Four years ago, Chef Anthony Burnside was told to look at Crusoe’s Restaurant like a painting…a canvas to which he could add his touches. He accepted the offer, leaving his job at a fine dining establishment to take on the challenge. The draw for him was the growth the opportunity presented as well as a desire to experience being the head in his own kitchen; to allow the knowledge he’d acquired over the years to shine while at the same time being given the leeway to experiment on different cuisines. Crusoe’s allowed him to do that.
What he met when he walked through the doors to the restaurant at the Comfort Suites Paradise Island for the first time, he said, were a lot of cooks who didn’t have much experience in hotels.
“They cooked food like they cooked at home,” said the senior executive sous chef. “I wanted to keep the ‘mom and pop’ food experience, but globalize it, by expanding the offerings.”
For the chef, that meant the addition of items like salmon and the porterhouse steak for an eclectic menu, but still retaining the grouper and snapper – which he personally picks up from fishermen on the dock at 5 a.m. daily.
“We combined together and made an eclectic menu that had Bahamian, but sometimes an Asian or a Mediterranean flare, and we just went from there,” said Burnside.
The food they were combining to present had to be simple, elegant, presented beautifully and tasty. Once all those notes were hit, he said, it added up to the perfection that has become a Crusoe’s signature that he’s put his stamp on.
The restaurant has gained quite a reputation for its food – and as one of the places to dine for delicious, hearty, yet affordable fare. As the restaurant flourished, the property’s management threw its support behind Burnside for an upgrade to the restaurant facility so that it fell in line with the food the chef and his staff produced, which has resulted in an elegant restaurant that matches the cuisine.
Signature items include his smothered grouper (seasoned like Grandma does) with onion, peppers, tomato, thyme, goat pepper, bird pepper; and a red snapper en papillote, a method of cooking in which food is put into a folded pouch or parcel and then baked in fata paper to allow the flavors and juices to remain together – which, when opened tableside, offers an aroma to die for. The New Zealand rack of lamb which he breads with garlic breadcrumbs, rosemary and mint jus is another specialty; along with his shrimp scampi in a garlic white wine sauce that’s served with rice pilaf and vegetables.
Like all chefs “worth their salt”, Burnside tweaks his menu according to the season, on top of offering at least three daily specials – just to ensure that regulars are in for a surprise at every visit, and that his kitchen staff doesn’t get bored with producing the same menu time after time.
“I don’t want guests to ever be bored with the menu. I don’t want my staff to be bored; I want them always on their toes. And specials are a good way for the cooks to think outside the box,” he said.
Case-in-point, Crusoe’s Restaurant has a signature guava bread pudding that people clamor for among its standard dessert offerings, but he sometimes sneaks in sweet surprises like a grilled pound cake with berry compote; or a roasted peach with a scoop of ice cream.
“It’s always something new and fresh. It’s always to entertain people,” said Burnside.
Now that we’re into the fall season, he’s showcasing more comfort foods – lamb shanks and braised short ribs will come into play, and he’s playing with different fish to add to the menu along with his newly minted Junior Chef Carl Brennen with whom he’s collaborating to bring new specials.
“We bounce ideas off each other. He will come with his shrimp tempura with Asian slaw. He has a wok that we bought for him and he’s in his element. He’s like a kid in a candy store.”
Burnside also ensures the use of locally-grown ingredients. He’s passionate about freshness.
Burnside’s introduction to the kitchen was at the side of his grandmother, Emerald Alice Pratt, deceased, whom he credits with helping to cultivate his passion.
“When I was a young boy, she used to cook and clean for the monks at St. Augustine’s College. She also worked with Brother Henry (baker in the bakery). Every summer we would go there with her, but I would always remember her cooking. She would do everything Bahamian – fried fish, peas and rice, macaroni, potato salad…and we would get spanked for stealing the potato salad while it [was] hot – and one day she just asked me a question – ‘What do you want to do?’ I said ‘I want to be a chef.’ I never said I wanted to be a cook. I said I want to be a chef.”
A pre-teen at the time at age 12, he said even then he knew the difference between a chef and a cook.
“A cook cooks, I wanted to be the chef. I wanted to run the place.”
Recognizing his passion early, he said, he saw helping his grandmother in the kitchen as more than a chore.
“Every day I would be there cutting the stuff for the peas and rice; cutting the stuff for the steam. Mama made candy, baked bread, bread pudding, so I was the prep cook for her, and then I graduated from that and then she allowed me to cook. I burned couple rice. (He recalled getting spanked for it, of course). ‘Swinged’ couple. (But he learnt how to put the bread on top if it ‘swinged’ to take away that almost-burnt tasted). She allowed us to experiment sometimes.”
When he wasn’t helping his grandmother in the kitchen, he read everything he could find on culinary arts.
“Back then you went to the library. I grew up in Fox Hill so I went to the Fox Hill Library and looked at cookbooks and stuff like that.”
Upon graduating high school, he went to work. His first job entailed washing pots in the stewarding department in the hotel to save up money to pursue culinary studies. He enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park where he earned a wealth of experience before he ran into financial roadblocks that forced him to return home. He went back into the kitchen as a cook, where he said seeing, touching and feeling provided him with the best education he needed to work his way up the ranks and to where he is today.
“Being in the kitchen was the biggest school for me,” he said. “See! Touch! Feel! Smell!”
From the days standing side-by-side with his grandmother in the kitchen, he says he still enjoys every minute of his job that can see him put in 16-hour days easily. And he especially loves getting up to hit the docks at 5 a.m. in search of the freshest fish offerings possible.
“When I got into this, I knew what I was getting into. If you’re not passionate about something, don’t do it. My Grammy always said you have to have the fire in your stomach. And if you don’t have that, then it’s time to move on. I have that fire. I still have that fire. I get up every morning and I’m like ‘I can’t wait to get in the kitchen.’ I throw on my whites, put on my apron, get my knives sharpened and get in there and the creative juices just start flowing.”
And he’s proud of the food he produces, and has been the recipient of many compliments that solidify his work.
“There was a couple here, the Kellys, they live in New York and they go to Club 21 in New York, they go to all these Jean-Georges places, and they said the quality of food in Crusoe’s is on par with Thomas Keller. That made me…and I’m not easy to cry, but that brought tears to my eyes. It brought joy to me and that stuck with me.”
Burnside, who cooks from the heart like his grandmother did from recipes that are memorized, has also recently started writing down his recipes because he realizes he needs to put what he knows on paper so that the younger generation can learn from it. And in the vein of standardization and consistency so that when a Crusoe’s Restaurant guest visits and is impressed, they would continue to be impressed when returning a year later.
“All the knowledge that I have I want to pass on. My Grammy did it, so I try to pass on all the information that I get to my peers, so the next generation can carry it on.”
The future he envisions for himself is one in which he holds the title of executive chef. And he can also see himself in the role of culinary ambassador, in which he would visit schools and teach about his experience and his passion for the culinary arts, and conduct lectures.
Burnside describes himself as a lover of all types of food, but he is first and foremost a meat lover – lamb, porterhouse, tomahawk, meat and potatoes kind of guy.
When not cooking for others, he does the simplest things for himself – food that he can cook in two to three minutes.
“I go to the food store and I buy spaghetti, three cartons of eggs and hot dog – and that’s me. I’m around food all day, so at home I get cornflakes, or I make an egg sandwich.”
His cuisine of choice if he’s traveling is Italian – preferably lasagna, chicken parmesan, veal scallopini – comforting home foods.