An Interview with Nigel Martin, Executive Chef at Cocobay 5 star boutique hotel, Antigua

Nigel Martin - Executive Chef

*Nigel Martin - Executive Chef

Alan; As you know, I studied at college to be a classically trained chef, I passed C&G 147 and 151 and went on to study 152 in pastry work, but I moved quite quickly into the area of management and loving the "kitchen" sometimes I wish I had continued in kitchens, but did you develop the entire menu yourself? It's very really varied and interesting - some of the flavours were wonderful.

Nigel; Yes I did, it's unfair to say they (colleges) "don't" teach you those kind of things at college, they teach you the essentials, but I worked full time with day release and much to my Mothers distaste wasn't really interested in the education system after I left school. But interestingly enough I didn't pick this business - it wasn't something I was going to do, it all started with a YTS training scheme in the UK! I didn't really learn to cook at college I learnt in the trade.

So where did you learn in the UK? I was born in Coventry so I did my basic first couple of years in the Leofric hotel in Broadgate right in the centre of Coventry.

Alexandra; so what brought you to the Caribbean then?

Sheer Restaurant at dusk

*Sheer Restaurant at dusk

Nigel; In 1993 I got my first job in Anguilla a seasonal position as senior sous chef, parts I enjoyed though and I was challenged with the poor work ethic in the particular kitchen I worked in. Towards the end of my term though, there was a changing government and it was a little uncertain whether I would get another work permit. At the same time however, the Turnberry resort in Scotland were asking me if I would go back and work during the open championship and because the people in Anguilla were uncertain if they would be able to keep me on I went back to Turnberry and work there for a while. After a while though I recognised that I really wanted to get back to the Caribbean, but it took I guess five years before I got back here and during that time went to work for the Jordanian Royal Family in Jordan and got experience in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and of course as you travel around these different places (including spending some time in Majorca) you pick ideas up and develop your own style - your own understanding of what ingredients works with what and forever experimenting. Forever pushing.

[on returning to the Caribbean] I was group exec for an hotel in Barbados and because of problems we had with a property in Antigua, came over to run that property. I fell in love with the island and offered to run both although that didn't really work out and whilst I was considering my next step, took a call from Ian Fraser whom I didn't know at that time. Ian said he owned a restaurant that was in a nice location but wasn't doing well.

Coco's was really the pilot project or became so because what we really had was a restaurant with 4 bedrooms and that became 8, which became 12. Out of that project became Cocobay and has grown from strength to strength from about 1999.

Alan; I have to go back to the menu though. One can often see very flamboyant menu's with ingredients no one has seen and I'm sure that some chefs feel they have to "show what they can do", but too often when the meal arrives its disappointing and (it sounds like I'm patronising), but whilst the ingredients you were using are sometimes unusual or at the least uncommon, they went together beautifully and were a delight.

Sheer Restaurant

*Sheer Restaurant

Alexandra; Thinking of the Michelin Star in Europe, is there nothing to rank food in Antigua ?

Nigel - no, nothing, nothing at all, there were people in last week who said "as good as any Michelin restaurant we've eaten in", but I take it with a pinch of salt as people fall in love with rocks out here (laughs)!

Alan and Alexandra [together] - I think you are being really modest!

Alexandra - We travel a lot and it really is on a-par with food we have eaten at the Vineyard in Berkshire (England) and with several Relais & Chateaux hotels we have stayed in across Europe.

Nigel; ummm, it really is difficult here though because in Europe and with Relais and Chateaux they have cooks coming out of their ears.

Alan; yes and those cooks are desperate to work with them to the extent that some kitchens have waiting lists!

Alexandra; and you have to work with the staff you have brought on?

Nigel; well yes, but there is a hotel school here, they don't do a bad job and if anything it's getting better, but the knowledge the kids come out with is very limited. We take a couple of interns through the summer in the hope that they will want to stay in the industry if you bear in mind that this island doesn't have anything else really than tourism.

Alexandra; you have an awful lot of discerning people come to Antigua on yachts and word of mouth, reviews on the Internet become more and more powerful. We have had a wonderful meal in wonderful setting (its pretty special isn't it?) and it's a credit to you.

Alan; Does your wife work here as well?

Nigel; Nicole worked here up until last Christmas (2009) and she now manages Nonsuch Bay - Alexandra and Alan - Oh Nicole! Yes we met her.

Nigel; yes, she's the better half and since she took on Nonsuch its too much to expect her to be here in the evenings as well.

Alan; I won't bore you with web design, but the structure of the travel guide is in place and this visit really gives us a focus to progress, particularly after meeting Ian and seeing the Nonsuch Bay development.

Nigel; if I can explain the thought process behind the hotel from a food and beverage standpoint whilst we are here; People come to the Caribbean for the beech, the warm weather and the beech. Breakfast of course can be the same the World over, but we have a cold section with Danish pastries and an egg station where staff make omelettes and cook eggs while you wait so we maintain good quality and people go off for the day. Because of that of course, we keep lunchtime very simple, which is presented buffet style with hot dishes, 4 or 5 salads and a soup where people help themselves and really we have found that is what guests seem to want.

My next project is for this season to offer a sandwich service down to the beach; a sandwich of the day with "vegetable" chips all served in a basket and we'll take it down to the beach and people probably wouldn't even leave the beach!

Lunch of course is very simple then, but dinner in Rafters is very different with four courses cooked al-a-carte rather than buffet and supper here is part of the experience.

On Sunday we do a BBQ and a lot of guests go up to Shirley Heights where there's a steel band and a great atmosphere. Sunday night is a lovely atmosphere. If you come to Antigua and Sunday night as Shirley Heights is really an institution.

Alan & Alexandra; Nigel, it's been a real pleasure meeting you and eating here in this lovely restaurant, thank you for speaking to us and sharing your ideas.

At a Glance:

Cocobay Resort

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Why you should go:

  • Boutique Resort
  • Best for couples
  • Lovely beaches
  • Wonderful food

What we thought:

"Friendly staff, quite exceptional food and quiet secluded, pastel shaded cottages epitomize this wonderful retreat where some of the cottages are almost at the water's edge; children under 12 are only accepted over Christmas and televisions are excluded."