Ground Provisions: Cooking Cruzan Style with Chef Digby Stridiron

Words by Nneka Nurse
Photos by James Gaillard

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It was over a year ago when I first ran into Chef Digby Stridiron at a trade show, as he was sourcing products for his then-unnamed restaurant. I knew he recently had won the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s 2014 Chef of the Year award so I was excited to finally meet him. As we spoke, he told me about the place he was opening in St. Croix, with the goal of promoting sustainability in the Virgin Islands, and highlighting Caribbean cuisine as fine dining. Flash forward to today, and that restaurant, now known as Balter St. Croix, or Balter for short, is set to open next month, bringing Chef Digby’s dream of defining Caribbean fine dining closer to reality.

If you ever have an opportunity to talk with Chef Digby, immediately you will note his immense culinary vocabulary, and knowledge of the history of food. You will also feel his appreciation of traditional Caribbean cooking techniques and flavors, and an endearing passion for elevating Caribbean cuisine. “Food should look like it grew from the Earth or came from the sky,” Digby says. “So once I put it down on a plate, that’s how it’s meant to be served, because that’s how it’s naturally presented.”

His approach to cooking is unique in embracing the influences of the Taino Indians and the West African countries that helped create that undeniable Caribbean taste. He is committed to learning the process and flavors for each dish from the source, with the goal of keeping everything genuine, all while staying current with today’s food trends. Being from St. Croix, an island that prides itself on its preservation of culture, inspired him to create a dining experience that celebrates the rich, bold, flavors of the West Indies like no other restaurant has before.

Digby’s vast experience in the kitchen started at home, as it does with most chefs. He credits family recipes like his aunt’s cow’s tongue, and other local eateries, with inspiring him to attend Le Cordon Bleu. While there, Digby gained a foundation and training in classical culinary arts, to add to his home-style cooking repertoire. After his schooling, he was named the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Culinary Ambassador, and has represented the territory at numerous Food and Wine events throughout the region. One of his great achievements was in Italy, where he went to cook at Massimo Bottura’s Refectorio Ambrosiana in Milan during Expo Milano, a celebration of global food and culture attended by over 20 million. There, he participated in a soup kitchen created by Bottura of Osteria Francescana, in which leftovers from the Expo food providers were prepared by world-renowned chefs to help feed the homeless. Digby was also selected to participate in the James Beard Chef Boot Camp for Policy and Change, where chefs learned about being advocates of food access and affordability.

It’s this sort of advocacy which informs Chef Digby’s mission with the creation of Balter in St. Croix. Balter, by definition, means ”to dance without rhythm or care, but some possible enjoyment.” It was the best way to describe the origin of the restaurant’s being, Chef Digby thought, as he seeks to challenge what is considered conventional fine dining by using regional recipes inspired by seasonal ingredients, showcasing the curries, rundowns and all the great foods and drinks that we love from the Caribbean.

With the location already set on a sprawling acreage in downtown Christiansted that will encompass other businesses besides the restaurant, he still hadn’t come up with a name. For Digby, everything he does needs purpose, and selecting a name that would define his culinary legacy had to represent his homeland of St. Croix, and the greater West Indies, in its entire, vibrant heritage. Scrolling through his Facebook timeline, he saw a meme of the balter, looked up the definition, and immediately saw the connection with his mission to elevate an entire cuisine and culture with no blueprint, just the intent of enjoying every little milestone and achievement.

The décor is an open-kitchen concept, seating 34 inside, with space for an additional 40 in an outdoor courtyard influenced by the seven flags of St. Croix (seven different colonial powers, including the U.S., have controlled the island) along with the broader West Indies and African Diaspora. Returning Caribbean food to its roots as an inherently local, seasonal and nourishing cuisine, all ingredients will be grown by purveyors who share Digby’s commitment to wholesome and sustainable food. “The first idea was to start locally,” Digby says. “I feel that it’s imperative that we sustain ourselves. The sustainability of this restaurant is [going to be] directly felt within the community: To create jobs, buy local produce and to serve healthy, nutritious and tasteful meals is the overall goal.”

It’s not just the food at Balter that is locally sourced. “We used local artisans [Donald Schnell, Vincent Nichols and Sara Hayes] to craft numerous types of wood and ceramic plates, platters and cups, which were all inspired by the surroundings,” Digby says. “We used this theme throughout the restaurant, allowing history to be our guide, from the local mahogany tables to the Danish brick oven.”

The menu will combine elements of the Taino, Dutch, French, Spanish and African cuisines which have combined to make St. Croix a gem in its local cooking style. The menu will consist of local Cruzan foods and ingredients such as whelks and sea purslane as well as other island classics like souse and callaloo with a mix of contemporary additions, like sea-moss ice cream. Digby and his general manager, Patrick Kralik, have also devised a dining experience called “Farm to Glass,” where regional recipes will be paired with cocktails made with juice, syrups and garnishes made from locally-farmed, seasonal fruits and vegetables.

