Culinary Rockstar

If you happen to see him, you may mistake him for a famous sports personality or even a rockstar with his numerous tattoos - two sleeves, ponytail and a long beard. Damian Leach is indeed a rockstar but in the kitchen.  His name may not be on the lips of the average person, but if you have been to one of his restaurants, his gastronomic artistry has been on your tongue.

Finding Passion

Often when you read about the journey of persons who excelled in a specific area, it seems as if they knew what they wanted to do from an early age.  It seems as if every step they take is in pursuit of greatness within their chosen field. However, there are some who stumble and fall into what they discover to be their passion.  Chef Damian Leach falls into the latter category. As the story goes, he was a known troublemaker at school. On one particular day, his antics caused the teacher to issue an ultimatum - he would be kicked out of Art class, he’d take Food and Nutrition instead or he would have to leave. As leaving was not a promising option, he went off to Food and Nutrition, and this was the beginning of something special. 

The then 13-year-old, quickly discovered he had a passion for cooking.  This passion took him on an exciting journey to the top of the food chain, where he remained.  Similar to many who wanted to pursue a career in the Hospitality industry, Damian applied to the Barbados Hospitality Institute in hopes of achieving an Associate Degree in Culinary Arts.  However, his application was not successful. He then applied to study general catering and was accepted.  Focused and wanting to develop his skills and gain as much international experience as possible, Canada was next for the chef.  While there, he earned Le Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Pastry and Cuisine.  It was in Canada where he developed his craft, spending several years there.  Upon returning to Barbados, he was hired by one of the top restaurants on the island.  After a short stint there, he went to another renowned restaurant, Tapas.  He spent six years working his way up until becoming the Head Chef.  He credits his time at Tapas for developing the creative side of his work as he was able to experiment and express himself through his food.

Being a top chef was not all that Damian wanted to accomplish, as he was also competing for many years to claim the coveted Barbados Chef of the year award.  His five years of persistence finally paid off in 2016. Not only did he win Barbados Chef of the Year he also went on to win Caribbean Chef of the year. One of only three Barbadian Chefs to hold the prestigious title.   But the success had just begun,  later that same year he won the NIFCA (National Independence Festival of Creative Arts) Chef of the Year and the Governor General's Award of Excellence.  2017, let's add a Gold for  Best Seafood at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Taste of the Caribbean Competition.   The Barbados team which he was a part of went on to win the Caribbean National Team of the Year. 2018? Again he reigned supreme as the Barbados Chef of the year. Due to competition rules making consecutive winners ineligible to compete Chef Damian has changed his competition focus to pastry.  Beyond representing the island on the competition stage, he also assumes the role of culinary ambassador, representing Barbados across the region and further afield.  

Entrepreneurship and Food

It is almost a natural progression that a chef with a competitive spirit, creativity and individuality would eventually venture off on his own.  Chef Damian was no different.  In 2016 he entered into the business world as Co-owner of Cocktail Kitchen.  As an owner and Head Chef, Damian is able to exact control of the style and taste of his offerings. The restaurant specialises in Caribbean cuisine with an equally impressive cocktail list with heavy rum influences.  Located in the famous St. Lawrence Gap, the establishment is a hit among the locals and tourists as the chef promotes the use of local produce and flavours.  His style and flair have been transferred to the social media platform, Instagram.  

There, he dishes out some of his favourites and showcases the technical approaches he uses to transform ordinary produce into delectable dishes. What is evident in his approach to cooking is his passion for the local food scene.  “People used to travel to Barbados for our beautiful beaches and warm weather,” said Leach, “but I find more and more tourists come now to experience our culture through food. They want to experience authentic Bajan flavours and, of course, the beaches and weather are bonuses." One local product that the Chef is sweet on is the breadfruit, it’s even tattooed on his hand.  Roasted breadfruit and local lobster feature heavily on his menu.   Conversely, Cocktail Kitchen is not the only business venture Damian is involved in. He is also co-owner of a popular casual lunch spot The Mill & Co. located in St. Thomas.

The husband and father of two girls evolved from being a troublesome teenager roasting breadfruit on the beach with his friends to being an Award-winning Chef and entrepreneur.  He is seemingly on a mission to ensure that Barbados maintains its title of the culinary capital of the Caribbean, especially as it relates to utilising local produce.  As such, he advises any chef looking to stand out to “Be proud of your cuisine and realise that someone travelled thousands of miles to experience it,” he told TravelPulse. “Utilize all the amazing products we have locally - the black belly lamb, the breadfruit, super fresh fish.” And his influence is being felt as the call for local produce is seen echoed on more and more food menus across the island.

Interesting Facts

  1. Nickname is Day Day.
  2. Favourite food is sushi.
  3. He went to the Hospitality Institute to find the best chef in practical work and hired them.
  4. Favourite place other than Barbados is Australia.
  5. He loves chicken nuggets.