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Talking History, Culture, Community and Caribbean Food, with Chef Cullin David

Photo of Chef Cullin David by Scout Magazine.

Calabash Bistro has been at home in its Downtown Eastside location for more than 13 years. Community is one of the pillars of the Caribbean restaurant, along with art and sustainability – three ethos we fully stand behind.

We have a lot of respect, admiration, and questions for the people behind the Vancouver restaurant, including Chef Cullin David. An interview was long overdue…

“…food is cyclical, it comes and it goes, it loves and it hates, it bridges gaps and breaks the ice.”

For diners who are inexperienced with, and perhaps even a bit intimidated by, Caribbean cuisine and culture, what words of guidance can you offer?

Don’t be afraid of love… Don’t be afraid of happiness… Expect flavour, expect depth, and, most of all, expect that passion is put into the food, music, art, drinks and dance. The main thing to remember about the cuisine is that you know more than you think. It’s a melting pot of many different cultures and peoples. Food bridged the gap between African, Asian, European, Latin and the Indigenous peoples. Caribbean food and culture is an experience, like our oxtail stew, slowly simmered with more than 12 herbs and spices. Oxtail is an ingredient with so much history; it’s a testament to the resilience and artistry of the Caribbean people who turned nothing into something, and now oxtail is a sought after cut of meat.

For our first Calabash Bistro experience, how should we proceed? What dishes are “must tries”? What are we drinking with them?

Our mango goat cheese salad has always been a great and fresh way to start a meal, followed by the [aforementioned] oxtail. Follow that up with a mango banoffee pie for dessert (fresh banana and mango, whip cream, dolce de leche, and coconut crumb). That meal would not be complete without our Calabash Dark and Stormy (house made ginger beer & ginger syrup, candied ginger infused rum, fresh lime, garnished with fresh coconut).

Is there a certain night or weekly event that you recommend coming out for?

Music and dance goes hand-in-hand with the roots of the Calabash experience. We are happy to announce we are finally bringing back some live music at Calabash. We’ve partnered with “Open Mic Grooves” to bring give local artists a spotlight to just be themselves and vibe. Check our calendar for the next open mic (Thursdays). Fridays bring rotating DJs ranging from classic & old school hip hop, Afro beat, r&b, funk, soul and dance music. Saturday nights bring Vancouver’s hottest reggae and dancehall DJs to our basement. DJs Tank Gyal, Dj Rexx, Hoppa, Dj Real West, Lt. Irie and Dj Arems and more have all been longstanding powerhouses in the dancehall scene, and have blessed us over the last 13 years. Best thing to do is check out our monthly calendar to see what resonates with you.

You’ve had the terrific experience and honour of both a classical chef training and an immersive Indigenous education. How do you marry those two aspects – traditional Caribbean and contemporary food & culture – in the kitchen? What is the biggest challenge?

To marry these two aspects is to remember that they are already one, food is cyclical, it comes and it goes, it loves and it hates, it bridges gaps and breaks the ice. We may forget our origins as it was “indigenous” cooks and chefs that instructed the “classical” chef on how to use spices and herbs not native to classical palettes. It had always been the plan for me to bring Caribbean cuisine and culture to the spotlight and showcase the beauty, flavour and passion in both. I’m grateful my interpretation has been so well received. And saying that sheds light on some of the challenges, it truly is an interpretation. The cost of goods and shipping makes exotic ingredients harder to acquire. One must substitute and interpret to create dishes so far from the Islands. That also brings to light the beauties of Caribbean cuisine and culture, the ability to create beauty out of what’s around you. Food is food, remembering that makes it easy to marry both styles of training.

“Whether it’s the art of Mother Nature or art created by a human hand, we need that beauty as people. That beauty in art is sustenance and to be a vessel that can help carry that sustenance is why we do what we do. Food is art to all the senses.”

The restaurant industry has gone through a lot of changes over the past 13 years, and no doubt you have too! How have you personally and professionally evolved since beginning Calabash?

Through the last 13 years I’ve been through many evolutions personally and professionally. The first year brought Calabash a vibe and some accolades, the second brought me my son, and because of Calabash I met my love, my wife and partner, and we were married last year. Calabash has been fortunate enough to “facilitate” a lot of firsts for others as well. From first dates to kisses to anniversaries and kids, Calabash has been there through thick and thin. The eldest Calabash child is just under 13 years old.

