People often ask “hey Slab, what was it like growing up on Barbados?” And I just smile, close my eyes and let the memories of chalk-white sands and cool blue seas take over: surfing North Point or sipping amber rum on Sandy Lane, playing a match of Cricket in Bridgetown or getting loose at Crop Over.
Just kidding, I'm from here and I’ve never even been to Barbados. But if the Travel Gods work with me I'll find a way to get there soon. Why the rush? Because I'm convinced it's the most relaxing place on earth, filled with friendly, gracious people cooking distinctive, delicate fare. Or so one would think after spending some time at Culpepper's
In case you haven't heard, Culpepper's is one of Brooklyn's most beloved Barbadian restaurants. (Folks also use the adjective “Bajan,” pronounced something like Bay-zhen
.) They occupy a nice corner spot at Nostrand and Lincoln, where a “bright blue sea” awning with sharp yellow letters and small Bajan tridents bids you enter. Inside lies both bustle and calm: the smells of curries and jerks, snapper three ways, baked loaves and ginger tea; cooks and servers running to and fro, taking orders whilst stacking food into tins; a pool of takeout customers awaiting their orders; and behind the doors, a tranquil dining room where folks retreat to sit, eat, talk, and politic.
The first thing that hits is the sheer friendliness of the place, even by admittedly warm Caribbean standards. Maybe you'll overhear the server playfully chide a young patron (“my dear, I’m trying to be your mother, make you eat some greens!”), or a customer thanking the owners (“I haven’t been home in so long, but this brings back memories of mama’s cooking!”)
So what's all the fuss about? Culpepper’s serves food from the entire Caribbean, but the heart and soul of their menu are Bajan classics. And when in Barbados, what better place to start than with the local favorite flying fish
. As seafaring creatures go, they look moderately silly: lean sardines with floppy, translucent upside-down mustaches at the shoulders and hips. You've likely eaten their roe (Tobiko is a sushi staple) but the flesh itself merits tasting: clean, delicate fillets, meatier than flounder yet far less oily than, say, butterfish.12 Herbs & Spices? Fried Flying Fish Dinner, served with the goodness
Culpepper's serves their fliers two ways: steamed or fried. We started with fried because things usually taste better fried. I figure few can top Colonel Sanders' use of a whopping 11 secret herbs and spices, but I swear Culpepper's worked at least a dozen into their spongy, well-seasoned batter. The fillets themselves rest atop a nice rice with large round peas, a steamed vegetable mix, terrific “macaroni pie” (think: big cheesy chunk of mac & cheese), and fried plantains. In short, a wholly satisfying meal-in-one.National Treasure: Steamed Flying Fish and Cou-Cou
While the steamed fish didn't travel as well (for takeout), it did come piled atop cou-cou
. This, as it happens, is Barbados’ national dish: creamy cornmeal mixed with shredded okra and topped with slender flying fish fillets. It’s a nod to the island's culinary influences (Africa, and their own azure seas) but also testament of a delicate palate. Open the package and you’ll catch a wonderful whiff of the gravy’s enticing, mildly piquant aroma. As for the cou-cou swimming within – slippery, lovely, oh-so-comforting – it was something of a revelation, a simple well-executed dish that made us feel extremely well-cared for.
Nor was this the only feel-good Bajan specialty. Culpepper's offers the usual baked suspects – tennis rolls, lead pipes and rock cakes – as well as Mauby (made fresh in-house) and tasty fried fish cakes. We particularly enjoyed their Conkies
, sweet cornmeal mixed with currants and steamed in banana leaves. The texture is both creamy and savory, the aroma pure Christmas: mulling spices and mild sweetness. Consider this an island desert tamale, and a fine way to end your Barbadian meal (especially if you’ve overdone it on the hot sauce).
Speaking of which, we’re starting to discern the different regions’ distinguishing culinary characteristics. In Barbados, the general rule seems to be balance and restraint. There is a nice understated elegance to these dishes’ sensibilities: measure and comfort, rather than shock and awe. The meals are relatively light and subtle, calm ocean breezes rather than crashing waves.Soca Super Star: Timmy shows how it's done, in style
Which is all part of the appeal. Since Culpepper's opened in 1998, they have developed a notably loyal following. Just kick back and listen to the accolades tossed by random patrons, Barbadian food enthusiasts one and all. And those pictures of Bajan dignitaries lining the dining room's walls? They're not just for show. Prime Minister Owen Arthur eats here whenever he is in town, as do other celebrities. On one visit we met Bajan Soca star Timmy
, who was taking a break from touring
to settle in with his favorite Brooklyn cou-cou. One look at his face, and you knew he felt right at home at Culpepper's.The Man with the plan: Winston Lewis talks Barbados, food & culture
And therein lies the charm: so does everyone
. It's that kind of place, largely thanks to principal Winston Lewis
. Winston first developed Culpepper's logo nearly a decade back (something he dreamt, woke up and sketched), and he continues to set the tone today: cool, calm, a class act.
After 40+ years in Brooklyn Winston also maintains a strong sense of Bajan pride, something he is more than happy to share. Towards this end, Culpepper's food offers a conduit. Which is why he continues to work from 5am to midnight daily; to make annual trips to Barbados in search of authentic ingredients; to feed King's County and work with various schools and community groups along the way. (That PTA Certificate of Recognition for “devotion to education” you'll see near the counter is just the tip of the iceberg.) Which is why, above all, we might call Winston a True Flavor Educator. Our kind of peoples, good reader, our kind of peoples
.Culpepper's “Best of Barbados” Restaurant
1082 Nostrand Ave (@ Lincoln Rd), Brooklyn
Open for breakfast til ???
Brunch is served Sundays 10am–3pm.
Try one of the flying fish incarnations, and some cou-cou. Both are around $12 with macaroni pie (which you want). Conkies run $2.50, fish cakes 2/$1. The good feeling you'll get is free.