It's 7 PM on the night before Notting Hill Carnival and while most Londoners are readying themselves for a weekend of rum-soaked debauchery, on an unassuming street in North London, a different kind of preparation is taking place.
Trinidadian-born chef Hasan Defour spends his Carnival in the kitchen. "Notting Hill Carnival isn't just about jerk chicken," he says, opening his fridge to show me the huge supply of ingredients he plans to use. While Carnival jerk chicken is notorious for roping revellers into unwanted games of E. coli bingo, 750 chocolate-covered masqueraders of the Pure Lime float will sample Defour's classic Trinidadian dishes during the three-day event.
"The menu this year is the same as always," he explains as I'm introduced to the team in the kitchen. "We've got bakes and saltfish for breakfast, a lunch of Trini pelau, and the special corn soup that'll finish up nicely—a little bit of revitalisation after a day having fun. Why change something that's perfect, eh?"
Defour's mother Michelle is in the kitchen, as is a younger cousin Princess and a host of others, too. Simon George, who was once Defour's teacher, is on hand for the night as sous chef. "The boy done good," he laughs. Defour moved to the UK from Trinidad 20 years ago, leaving his hometown of Arouca for London. He talks of days spent happily watching his mother in the kitchen. She has a sweet-hand with flour, Defour tells me with pride.
"I remember my mum would always be doing her magical dishes, I wanted to be involved," he says. Defour's grandmother calls their London home the "Trinidadian embassy" for its constant stream of guests and food cooking on the stove. "It's part of our culture," adds Michelle.
The origins of Notting Hill Carnival are also steeped in Trini culture. In the 1960s, Russell "Russ" Henderson, a proud Trinidadian, took to the streets with his steel band after riots in the area, and this type of performance has remained a staple of the festivities. "Carnival spring-boarded from there," Defour explains. "Although we lost Russ this year."
But if Trinidadian culture is so intrinsic to Carnival today, why are the streets lined with Jamaican jerk chicken? "With Caribbean food, the music helped flavours travel," Defour points out as the fried bakes are rolled out on the counter. "One of the first things to land in Britain was Bob Marley so people knew about the music before other Caribbean influence music," he continues. Defour reckons that with the reggae came the jerk and so the Jamaican cuisine spread fast.
Two hours into my visit, and we're still working the same dough. It's left to rise, rolled into balls, and flattened with a pin before being thrown into the fryer. "This is for the bakes and saltfish," Defour gestures as I grab a rolling pin.
A variation of this staple dish can be found on every Caribbean island. The Jamaicans make fried dumplings and saltfish, whilst some other islands call them "floats." For Trinidadians, it's a bake and saltfish buljol. "The saltfish stems back to slavery times, when it was one of the easier foods to transport from Europe," Defour tells me as my wrists start to ache from my feeble stint on the section.
But taste for the fish stuck and it's now a quintessential Caribbean dish. "What makes our Trini dish different is we heat the oil, roast garlic in it, and scotch bonnet, that goes in with the saltfish and stuffed into the bakes," explains Defour. The Jamaicans use their cherished ackee, but none can be spotted in this kitchen.
While the oil heats in the industrial shallow fryer, Defour pulls a tub of his famous green "sensing" from the chiller, a base seasoning in which the meats are marinated. Inside the seasoning is thyme, spring onions, coriander, garlic, and ginger. "Each island has a different blend for it," he says. "We use shadon beni, it's similar to coriander,"—a pointer to the Asian impact on Trinidad cuisine. Around 40 percent of the island is also West Indian, which sees flavours fuse with the Creole influences.
As the final bakes are lined up for frying, Defour and I head into the drizzle as he stretches out his back. To keep the masqueraders happy, the team have been in the kitchen since midday and won't leave until service is over, in up to 36 hours time. "I need to sit down now," laughs Defour. "Cooking for ten can be a challenge, but we're serving up thousands of meals!"
It's well past 11 PM when I head off to catch the last train home. The fried bakes a finally finished, alongside the roast bake that cooks in the oven with a sprinkle of coconut inside. "Now we just have to make lunch!" says Defour.