BAJAN TO DE BONE: Jeffrey the cookshop legend
ON A GOOD day when the aches and pains of age are not gnawing away at his body, an upbeat Jeffrey Austin heads for the kitchen to do what he loves best – cook for himself and anyone else who wants a share.
No longer can he do it at Austin’s Cookshop, the place on James Street in Bridgetown where he honed his skills, but he approaches the task at home with the same kind of fervour as when he faced the heat decades ago in the kitchen of one of Bridgetown’s most popular restaurants.
Now 74 and recovering from an injury suffered in a fall at his Christ Church home, his forays into the kitchen are less frequent.
But Austin’s used to be the place in Bridgetown where lawyers, tailors, hawkers and myriad others who worked in the vicinity of the James Street ate their meals daily.
Bajan rice and beef stew, fried chicken and macaroni pie were hot menu favourites and some of the island’s best known names from the legal scene found themselves at Austin’s as a ritual.
As he reclined at his home in an ornately-carved Bajan mahogany rocking chair, Austin chuckled when he recalled the late National Hero Rt Excellent Errol Barrow, habitually dropping in for his “bowl of beef stew and salt bread”.
For the late Sir Frederick Smith, Austin’s soup was the piece de resistance. “Mr Austin, you have soup?” Smith was said to ask in that distinct voice the minute he walked in and there always had to be copious servings of dumplings. Austin and his staff were mindful that for Smith,“If you don’t have dumplings you don’t have soup”.
Austin and his cook shop is a real Bajan story. Like so many other men of that 50s era in Barbados, he “went to sea” at age 16, braving the ocean to work on a merchant ship.
But after only four years he felt it was time to return home. After all, his father had a business of his own and it made sense to have his son working in it.
Today Austin prides himself at being “a damn good cook” and he credits his father.
With his own son sitting nearby last week and filling in the blanks as told to him by “grandpa”, Austin shared the story behind the restaurant on which he went on to put his own stamp.
Cecil Austin bought the business in 1945 but not directly from the owner. He told his grandson those were the days when the subtle difference between “light skin” and “dark skin” meant the difference between going forward or being forced to stand back. Jeffrey heard from his father how he stood back, while sending forward a white Barbadian solicitor to negotiate the sale of the property to him, by a black Barbadian woman who had refused to sell it to the black Austin. Through his friend Dash the solicitor, the elder Austin managed to secure the business for 1 200 pounds.
He would later purchase the Bank Hall Dash estate property owned by the same solicitor.
Today people describe small eateries as restaurants and there are many around Bridgetown doing a roaring business. But Jeffrey remembers them as cookshops and the challenges of his early days when he did most of the work himself.
First, after working along with his father, he found himself having to rent the business and eventually purchase it when his father decided to move on to other pursuits. Raising the $100 000 was a struggle.
“In those days it was hectic. To get money I had to cook for weddings, dances. It was like coming home and seeing my children, just seeing them in the bed and leaving on mornings early.”
Austin’s doors were open from six in the morning until sometimes as late as seven or eight at night and the proprietor himself did the bulk of the work.
“I remember going to Evelyn Roach and the girls working with me used to go with a basket and collect a hind quarter of beef and the meat would be cut up in small pieces for the beef stew.”
Things had to be in place and hot food ready to be sold when hawkers who plied their trade along Tudor Street, Suttle Street and James Street arrived in Bridgetown from the country early in the morning to do business.
For this particular clientele it was mainly a “cutter” breakfast menu – corned beef cutters, liver cutters, cheese cutters and a “tot” of tea.
Those were the days of the tinsmith, when the milk can was not discarded, but instead a handle was placed on it to facilitate its use for drinking. The “tot” was common particularly in rural households.
“Every morning the hawkers from Busby Alley would come in with their tots for tea. In those days people did not use tea bags. We would make the tea from the loose tea.” Austin’s served tea with fresh cow’s milk.
“We had all the lawyers, especially if they had a case overnight, they would come in for breakfast.”
Again recalling a story from that period, Austin said: “The first time I served a man a tea bag he took the teaspoon and dug out the tea leaves from the bag and asked me ‘wuh kind o’ nastiness you serving me here?”
Austin’s has long been closed as the business climate became more difficult for the proprietor. Long past were the days when he could afford to sell rice and stew for 60 cents like his father did. The spoilage his father avoided in the absence of refrigeration by giving left over food to his hawker clientele at the end of each day was out of the question by the time Austin was running his own show. He was able to invest in refrigeration.
Today when he looks back on his days running his own cooking show, Austin can’t help but remark on the joy he got from cooking for so many people. Bajans love their food and this Bajan loved cooking for them. (GC)