Bajan Rhum Chef
PAUL YELLIN is just not any chef. He’s the Rhum Chef. That means he cooks with rum, but not just any rum – Barbados’s own Mount Gay.
Yellin, speaking with the WEEKEND NATION from his home in the United States, claimed that his involvement came about through a friend who was working at Mount Gay Rum, who asked him for three recipes that would go well with rum for a presentation.
That planted the seed of an idea and since then Paul has made a name for himself as the Rhum Chef working as the corporate chef for Mount Gay Rum.
Born in Barbados, with Black Rock and Brighton Beach as his playground, Yellin is a highly acclaimed chef and author of the popular rum cookbook Infusion – Spirited Cooking and has built a second persona and a subcareer as a culinary rum ambassador/mixologist.
“I started cooking from about age four or six in the kitchen with my mum Sue Yellin. I am not formally trained, but I have worked in some of the best kitchens in hotels and restaurants in Barbados and around the world . . . and with the best chefs available,” Yellin said.
One of those first kitchens was at the Sandy Lane Hotel on the island’s West Coast. He had just got back from London and was bartending at the Waterfront Café, the Careenage.
From there he went on to work with his mentor and friend Larry Rogers at Olives Bistro. As his skills grew he travelled to Paris and Berlin, Jamaica and St Lucia (where he was executive chef of Tikaye Village Resort), London, Toronto, Washington DC, back to Barbados (working at La Mer and also being personal chef for several celebrities on the West Coast) and now Charleston in the United States.
“I am [at this point] here because I have worked my tail off to get here . . . . I have started over so many times . . . and it never gets easier,” Yellin said solemnly.
Paul has consulted and delivered high-end catering for events such as President Obama’s Pre-Inauguration Gala at Union Station, The Barbados Independence Party at OAS Headquarters, the Fourth of July Independence Ceremonies at the Capitol Building and the 40th Anniversary of NASA moon landing at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.
Paul has been featured in Bon Appetite Magazine, New York Times Travel Section, Conde Nast, London Sunday Times, The American Way (American Airlines’ inflight magazine) and in Trip Advisor’s Best Hidden Gem (a feature on Tikaye Village) in 2005.
“What I love about cooking, besides creating memories, is to see the enjoyment on people’s faces and to make them think about what they are eating.”
Yellin is a collector of cookbooks, especially really old ones, and estimated that he owns about 150 to 160. He gets his recipes from his travels, readings and from classic recipes, tweaked to use rum.
He also gets them from historical documents and old cookbooks but his favourite recipes come from talking to older folk . . . West Indians who have lived the history and “know tricks and secrets that aren’t written down”.
His rum-tasty upscale Caribbean cuisine filled with bright, focused and vibrant flavours with multiple textures, visual appeal and enticing aromas won him praise (and a few competitions) from judges and participants alike at the inaugural St Lucia Food And Rum Festival and a recurring role in the Taste of Barbados Food Festival, The Miami Rum Renaissance and the Barbados Food & Wine & Rum Festival since 2010.
He has become the Barbados Tourism Authority’s go-to chef for festivals and events, participating in Aspen Food & Wine, New York Food & Wine and South Beach Food & Wine last year.
Yellin said his favourite ingredients to use, because they work so well together, are fresh seafood, fresh herbs and, yes, aged rum!
But when cooking at home, Yellin said simplicity was the key to bringing out the natural flavours of the freshest ingredients. Who would have guessed that the Rhum Chef likes sandwiches, cereal and Milo: “After you work with food all day, you will find food isn’t what you crave,” he said, laughing.
The former Combermerian (married with kids) said what makes a good chef was a multitasking leader of a team, a manager of people and someone who, realistically, should never give someone a job that they could not do themselves.
The thing he likes least about cooking is working with chefs that make “ungodly messes and expect people to clean behind them”.
Music must always be playing in his Yellin’s kitchen. He says his cooking space is filled with intense action, loud voices, pots banging and clanging but smooth movements of controlled chaos. He admits that he puts pressure on himself every single day and advises that you never get so comfortable that you don’t challenge yourself – “that is when you slip up”!
He says the top three things he looks for when dining out are, one, the meal is prepared the way it is written – if it says grilled, don’t fry it; two, that it is well prepared and well seasoned – nothing is worse than overcooked fish or meat that is too salty or too fresh; and, three, that it comes at optimum temperature – not stone cold or even slightly warm.
The author of a second cookbook to be released this year stresses that in the restaurant business the biggest problem is finding and keeping the right staff. “It is hard to find loyal, dedicated people, and training people takes time and money and resources.”
Yellin thinks that to stay current and keep delivering quality rate higher in the grander scheme of things, and awards are on the bottom rung. And he had much to say about the culinary sector in Barbados.
“There is a lot of local talent . . . but it is unfortunate that hotels would rather invest in foreign chefs than promote local ones. Barbados has some world-class, fantastic restaurants. I think where we fail as chefs and food and beverage managers is [in not insisting] that the Government does more to encourage local farmers to produce more for the country to consume.
“It is expensive to eat out in Barbados and eating home is expensive too. Eighty to ninety per cent of the food is imported . . . . If a country cannot feed its own population . . . what does that say about us and our priorities?”
Yellin is keeping himself busy with new exploits he cannot mention yet, and was home last November to participate in the Barbados Food & Wine And Rum Festival. Whether on Twitter or tweaking rum recipes, Paul also works to popularize Caribbean culture and cuisine internationally by holding cooking demos, cooking classes and rum tastings. His favourite cocktail? Mount Gay XO and fresh coconut water.