Bare Vibes and Ting: Brian Danclair
Words and Images by Lemara Lindsay-Prince
“I don’t normally eat West Indian food outside of my home” I told Brian “but your food your roti is the best next thing to my Grandmother’s cooking I’ve ever tasted, God rest her soul”
I’m definitely biased in stating what my favourite type of food is but there isn’t a cuisine I love more than Caribbean. Growing up in a West Indian household was colourful for many reasons - the sounds, the smells, the situations all added up to influence me. I quickly learned that the kitchen was our fulcrum, it's where either one of my Grandmothers could re-create the tastes of the Caribbean on English soil. In Grenada (where my father’s family are from) I distinctly remember my Grandma making roti skins on the back step. Or that one time she baked over thirty bread rolls one night and before the morning came there was only five left courtesy of me and my cousin. My grandmother came from a baking family - it was simple work for her to create such beautiful things.
Food from that sense has always been in my heritage and I appreciate places that harness that same feeling of sharing, community and good vibes which is at the heart of West Indian cooking. Knowing there is a place a bus ride away in Brixton where I can get this same feeling and quality of home cooking is probably why I enjoy Fish, Wings and Tings so much. I can see and appreciate what Brian Danclair is doing. Recreating that home feeling, harnessing his traditions and sharing a bit of himself through his food.
In between a busy Brixton service, we talked to Brian about changing the perception of Caribbean food, what goes in to crafting a menu and what it’s like to be situated in Brixton.
Lemara: Tell me about yourself - where are you from, how did you get into cooking?
Brian: I’m from Trinidad and Tobago. I started cooking from the age of 13/14. In those days we didn’t have any clubs to go to, so cooking for me was really one way of getting the girls. I took centre stage in that sense and I stood out from my friends. I went to Washington DC to study and on the side I was working in a French creperie doing sandwiches - French bistro food. In the end I was managing the place and cooking too.
L: Where would you say your passion for food began, did anyone show you the basics?
B: I suppose just having friends around, having a large family and wanting to make people happy - cooking outdoors was a way to do that. I grew up with my grandmother too and being around her I got to know how to do anything - wash, soak, season, I could do everything. I learned a lot from her but then I also come from a cooking family - we used to feed the village. People came from everywhere to eat with us. Anyone who would come by my grandmother’s house there would always be a big pot of food waiting for them. In essence, that reflects the type of environment I have here. We have an open kitchen, we’re cooking all the time. We have loads of people coming in, we’re talking to them, offering them drinks. It’s that same sort of vibe you’d get in my home - that’s what I’m really trying to re-create.
L: That reminds me so much of my grandmother - there was always something on the stove, even if we weren’t expecting guests. You didn’t need no invitation to come round and eat. So then, how do you make that jump from home cooking to opening Fish, Wings and Tings? How did you get to this point?
B: I was living in Washington DC in the 90’s studying for a Business Management degree - I didn’t graduate but I started to work with a top chef in the US. At the time Yannick Cam specialised in French cuisine at a restaurant called Provence. I was good and I quickly became a soiree - that’s a top position. Where I worked people went on to be the head chef at The White House - it was big! So working there gave me a good foundation in terms of restaurant managing and cooking experience on top of what I had but it was two Caribbean restauranteurs - Jimmie and Sharon Banks - that really inspired me to follow through. They gave me the principles of cooking which I then added my background to. I had a good foundation with cooking and they helped me put two and two together. So, when I finally came to London, it wasn’t hard for me to get a job in top restaurants. I’ve worked with Angela Hartnett, I was head chef at the Nosh Brothers in Notting Hill, I’ve worked at The Ritz - high calibre places. However, when it came to Fish, Wings and Tings and opening a Caribbean restaurant… To be honest, when I first came to London I was a bit disappointed. Caribbean food wasn’t going anywhere. I always had this image of England before I came here that this - this is where everything was but, I found that everyone was doing the same thing. The same cuisine with the same bad service - so I saw a niche and I went for it! I started catering Caribbean food for High Commissions because no one was doing that at the time.
L: How do you apply your background of French cooking, your Caribbean heritage and your experience into the menu? Are there any principles you apply?
B: I started using my own style first, my background, my training and applied it all to Caribbean food. I took items like codfish fritters - very simple, very Caribbean but I added my stamp. I used words to make it sound more appealing and more universal. So now it’s codfish fritters but I’ve added a ginger and lime aioli. I changed the language around the food I was creating to something that was different.
L: Talk more about the language you create with food? How does that work with Trinidadian food?
B: Fish, Wings and Tings is a Caribbean restaurant first of all, I just happen to be Trini. A few items on the menu are from home but I also have Jamaican jerk chicken, curry goat and codfish fritters but I wanted to represent the Caribbean so the food is encompassing and the language is something everyone can understand. When we Trinidadians make codfish fritters we serve it with mayonnaise and ketchup but I didn’t want to do that here. Everything I make has a ring to it but I think that’s why people come here - it’s not just jerk chicken and rice, it’s jerk chicken with mango and pineapple chutney - you hear that ring. These are words, a language you wouldn’t hear in a typical Caribbean restaurant, but I always want my food to reflect the way we speak in some way.