I keenly recall the time I met him and his sous chef at the test kitchen as he was prepping for a demonstration on Good Day New York. Digby was preparing a spread of island goodies but my sweet tooth was calling for his winning dish, Red Grout, a dessert pudding from Denmark made with nuts and, of course, Cruzan coconut rum. As soon as I took a spoonful I was in heaven. The sweetness was not overpowering, and the nuts gave a earthy flavor which balanced the sweetness and the subtle hints of rum. SUPERB, was all I could say.

The imminent opening of Balter is becoming a highly anticipated event —in St. Croix, where it is poised to bring more attention to local culinary culture and community, and among those in the U.S. Virgin Islands, broader Caribbean and even worldwide who are looking to eat with a purpose.

Photographer James Gaillard recently followed Digby to Hansen Bay Beach in St. John and to Dub in the Rainforest, at Mount Victory Camp in St. Croix, where Digby cooked up a special set of vegetarian meals. See the photos below, and read on for Digby’s Charred Coconut Curry Tofu recipe. 

digb-stridiron-4Chef Digby, at Hansen Bay Beach in St. John.

digby-stridiron-6Preparing a vegetarian meal at Dub in the Rainforest, at Mount Victory Camp in Frederiksted, St. Croix.

digby-stridironEverything feels real when I’m there, Digby says of the Dub in the Rainforest events, which take place several times a year in St. Croix’s West End. The sounds, feel, people… You can feel the love and energy in the vibes.

digby-stridiron-sous-chefCeCe, Digby’s sous chef for the day, helps with the preparations.

digby-stridiron-2“St. Croix has unique culture, history, traditions and agriculture, in the heart of the Caribbean Sea, allowing me to highlight the beautiful regions around me.”

digby-squash“I love roasting squash,” Digby says. “There are many varieties of squash that are available throughout the year here! Squash is very versatile and easy to use.”

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Squash put to good use, in a hearty stew.

digby-stridiron-3Digby’s Coconut Curried Tofu. “We developed flavors by smoking, roasting, curing and using other natural techniques to project the flavors.”

digby-stridiron-st-croix-rainforestSmoked Celery Creole, with local green beans. “My goal with the food,” Digby says of the Dub in the Rainforest presentation, “was to cook everything over fire, and as natural as possible.”

digby-stridiron-4“At the end of the day, my mission is to be cooking with love, and the spirit of our ancestors.”

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Chef Digby’s Charred Coconut Curry Tofu
Serves 6 to 8 people.

Ingredients
-Curry spice blend

-1/4 cup grated ginger

-1 large banana leave

-Tofu (28 oz. or two packs)

-1/4 cup puréed Green mango Kuchela

-4 Spanish oregano leaves

-8 to 10 Recaito leaves

-2 Bay rum leaves

-4 Kaffir lime leaves

-5 sprigs Thyme

-3 bunches of scallions

-2 Yellow onions diced small

-3 carrots peeled and diced small

-1 cup white wine

-4 cloves garlic

-1/2 Serrano

-1/2 scotch bonnet

-4 seasoning peppers

-1 roasted red pepper

-4 cups Coconut water

-2 cups Coconut meat/ pulp blended

-1 bunch Cilantro

-1 bunch Thai basil

-1/2 bunch mint

-1 bunch Parsley

Directions
-The night before I started this recipe by marinating the tofu in a mixture of  grated ginger, 1 cup of coconut water and 3 tbs of toasted curry powder.

-After dicing the tofu into half-inch cubes, lay them flat and completely submerge them in the ginger emulsion for 24 hours. Also, heat your coconut water on the stove. Once it heats up, add the pulp and emulsify in a blender til smooth. Place in the fridge to cool.

-To start, I prepped the fire to induce the smoke and charred flavors!

-As the fire built, I placed a large saucepan on the stove at medium-high heat. Place a little bit of coconut oil in the pan, once it heats up sauté the onions with 1/4 cup of a good quality curry seasoning. This is where you have to pay attention: The idea is to take the curry to where it’s toasted, and almost burnt, while keeping the onions sweet and not allowing them to caramelize. It will tighten. This is when I add the peppers, recaito, bay leaves, Spanish oregano, thyme and garlic, and allow them to sweat into the curried mixture.

-It should start turning pasty! This is good. This is the perfect time to de-glaze the pan with the white wine

-This is a good time to place the scallions on a high grate, away from the fire, and drop the heat, which will allow the scallions to char and take in the smoky notes from the fire.

-While the scallions char on the grill, the wine should have reduced by half. Add the kuchela, coconut milk and kaffir limes. This will add so much depth to the broth.

-Finely slice all the remaining herbs and add them to the pot for fresh flavors

-Place the banana leaves over the pot and cover with a lid.

– Meanwhile, strain the tofu from the marinade. Season with salt and pepper.

– Heat oil to 350 degrees.

– Dust the tofu in a 50/50 blend of corn starch and breadfruit flour. Fry until golden brown and place directly into coconut curry pot to continue stewing.

-Allow sauce to thicken by a quarter. Check on your onions as they should be charred and even have burnt tips. This is good as it adds to the flavor. Finish the recipe by slicing the scallions into 1/4 pieces with the burnt ends and enough bite to impart the smoked notes. Allow it to steep for 20 minutes and serve with rice, mofongo, veggies or whatever inspires you!