caboose when he was growing up.

“Only well off people had them in those days,” he said, adding, however, that some of his relatives did have a caboose.

The caboose works much like a modern uncovered barbecue grill, except that it has a six-inch layer of sand on the bottom to prevent the base from burning. In addition, hardwood – quite often logwood – is used instead of charcoal.

“Logwood is very hard and it burns with not much smoke,” Powell says, adding that woods from sea grape and other fruit trees can also be used.

Brasserie Executive Chef Brad Phillips said sheets of aluminium were nailed to the inside sides of the new caboose to help protect it from burning. Back in the old days, Caymanians would just use the caboose until its wood got too charred and then they’d build a new one.

Once the Brasserie’s caboose was built, Phillips and the Brasserie team gave it a trial run with some East Enders who knew what caboose cooking was all about. The restaurant then unveiled the caboose to the public during its Harvest Dinner in December.

Since then, it has been used during the 2011 Cayman Cookout “Garden to Table with Dean Max” cooking demonstration in January and for the Slow Food event at Joel Walton’s Plantation House in February.

“It’s really for special events,” Phillips says, adding that it will be used next for the Harvest Dinner on 24 March.

During the first Harvest Dinner, Powell cooked Cayman-style stew beef on the caboose. He says that traditionally, hearty dishes cooked in cast iron pots or pans – like stew beef for fried fish – were cooked over the open flames; delicate dishes, like breads and cakes were cooked over wood coals after the flames died off.

Phillips said that the sweet potatoes served at the December Harvest Dinner were also cooked on the caboose.

“We just moved the fire over a little and put them right in the sand,” he says, noting that the sweet potatoes were buried in the sand without being wrapped in foil first.

For the Cayman Cookout demonstration, Phillips cooked fried snapper and fish tea, one of the traditional dishes cooked on a caboose. He made fish tea on the caboose again the following month at the Slow Food event, and this time it came out even better.

“For that event, the fish tea was on the caboose for about six hours, so it got some of that smokey flavour,” he says.

Phillips also prepared fish and curried chicken tacos on the caboose for the Slow Food event, making the coconut flat bread – which the Brasserie serves during its Thursday night taco nights – right on the caboose’s grill. The resulting smokiness of the tacos made them a hit with guests.

“Logwood has an almost oaky smell to it, but it also has an oceany quality to it,” Phillips says.

Every time the Brasserie has used the caboose, when the wood burns down to just coals, Phillips says someone puts a breadfruit on the coals.

“I’m not sure where it comes from; it just mysteriously appears,” he says. “Breadfruit is just one of those things that is good to cook on a caboose.”