Simple yet complex, fresh & perfectly prepared
Chef Marcellus Higgins’ journey to falling in love with the kitchen
Cuisine that is simple yet complex, local, fresh, well-seasoned and perfectly prepared is what chef Marcella (Marcellus as he prefers to be called) Charles Higgins prides himself on.
With that in mind, items like a pepper pot served with lobster, shrimp, hogfish and herbed sausage in a mild-spiced tomato cream and coconut broth with steamed jasmine rice; hogfish chowder topped with dry sherry and whipped cream; corn-fried tomato and grilled lobster tail; hogfish potatoes and pepper hash; hogfish and eggs benedict – are tempting dishes that appear on the menu at The Sandpiper Inn at Schooner Bay, Abaco.
After more than three decades in the kitchen, Higgins, who said he considered carpentry to be his first love because he likes building things, and that cooking was something he “fell” into and regarded as his profession, said after 34 years in the kitchen, it is something he can’t run from or get out of.
Higgins was introduced to culinary arts in 1986.
“Growing up in Yellow Elder, my mom, Margaret Higgins (deceased), saw me start to hang out with the wrong set of people. She said she would get me a job.”
In his last year of high school (1986), he found himself holding down a job, while also working in stewarding at the then-Crystal Palace Hotel. He cleaned the kitchen and ran errands for chefs as needed. Three months after he was hired, in January 1987, he was named employee of the month and in May of that year, promoted to assistant cook after the various chefs noticed his willingness to help out.
“They were impressed with my work ethic,” recalled Higgins. “I used to see them doing things and if I saw they would need something, I would go and get it before they even asked for it. The sous chef spoke to me about recommending I be promoted. One day I came to work, I was called into the chef’s office, and I was like oh boy. He said ‘Can you read … write?’ I said yes. He said he was going to promote me to assistant.”
Higgins said he did not like that he was being promoted to the position. At the time, he was not interested in culinary arts. After a year in the position, he began to realize it was his calling and started to put interest into it.
“The interest in cooking started to come when I got the job, but the genetics kicked in as I was doing it.”
Higgins is the son of Jacob Higgins, deceased, the first Bahamian to hold the title of executive chef.
“My dad started off same as me, but back then, they used to call them wood choppers, and he chopped wood for the kitchen. He came from Mayaguana to Nassau to look for jobs. He used to go on the Contract and started working at Emerald Bay Hotel, and from there, everything started. He was one of the first chefs to do the ice sculptures and was one of the best chef garde manger.”
Higgins went on to work in a restaurant named Le Grille at Crystal Palace where he was promoted to head cook. It was there that he was introduced to the grill and worked every station in the restaurant from vegetable to the sauté station.
“When I worked at Le Grille, I had a half-hour for lunch. During that time, I would go downstairs to the gourmet commissary and just watch – and that’s how I learnt a lot of stuff. I looked and observed.”
He remained at Crystal Palace for 11 years before an opportunity arose that would have him take his culinary talent to the Pink Sands Resort in Harbour Island.
“They needed a sous chef,” he said. “By that time, I had gained a wealth of culinary knowledge to be able to handle the job.”
His former co-worker, Terrance Bastian, reached out to Higgins about the opportunity. He interviewed in September 1997 and had the job by October. He held sous chef responsibilities at the Pink Sands for 18 years which also saw him take on the chief role of chef for many of those as the chef came and went.
He also took advantage of the time to learn the industry from front to back.
“I did it on my own because I was inquisitive,” he said.
During those years, Higgins also took advantage of courses offered at what was then the Bahamas Hotel Training College, to familiarize himself with things that weren’t his strength like baking, to add to his repertoire.
He departed Harbour Island to take up a position at The Sandpiper Inn on Abaco, in March 2015, again a position brought to his attention by Bastian.
“I came down, did an interview and said I would take it.”
He met a menu in place that was a mix of Bahamian, international and Caribbean and went along with it for a while before he started to introduce items to the menu.
“The food was good, but every chef wants to put their signature on the menu. I started to do some things … experiment.”
Today, he counts the pepper pot, which is named after the owners Dr. K. Larry Carroll and his late wife Carol Carroll, as their signature item. It’s a dish he learned many years ago, but enhanced with herbs and spices that he likes to keep secret.
Higgins also likes that the restaurant is a showcase for locally made products.
“The first thing the boss told me when I came for the interview is that they are small community and that people offer beautiful products that we can use, so I try to get as much people involved as possible. It makes me feel good.”
The Sandpiper Inn menu showcases the pastry talents of Elizabeth Bain from Crossing Rocks, Abaco. Her “famous” chocolate cake, dinner rolls and homemade bread, which is used for sandwiches and breakfast, are all served. The menu can reflect her red velvet cake for special occasions like Valentine’s.
Diners, Higgins said, can rest assured that the freshest local items were sourced for the menu. The chicken they use comes from Abaco Big Bird. Their salad mix, herbs and vegetables they source from the Kelly’s Abaco farm, just down the road. Deborah Burrows keeps him supplied in eggs. Seafood is sourced from Christopher Higgs in Sandy Point, Abaco, or A&A Seafood in Marsh Harbour.
“It means a lot to me to be able to showcase the talents of our locals because if you have five fingers on one hand, and if you try to lift a five-gallon bottle using one finger, it won’t work. If everyone works hand in hand, then it works,” he said.
“Local is incredibly important to me.”
Another thing that’s important to Higgins and reflected in the menu at The Sandpiper Inn is the fact that almost every item is named after someone he has worked with over the years. He said it is his way of showing respect to those people that he learned from over the years. And the portions are generous.
More than three decades in, Higgins said while culinary did not start out as his first love, it has become that for him.
“After 30-plus years, I don’t think I would trade this in,” said Higgins. “The only thing I feel bad about is that I should have taken culinary arts more serious when I was younger – but I just wanted a job.”
He did make the switch, as he got older, and put in the effort.
And now, there’s the fact that he said he does not think he could get out of it if he tried.
“People are always asking me to do something,” he said.
He is also philanthropic. On Mother’s Day, he hosts a luncheon for moms. On Father’s Day, he does the same for dads. He also cooks for occasions like Thanksgiving and end of school for the students and staff at Crossing Rocks Primary School in Crossing Rocks, Abaco – and all on his dime.
Philanthropy is something he inherited from his mother’s side of the family. He said growing up, they might not have had much, but he witnessed his mom and her siblings taking in people off the street.
“We grew up helping people. And now, I try to give back as much as I can.”
While Higgins did not set out to follow in his father’s footsteps, he unconsciously did so. Other members of his family did as well. His sister Natchie Dean is in the industry as well as a number of nieces and a nephew.