If you've been anywhere near Jamaican food in South Florida, Chef Irie probably needs no introduction.
Hugh Sinclair, as he's known when he takes off his chef's toque, has long acted as culinary ambassador for the food of his native Jamaica at local festivals and fairs. But starting April 27, his ambassadorship will take on national meaning when "Taste the Islands With Chef Irie" debuts on more than 130 PBS stations, including WPBT2.
Produced by Pembroke Pines-based Blondie Ras Productions, the seven-part series sees Sinclair and co-host Nicole Hylton exploring a different Caribbean cuisine each week. Viewers will see roti from Trinidad, curry from Jamaica or the national dish of Barbados known as coo-coo and flying fish. (You'll have to watch the show.)
"Caribbean food is something I know that I'm going to spend my lifetime exploring," says the 48-year-old Sinclair, who lives in Hollywood. "We've had the pleasure, if you will, of being populated by so many other cultures — Spanish, French, Dutch, English. They've passed through and left their mark."
Sinclair, born in Kingston and raised in the parish of St. Catherine, left Jamaica at age 19 and soon entered the University of Florida, from which he graduated in 1995 with a degree in architecture. Within a few years, he realized architecture wasn't his passion. Cooking was.
"Most people who come from the islands, the experience in the kitchen comes at an early age," he says. "I've always been around food, but cooking to become a chef is not something most people aspire to. Culturally, they want you to be the best of the best, to be a doctor, engineer, architect, a nurse, teacher or a banker."
In one of his earliest cooking memories, he's 11 years old and re-creating one of his mother's meals of fried chicken, rice and peas and salad with homemade dressing. "She was blown away," he recalls. "Whatever I did, I did from memory." In college, he was the guy who actually knew how to cook, not experiment with dried noodles.
In 1998, Sinclair went back to school, this time to the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University in North Miami. After working in several restaurants, he struck out on his own about a dozen years ago to become a personal chef and caterer. He hasn't looked back.
While Sinclair has done all the South Florida morning and midday news shows, "Taste the Islands With Chef Irie" is the first time he's been asked to be the star attraction of a 30-minute program.
"He's the kind of person that you'll start a conversation with about palm trees, and he'll tell you how you can take the pulp of the coconut and make something called grater cakes," producer Calibe Thompson says. "Then, he'll tell you about the properties of coconut milk. He gets into the nitty-gritty about food. He speaks about it with so much passion."
Max Duke, vice president of content and community partnerships at WPBT2 in Miami, says the show was presented to him at just the right time. Starting with Julia Child in 1963, Duke says, cooking shows have been a staple on public television. Now, because of the Food Network and the ongoing food revolution, Duke says we're in the middle of a cooking-show renaissance. Just take a look at WPBT2's Saturday afternoon lineup, which includes Martha Stewart, Julia Child and the team from America's Test Kitchen.
"I think Chef Irie's personality is by far the best part of the show," says Duke, who shepherded the program to other stations across the country. "I think that we all view cooking and eating and having a meal with somebody as such a communal experience and an experience that's filled with joy. When the person that's talking to you has the same level of joy, it makes you feel good about watching him."
Duke says only "Changing Seas," a program about the changing state of the world's oceans now in its seventh season, has gone from South Florida production to national public television distribution. WPBT2 has already committed to a second season of Chef Irie's show, and Duke believes other PBS stations will do the same.
Along with Sinclair, "Taste the Islands With Chef Irie" features cameo appearances by celebrities such as reggae singer Maxi Priest, Saint Vincent-born soca singer Kevin Lyttle and Ato Boldon, a sports analyst for NBC and a former Trinidadian Olympic sprinter.
The Jamaica Tourist Board provided major funding for the first season, most of it filmed in Miramar and Plantation. They'll soon start shooting again, but not before Sinclair polishes recipes for a Caribbean cookbook.
Sinclair is feeling content.
"This is the first Caribbean cooking series on PBS," he says. "And it's the first Caribbean cooking series produced by a Jamaican featuring a Jamaican chef on PBS. It brings so much light to my country, my people, my culture. So I'm extremely proud that I'm able to represent that on camera."
Fusion Cafe (15531 Sheridan St. Davie, 954-252-9008) will host a viewing party April 27 for the debut of "Taste the Islands With Chef Irie." Doors will open at 6 p.m. The show will air at 7:30 p.m.
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