ALEXANDRA HARRIS/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
The first Caribbean cooking show on PBS brings together two dynamic personalities determined to live life on their own terms. It is no coincidence that the star of ‘Taste the Islands,’ Chef Irie, and its executive producer, Calibe Thompson, both have degrees in architecture.
Their respective journeys to build lives that fulfill them and allow them to indulge in their passions unfolded differently; however, the similarities include an intention to embrace their Caribbean culture by placing it front and center in their careers and sharing it with a mainstream audience.
Although armed with her architecture degree, which she got because “my father was not going to pay for me to go to art school,” Thompson’s life has been immersed in the arts, her first love. Following college, she worked in interior design before going into music, singing on tour with artists like Beenie Man, Kevin Lyttle and Ki-Mani Marley. She transitioned from performing musically to creating her own online show, The Caribbean Diaspora, which is now seen weekly on the CW Network.
Chef Irie, born Hugh Sinclair, found his way to cooking after spending a few unfulfilling years working in architecture.
“I went to University of Florida, got a degree in architecture, worked for a few years, decided that there was something else that I wanted to do to fulfill my life,” he shared. That “something else” was cooking, based, in part, on advice from his friends. Despite making the decision and applying to Johnson & Wales University, Irie said it took him over a year to muster the courage to leave his full-time job.
He did the “fickle” restaurant scene for a while before becoming a private chef to athletes like former NBA player Lamar Odom and the Heat’s Mario Chalmers, for whom he continues to cook. Being a personal chef morphed into his catering business.
Meanwhile, Thompson said she and Irie, “kept crossing paths over and over.” They both discovered that a cooking show was on the horizon during a conversation about the future.
“I’m sitting with him on his patio one evening, chit-chatting about…‘what you want in life,’ she shared.
That discussion revealed Irie’s interest in cooking on television, so Thompson told him, “You want to be a TV personality and I’m getting into making television more consistently, let’s do a show together,”
The result is ‘Taste the Islands,’ and its appearance on PBS is ideal, Thompson said, because in an era when housewives and competition shows rule, “PBS just kind of goes back to the roots of things, gets back to basics.”
She said that Irie’s passion for what he does comes through whether he’s cooking or not.
“Even in regular conversation, you ask him ‘how’s the weather’ and he starts telling you about the origins of cardamom. He loves talking about food,” Thompson said of Irie, who was a contestant in 2014 on the Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. (It is said that he did not prevail on the show, which pits chefs against each other, because he’s too nice.)
Nice, happy, and now fulfilled, which is especially apparent when he’s in his element. At the Dania Beach Arts and Seafood Celebration on Saturday, Irie has a small audience captivated as he cooks a seafood dish, jovially explaining why adding fresh herbs to food instead of salt infuses the dish with enormous flavor while also helping people with hypertension to easily lower their blood pressure. He’s already in TV chef mode because he talks as he plates the food, meticulously arranging it so that when he’s done, the dish looks like it could be served at a high end restaurant.
Executive producing the show through her company, Blondie Ras Productions, Thompson said she aims to “showcase the best of our Caribbean culture for a mainstream audience.”
‘Taste the Islands’ provides her and Irie the platform to do just that.
His ability to infuse Caribbean flavors into dishes from other cuisines gives him “an opportunity to express my Caribbean identity through food,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel. I understand now, wholeheartedly, that being Caribbean, being Jamaican, is my identity, and it shows in my food.”
The 48-year old Irie said ‘Taste the Islands’ viewers will learn “how to make unique ingredients shine. It’s going to be fun. It’s about bringing part of my culture, and part of me to the show by talking about some of my childhood experiences and how some of those ingredients affected me as a child.”
You get a hint of how herbs excite him when he recalls how thyme’s aroma always got his attention as a child.
“Thyme is one of my favorite herbs to use. I like the way it tastes. I grew up experiencing thyme in a whole different level based on the dishes that we grew up eating. I remember how it smells when you walk into the market. It perfumes the whole area. You can’t mistake what it is,” said Irie, who is unmarried and has no children.
“Cooking is my love now, because I think I have developed a true passion for cooking.”
Taste the Islands premiers nationwide on PBS on April 4th and in South Florida on WPBT on April 27th. For more information, please visit http://www.tastetheislandstv.com.