A dream comes true
Michael’s passion for cooking leads him to a well established career he can be proud of
Who would have thought that Michael Harrison would have been a chef? Furthermore, who would have thought that today he would be a well-travelled executive chef at the helm of the award-winning restaurant that gave him his start?
Not many people. In fact, as Harrison sat and spoke with Barbados TODAY on the luxurious grounds of the Cobblers Cove Hotel in St Peter, still basking in the success of his restaurant Camelot at Cobbler’s Cove being awarded the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association’s president’s award for Restaurant of The Year, he said it all still felt like a dream for him.
That dream began more than three decades ago in the small village of Fernihurst in St Michael. Harrison recalled that as a youngster, while his friends were having fun playing cricket or football in the roads and occasionally heading to nearby Brandons beach for a sea bath, he was labouring over a hot stove.
Sometimes, the boys would also ask him to join them but the flour-spattered Harrison could not pull himself away from the fire. At that time, he said, he hadn’t even considered cooking as career, he just knew he loved it. However, as the years rolled on, with some nudging from family and friends, Harrison decided in 1991 to attend the Barbados Community College’s Hospitality Institute.
His relationship with Cobblers Cove started after he graduated. He was hired as a waiter and three years later he travelled overseas to do a promotional party for the hotel with the executive chef.
Harrison spent about two months at Gleneagles in Scotland and some time in England at the Le Gavroche and fell in love working with the environments. So much so, that upon his return to Barbados he asked the famous chef Michel Roux Jr., presenter of Master Chef UK, if he could work at Le Gavroche. Roux replied in the affirmative.
“So after about two months returning to Barbados I had a job working in London. I remember I had to sell everything I owned. I sold my CDs, clothes – anything anyone wanted to buy – just to get enough for the plane fare. I remember just a few people were encouraging me, everyone was trying to deter me and saying ‘don’t go, you are going to work for less money’. . . But I was only going to work to get the reference letter and because it was a two-star Michelin restaurant,” he recalled.
Harrison then boarded a plane to the United Kingdom, leaving behind his new born son Quasie.
“I always compare it to running and jumping off a cliff and not knowing where I would land. After I bought up pampers and milk for Quasie to hold him until I was paid, when I reached Gatwick airport and I changed all the cash I had in my name, it totalled £99. At that time I was so naive I thought ‘£99 great! I will go to work and then I will be able to pay my rent and so forth once I got paid’. No one ever said to me I had to come up with my rent money and all the essentials first,” he reminisced, laughing loudly.
“So I had £99 and even before I started to work I had to go to this guy who didn’t know me from Adam, only meeting me for one week, to ask him for an advance on my salary. Imagine having to do this and you haven’t even worked one day yet . . . but he gave it to me and I would never forget.”
Harrison continued: “I compared London to driving a Lambourgini and Barbados to riding a bicycle. Everyone was going fast, the chefs are running through the kitchen, I felt like I knew nothing. I felt like I had to try even harder to keep up. I was called names, I was called some of the worst things in the world. I was meant to feel like I was nothing but it wasn’t just me; that was how they tore down everyone just to get the best out of them to produce.
“I watched people coming and only lasting a week, two weeks, a month. I felt like I wanted to quit, everyday it was so hard, but I wanted to prove myself, I thought about my family daily and I said ‘no, I can’t quit now’. At that time I was the only black chef in the kitchen and certainly the only Bajan who would have worked there and I stuck it out and dealt with it. Later one of my friends Gregory Austin came and we had each other to lean on.”
After spending six months longer than the originally planned year, Harrison’s next move was to the United States to work for Roux Jr’s father, Albert Roux, at another five-star restaurant where he spent another 18 months. Subsequently he worked in Seychelles before moving on to Bermuda, then St Lucia at the Almond Resort before he was approached by a recruiter from the UK to go back to work at Cobblers.
Harrison described his move from waiter to the first local executive chef of the near half century old hotel as a great feeling. And he thanked and congratulated his team at Camelot for all the work they have put in to make it the restaurant of the year.
The 42-year-old told Barbados TODAY: “When you do a hard day at work, whether it is 16 hours, or 12, or eight and you produce something people love I think it is the best thing, it is the best feeling in the world. A feeling no amount of money can give you. To see that you make someone happy from what you and your team have produced it is a great feeling. It is not just about me, it is the team as well because they are the ones who work hard, both in the restaurant and the back, without the team you can’t get anywhere.”
“To win the award is a great feeling, it was something that certainly I wasn’t expecting. I know we produce great food and I know we are equally as good as any of the other top restaurants but I never felt like we were the best for the year, but certainly it would have been our goal to be the best. Our goal is to be in the top 50 restaurants in the world.”