L: What goes into your menu, out of all the dishes in the Caribbean how do you craft it to what it is?
B: The menu in all restaurants and the drinks list is where you make your money - you have to come very good with the planning and the execution of that. Here isn’t a big space so I can’t do everything. So you find the right dishes to put out that are fast to execute but also very tasty and wholesome. We do curry goat but we use the goat with another dish as well, with the roti. We use the meat and sauce in two different things. So it’s like a menu on top of a menu which makes it more efficient. That’s one of the reasons why we’re able to do 400 plus customers on a Saturday.
L: So what challenges have you had in opening Fish, Wings and Tings?
B: It wasn’t really a challenge for me. I already knew this would work because of the catering company I have. Fish, Wings and Tings had been established in my mind fifteen years ago. I wanted a restaurant where you could come in and feel at home. I knew it would be whimsical, colours everywhere, bright, plenty vibes!
L: It’s not just the food that makes Fish, Wings and Tings is it? Let's talk about that vibe...
B: It has to be on the verge of a party here! If you come to my house I would bring out liquor, I would turn up some music - that’s what we would do. Even back home, we’d have the music, we’d have people with guitars, we’d have food cooking and it’s the same scenario here. We have impromptu parties out of the blue here. We’d move the chairs and it’s on. The music reflects what I like, I grew up on this kind of music and lot of people don’t know it. Even some West Indians don’t know this music but this music is hard - it’s the kind of music you rock to in a party and that’s the right feel. I want people to feel my vibes! Also, on a different note people see me - light skin Caribbean man, curly hair and probably think I don’t know nothing about that but because of my past and my travels - I know this. In New York I used to party, in Jamaica I party.
L: True, one time I saw you were off to Trinidad & Tobago carnival?
B: Yep! I am a foundation man - a renaissance foundation man that’s my sound.
L: Talk to us about the location? Did you have your eye on Brixton for a specific reason knowing it is a cornerstone of black culture all round?
B: God is good in making things happen. The location found me. I had no idea - all of this was happening in Brixton at the time. I came down here to buy fish one day and I was struggling a bit because my catering business was going under - the economy had taken a dip. So I prayed with conviction in my kitchen, I prayed on it and within a week I came to Brixton market and the passage way for the market office was open. So I went up there, randomly and I asked the guy if he had any space he asked me what I had in mind and because I already had the plan for Fish, Wings and Tings in my head from fifteen years ago, I just recited it to him. He told me to send him the idea on paper and within a week *clicks fingers* we was here. That was the end of that! And now we have been here three years and it’s our anniversary is this month.
L: Even though you weren’t intentionally looking for this location is there anything special about Brixton for you?
B: I love Brixton! There’s a place around here where I can see the Gherkin - that’s really futuristic to me and here, I can talk to be people walking down the street, whenever and I still get a smile. It’s like being back in the Caribbean. Every morning you walk through the street and people say hello. There’s definitely elements in Brixton that you don’t get anywhere else. So for me, this is my perfect location. You have all kinds of people coming here. Alan Duccas said this was one of his top five restaurants in London so we must be doing something right.
L: Tell us about Caribbean food in London currently? How is the scene changing?
B: The thing with the London Caribbean scene is it’s already changing. We have already some of the best places: Rum Kitchen, Boom Burgers, Turtle Bay and there’s a patty company. There’s also Mr Jerk in Soho. We’re very mainstream now but we need to come out with more innovative ways of doing Caribbean food, not just all these restaurants doing the same thing in a different decor. The challenge is to come up with some innovative Caribbean food, step outside of your ability, use different produce - wouldn’t it be great if someone did something with swordfish? With me, I’m not guessing any of this - I live it and I have lived this!
L: Okay, what advice would you give to someone wanting to open up their own restaurant?
B: My advice is really get in there, learn the trade. Go into the kitchens, work! Don’t give up and keep the focus. Everything you do has to be hard work - just don’t give up. Also, timing is key and people don’t realise that. Levi Roots and his success, that was timing. If he didn’t go up and play that guitar he wouldn’t have been a multi-millionaire. I say that to say - the space found me. I was just walking by here but this is the perfect platform for me. You don’t get stuff easy and it really is God’s work. I can’t describe it any other way - that’s why I say keep the focus and keep punching away and at the end you must get something right.
L: Lastly...what about the future of Fish, Wings and Tings - can you share what’s next?
B: I’m looking for sites right now, I like small restaurants and if I can get four or five more I’d be happy. There’s a lot of opportunity here. I want to find the right people to manage it and take it from there.
Lemara is lead curator/article selector over on 'Morning Read, Afternoon Read' - a platform for dope reads on all aspects of culture and life, sourced from across the internet daily. You can find MRAR here and her twitter here.