East Croydon Cool talks…Caribbean Food

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. October is Black History Month and Mike Springer, who owns Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen marked the occasion with a celebratory dinner to bring together a few Croydon faces and teach them a little more about Caribbean food. Over a generously poured rum and coke (!), we learnt more about some of the most popular dishes and how Big Mike has been inspired by his years living in Barbados to create a menu for London based diners. The evening also provided the perfect opportunity for us to catch up with the man himself and learn more about his journey setting up the business.

Big Mike, you’re a busy man – X-Factor appearances, British Takeaway Awards winner in 2016, and now a restaurant in Croydon! Tell us more about how you got here.
I was born in UK and left here aged 10 for Barbados, which is when my cooking experience began. I returned here at 18 wanting to be a chef but I was too hungry to earn a living and quickly realised that insurance paid more. I ended up as MD of Zurich Insurance. In 2016, I converted my garage into a commercial kitchen and this project culminated in winning Just Eat’s Take Away Chef 2016. I was also named finalist 2017 and 2018. Next came the Chef Factor 2017 – cooking on the adverts for X-Factor. 2017 and 2018/2019 – finalist chef of the year just eat takeaway chef. In 2020, I was part of the Made You Look campaign – championing chefs part of the BAME hospitality sector.

Why Croydon? I’ve always lived here so this is my community. I’m Cronx through and through. I love the mix of cultures we have here in Croydon and the appreciation they have for the art of food. Boxpark Croydon is a hive of activity, where the masses gather – from young to old and everything in between, existing in perfect unity. We believe that Croydon is on the ascent. UEFA Euros 2020 really helped to showcase Boxpark Croydon and telling people what we already knew, that Croydon is where it’s at. We’re not alone: Croydon’s status as London Borough of Culture 2023, shows that. There is so much going on in Croydon across food, arts and community – we’re proud to be part of this.

You opened after the first National lockdown. What have been the biggest challenges?
Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen was born in 2020 but it’s not my first foray into the restaurant sector – I used to run the kitchen at the Jolly Farmers in Purley in 2017. Opening Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen at Boxpark Croydon came at a challenging time – we signed the lease in February 2020 and Lockdown came the following month. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the launch didn’t happen until 4th July 2020 but we brought a small taste of Barbados and a big taste of the Caribbean and even if I say so myself, it’s been a bit hit with Croydon folk and those from out of town just visiting. We’ve risen to the challenge of providing high quality food and service around restrictions for Covid– 19. It’s been an opportunity to let our food separate us from the noise of the crowd. Fewer people and less footfall when restrictions were in place, just meant we had to be more creative to ensure we stood out (i.e. our seasonal menus, like Valentine’s Day and  Mother’s Day).

What’s the current set up at Big Mike’s?
Our onsite restaurant is open seven days a week from 12 noon until 9/10pm and we also do delivery. We’re hoping to launch the ‘Big Mike’s At Home Box’ by the end of the year too – a nationwide delivery of Big Mike’s products!

How would you explain Caribbean food to someone who’s not tried it before?
The Caribbean is one of the world’s original cultural melting pots, with the cuisine taking influences from Africa, India, China and so many other places. The cuisine was heavily influenced by Barbados’ geographical position within Caribbean trade – all the ships came through Barbados. It’s hearty, wholesome food that’s good for the soul and if you like spice, there’s plenty of that for you. For those who like it hot – splash on the pepper sauce. Equally, there are many dishes that aren’t on the hot side so there’s something for everyone.

What’s on the menu at Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen?
This is home cooking – the kind of food we ate growing up so some of the recipes are inspired by my family. For example, Big Mac Cheese is based on my mother’s recipe, and it is a favourite with customers. I think it might have something to do with the four cheeses we use to make it – it’s gooey and absolutely delicious. Other popular dishes include Curry Goat Roti, Jerk Chicken and Bajan Fishcakes – which fly out the restaurant – we can’t make them fast enough!

What’s a common myth/misconception about Caribbean food?
That it’s only for people who like their food with lots of chilli. Some like it hot but not everyone does and Caribbean food caters for all tastes.Also, that it’s not a cuisine that’s suitable for veggies and vegans – not true. Chana Curry (chickpeas) with rice or used to fill a roti, and vegan ‘chicken’ bites, season and fried jackfruit are both vegan and veggie friendly.

We hear you’ve been working with Croydon Watch to help feed Croydon’s homeless. Tell us more about how that came about.
We work with the charity Croydon Nightwatch every fortnight to feed the town’s homeless. We’ve served up over 1,500 meals since September 2020, as part of our ‘Challenge 100’ initiative because we strongly believe that feeding our community unifies society. Sadly, the queue is growing but this only goes to strengthen our resolve to make a difference. I firmly believe that no-one should go hungry in the UK. Those wishing to donate can do so via www.bigmikesck.com/Challenge100.

Have you got any historical gems can you share about Caribbean food?
Something that I find interesting is how Caribbean food has evolved from being considered “poor man’s” food to now a “rich man’s” delicacy. Cuts of meat like pig tail and oxtail (which are much loved throughout the region but seen as the cuts that the poor consumed) are now seen as specialities on high-end restaurant menus. As a result, the price of these cuts has sky-rocketed. Another food fact for you – in the old days, Bajan fishcakes eaten by the poor contained no actual fish – instead, flavoured from the water used to cook fish at the big plantation homes of masters.

What’s your Caribbean tipple of choice?
Well, Rum is synonymous with the Caribbean and is a vital part of most meals! Here at Big Mike’s we offer all the classics: Cockspur, Mount Gay, Bacardi, Appletons and Malibu. We also do our own ‘Rum Punches’ (alcoholic Slushies!) which get a lot of love from diners. Personally, I’m also partial to a Corn ‘n’ Oil – a combination of rum, Falernum and Angostura bitters – essentially a Bajan take on an Old Fashioned.

For more information about Big Mike’s Calypso Kitchen, see www.bigmikesck.com

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