Homemade talks to the former model turned cook who says Creole food is much more than jerk chicken, rice and peas
Creole food is true soul food, incorporating Caribbean flavours with a French twist. Vanessa Bolosier explains why it's the best kind of family food.
Born in Guadeloupe, Vanessa's cooking style is heavily influenced by her homeland as well as her father’s native Martinique. She gained a following after moving to London in October 2005, having started cookery classes from late 2011 for friends and January 2012 for the public.
Her passion led her to start a supper club, which has become so popular she now has to run it as a pop-up eaterie (she runs private classes every two to three months). “Everyone who came and cooked with me said they had no idea Caribbean food was that good or that easy,” Vanessa says.
She's just released her first book, Creole Kitchen, (hardback, Pavilion, RRP £25). We asked her about Creole cooking for beginners and why you should always cook with the music on.
Tell us a bit about your cooking philosophy.
"I’m not a chef. This is a recipe book, but there are no rules. I believe in cooking for your own taste. My cooking style is really laid-back: just me in the kitchen, music ... just trying things."
What defines Creole cooking?
"Creole cooking is a very interesting concept because it can be found in so many places. There are common points between all of those places – it means we were all at some point colonised by the French and ultimately it means we’re sort of linked. For example, in Mauritian cooking there's a tradition of flambéing things with alcohol, which is very French, and you find that in most Creole cooking."
What are the staple dishes of French Creole cooking?
"Saltfish fritters, which are deep-fried dough made with salted cod. Also, you need to be able to make Colombo curry, no matter what meat you use. It features a specific spice mix – cumin seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, clove and garlic powder – brought over by the indentured Indian population when they moved to the Caribbean in the 19th century.
"Other recipes that Caribbean cooks need to master are fish court bouillon – a tomato-based dish with poached fish – and also flambéd bananas."
How has your background influenced your cooking style?
"The childhood I had was a really good one: my dad became a teacher but kept up this tradition of food. My mum came from a wealthy background and only started cooking when she met my dad – she'd make fancier, more European stuff. Dad liked African-inherited recipes such as one-pot stews, in contrast to the more Indian and European side with my mum.
"Growing up, we understood food. We knew how to kill a chicken as well as prepare it and cook it. My understanding of food was a good one because I learned about how it grows seasonally – for example with avocados. You suddenly have 200 at once and you have to be creative.
"From my parents, I have a vision across both islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, and I feel really lucky that I could have that mix and understand food from when you plant it to when you harvest it and how to work with it from scratch.
"In Guadeloupe, everything happened in the kitchen. There were always guests coming through and offering to help. Family was important, celebration was important. It wasn't just about the food. It’s cultural. It’s a lifestyle."
Why did you move to London?
"I lived in Paris before as a model and the market in France wasn't great for me, so I thought let me move to London and see what will happen there. I ended up modelling for a year, and then went into publishing, got a job and stayed.
"I always cooked. Living in London is so diverse, and you end up cooking food from where you're from – it's a way to reinforce your identity when faced with so much diversity.
"Each time I went home I would bring back loads of stuff. There's no link between Britain and the French Caribbean, so I would come back with two suitcases full of rum and spices and bring them to colleagues, friends and flatmates.
"From there, I started a website that became a business – showing people what to do with the ingredients, teaching cookery classes. I felt a bit frustrated at not finding food beyond jerk chicken and rice and peas, and it’s a shame that Caribbean food is always narrowed down to that. It became a supper club at my flat. The more people who discover the foods, the happier I am.
"There are no Creole dining spots here. I have never found anywhere to go eat the food that I cook."
What three ingredients are essential in your kitchen?
"1. Garlic. 2. Chilli: habanero, Scotch bonnet, whatever. Even if I’m doing carbonara, I have to have chilli in it. 3. Lime."
What kitchen gadgets could you not cook without?
"All I need is my one, big, traditional stainless steel pot. I've cooked in the worst conditions with no running water – I just need that pot."
What's your food weakness?
"Anything that has coconut in it! Just say there’s coconut in it and I’m in. And it’s so funny, because my partner is allergic to it. I could have killed him so many times!"
Best piece of cooking advice?
"Try out everything. Taste it. And don’t be scared. My dad used to say you need to taste the food at every stage. And cook it to your own taste. No set rules. Just taste it and make it your own."
Favourite place to eat out?
"There are so many places I like eating at. I love Japanese food. I love African food. My favourite of all is a Nigerian takeaway place in the middle of Peckham – Obalende Suya Express restaurant. I love going there to buy my mixed-meat grill with loads of chilli. When I need comfort, I just go there without thinking."
Biggest food pet peeve?
"I hate it when a recipe doesn’t work. It's just frustrating when you really try and make it good, and it’s not working and you don’t know why."
Top tricks for cooking Creole at home?
"My top tip is to put some music on. If you’re cooking Creole food, you need to be in the vibe. I have a playlist of Creole music and I think it makes the food taste better. Also, cook in comfortable clothes and be chilled about it – I always cook barefoot.
"Make sure you have the right ingredients as well. Going and selecting your ingredients makes a massive difference. It's about finding the right ingredients and cooking to your taste. There's no pressure. You don’t need to follow a recipe line by line."