Hasan De Four is executive chef of fast-casual Caribbean restaurant Baygo. The company, founded by Chris Morris, opened its first site in the City of London in October 2017 with plans to open more restaurants in the future. Hasan, 41, was born in Trinidad, but moved to the UK when he was 18 to train as a chef. After gaining his NVQ he landed a job in catering at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London and stayed in the industry, working in private event catering before taking a hospitality and catering degree at Westminster Kingsway College. He starred in TV series Rhodes Across the Caribbean with Gary Rhodes in 2009 before helping to open Singapore’s first Caribbean restaurant – Lime House – with Chris Morris in 2013. He talks to Hospitality & Catering News about changing perceptions of Caribbean food and what inspired him to become a chef more than 20 years ago.
You opened the first Baygo last October, how is it going?
It’s been well-received so far and we’re busy, but the idea is to really educate people about Caribbean food. Stereotypically, people think Caribbean food is just curry goat, jerk chicken and rice and peas, but we’re proving that it’s more than that and that there are healthier options out there too.
In the Caribbean, especially among the Rastafarians we have something called Ital where you mostly eat plant-based food. Now, here in the UK you see a lot of people eating a vegan or plant-based diet. That’s something we’ve been doing in the Caribbean for years, although many people are unaware.
With summer on its way we have a few vegan salads and smoothies and although people come looking for curry goat (which we have) we serve things like cassava fries – cassava is a healthier fibre – instead of potato fries, and our Power Bowl Salad where we crush sweet potato and plantain and roll them in omega seeds then serve them up with a bean salad and plantain croutons. We also bake, rather than fry things and we try to use locally-sourced products: Our chicken is from the UK and the goat we use in our curry is British goat.
One of the hardest things is knowing how to educate customers. Initially when we were doing the development work for Baygo we realised that we have to not only talk about the food, but educate people about the variety of Caribbean dishes we have available and their nutritional benefits. That was a bit challenging, but I think we’ve achieved it. If you come into the shop you might see a sign saying that we use ackee with details about its nutritional benefits, and Scotch Bonnet chilli which helps raise endorphins.
Caribbean food is often tipped to be ‘the next big thing’, but it hasn’t quite taken off in the UK yet – do you think the time is now?
The time is definitely now. You think back a few years and there weren’t any Caribbean restaurant chains in the UK – now there’s Turtle Bay with more than 40 sites. I also work closely with Grace Foods, who are distributors of Caribbean food products to the main UK supermarkets, and their sales within three supermarkets has seen a 300% increase across some products.
With food trends people often predict fusion foods as being the next big thing, like Tex-Mex. Our food is real fusion and we’ve been doing it that way for over 100 years. We had the food of the native inhabitants, then there was colonisation by the French, Spanish and English who all brought their tastes, then the Africans and East Indians, then the Chinese and Lebanese. The food of the Caribbean is a true melting-pot of flavours and I think now with people exploring food they are beginning to see that there’s more to it than the basic stuff. I watch companies like Turtle Bay and individuals like Levi Roots with his Reggae Reggae Sauce and think the time is now.
A lot of people in the Caribbean community have objected to the rise of chains like Turtle Bay and said ‘it’s not real Caribbean food’, but look at what the Chinese and the Indians have had to do in the UK – they have adapted their food and created something that is welcome to the British palate.
I think because we’ve tried to stick to traditional and authentic recipes it has stopped our food from getting the exposure, but when we set about doing the branding for Baygo, we wanted to steer away from words like authentic, because authentic for someone like me from Trinidad is not the same for someone from Jamaica or from Barbados. Sometimes people will come into Baygo and say it’s not authentic Caribbean, and I say ‘I’m glad you say that, because that’s right, we’re doing it the Baygo way’. We see ourselves as pioneers. We are new generation Caribbean.
What are your plans for Baygo?
Our aim is to open a couple more shops in central London by the end of next year and to focus more on deliveries and office catering. When we opened we expected most of our customers to be coming through the door, but we started working with a company called Feedr who organise deliveries for offices for lunch and within three months that side of the business was pulling in well-over 40% of our turnover. We never thought about that when we started, but it has really taken off. Right now we are looking at tweaking our product more for deliveries and make it easier for people to order directly from our website. We will keep the shop front for day-to-day customers, but there is so much potential for delivery.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My chef journey started back in Trinidad and Tobago. When I started at my co-ed secondary school the boys would do wood work and the girls would do home economics, but I asked if I could do home economics too. At first they said, ‘that’s not how it works’, but funnily enough there were two other boys in my year who wanted to do the same, so they allowed us to go and do home economics with the girls. After the first term, they saw how beneficial it was so they changed the curriculum.
Then, when I was 15 and we chose our subjects for A levels I decided to do food and nutrition as one. I remember we had a teacher from Holland who taught us to make dishes like veal schnitzel. Having grown up in Trinidad only eating food like curry goat and rice and peas I thought it was so creative and was excited about the different dishes you could make.
When I passed my A levels I could have gone on to study economics and business and thought about going to hotel school in Trinidad, but I thought I’d just have the same qualifications as everyone else.
My mum was born in the UK but grew up in Trinidad, then returned to the UK in 1989, so at 18 I decided to go and join my mum and train as a chef and I haven’t stopped working since. I’ve picked up something at every place I’ve worked and learnt different cuisines and have loved it. Food is my passion, so I don’t feel like I’ve worked a day.
What three top tips would you give to chefs starting out now
Never think that you know it all, because you will learn something new everyday. Even after several years in the business you might pick up a tip that will save you 20 minutes in prep time, for example.
Explore the world. Until I was 15 or 16 I only thought about the village I lived in, but there’s a whole world of opportunities out there. If you had told me 15 years ago that I was going to be working in a restaurant in Singapore, I would have been like ‘you’re a mad man’ but it happens if you’re open to it.
Finally, work hard. Hard work pays, especially in kitchen life. Hours are long and unsociable, but with hard work and determination you will find where your calling or speciality is.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My mum, for the support she has given me, plus she is also a culinary genius. She would always be cooking something when I was growing up and I would sit in the kitchen from a young age and observe her. Even now, she is always supporting me. She has even worked with me – not at Baygo, but when I was doing the development I’d always reach out to her and touch base. If I need her to be in the kitchen for service tomorrow, she’d be there. Other than my mum, the guy who made me into a chef here was Simon George at Queen Mary and Westfield. He made me work hard. As a professional chef, Gary Rhodes. He is a fantastic chef and we still keep in contact from the time we did the show.
What are your aims for the future?
I will be pushing forward with the growth of Baygo. We want to open two more sites and then take it further and start a franchise. Separate to that I’m working on a new idea for a restaurant. The location is not confirmed but it will be in London. It will also be Caribbean food again, but small bites, like Caribbean tapas, for people to share, and drinks. The drinks menu will centre around lots of rum, because where there’s rum there’s fun!
Hospitality & Catering News, Interviews Editor