The industry is nothing like it was when I started in the kitchen. I don’t even know where to begin with its evolution, especially after the last four years. Covid was a gut punch, both personally and professionally. The restaurant industry continues to be affected by Covid, whether because of the drastically changed social behaviour or the increasingly high prices to provide a dining experience. There’s too many reasons a restaurant owner has been forced to evolve over the past half decade. Forced to evolve and toughen up, take it on the chin and ask if anyone would like another. I joke, but I’m sure there’s a lot of independent restaurant owners out there who can agree it’s been about surviving to fight another weekend.

At Calabash we pivoted by starting a retail and wholesale program that is slowly gaining traction, we have products including our house made jerk marinade, dry jerk rub, mango dressing (which is amazing on salads or as a marinade; mixing some dressing with the jerk to tone down the heat, and marinating some chicken breast for the grill is a great way to enjoy it). We also have our patties, spice rubs and our jerk mayo. Keep an eye out for them on any delivery app or through Spud online delivery or in-house. The retail/wholesale program has been very enlightening for someone who’s been within the confines of the kitchen for over 25 years. It’s given a lot of perspective on the restaurant and food business. Things are not just about selling good food anymore, it’s about selling an experience, it’s about capturing the hearts, minds and bellies of people while providing an experience they can share.

To be a chef in the restaurant industry is to forever be adjusting, changing, troubleshooting, making it happen. There’s no choice now but to evolve when working within the restaurant industry because the restaurant industry has been dealt critical blows that maybe haven’t been vocalized because it only affects the independent businesses.

Community is obviously something that’s tightly interwoven into Calabash Bistro’s concept and mission, through various initiatives. On the receiving end, though, what has the DTES/Vancouver community given back to Calabash over the years, that inspires you to continue to pour yourself into the business of bringing people together and feeding them?

Love and encouragement. I love cooking, I love making people happy through food and drink. So receiving that acknowledgement that we create a place where people feel comfortable has been a blessing. The community has given us the opportunity to let us be ourselves and share space for those who want to vibe in the Calabash space. Through community networking we have been able to cook for a wide variety of people from Tim Burton to Usher, Wu Tang and the great Action Jackson Carl Weathers!

Local art takes up a sizable chunk of Calabash’s ethos/focus and physical space, also – what with your ground level gallery. Why is art so important to you? Why do art and food go together, in your opinion?

The calabash (or gourd) has carried food, music, drink and art for thousands and thousand of years. So we are just doing what the a calabash does. Whether it’s the art of Mother Nature or art created by a human hand, we need that beauty as people. That beauty in art is sustenance and to be a vessel that can help carry that sustenance is why we do what we do. Food is art to all the senses. The connection to both art and food is the interpretation and manipulation of natures’ beauty. The canvas and/or plate waiting for the ingredients to show us the beauty of our shared world. A showcase of dependence and balance.

At Calabash we also wanted to give space for young artists to show their art without having to pay any fees. Artists have it tough, so if we could provide any help we wanted to extend that to them, and we also benefit from having great art up on our walls. I would really like to develop new ways to help young POC artists use our space to showcase themselves and their art. We need art and expression.

Over the 13 years of business, Calabash has built a very loyal following. You must have gained some long-term/hardcore/dedicated customers over the years. Can you please tell us about some of the most memorable people and/or diner experiences that you’ve encountered and enjoyed, so far?

Honestly, we should probably write a book about Calabash Bistro. Firstly, Calabash has always been a great place to have a party – from wrap to wedding parties, to both bachelor and bachelorette parties, to restaurant industry staff party, corporate parties, cocktail receptions after fashion shows (and actual fashion shows). We even hosted a play paired with a custom Southern menu. We have done a lot of things with people. We recently were blessed to cater for Stephen Marley and his band. We held a Juno Awards after party; multiple members of the Wu have blessed our space, and Raekwon The Chef even told me my tropical jerk chicken wings were the “Truth”! From Black Sheep and Usher to Teacher Krs One. All of that has been facilitated from our customers. Calabash started through word of mouth advertising as an underground hidden gem. So it’s our dedicated community that has given us some memorable artists in music, movies and television.

But let’s not forget our foundations: customer participation, those customers that also got up to play music and just jam. We had a legendary Thursday with Chin Injeti with some incredible jam sessions. Drum circles and open mics. And then imagine on any given one of these nights there’s two people completely oblivious to any star or jam session around them because they just found that one person. Fast forward and I see them together with a stroller and then another, and now those same kids are not much younger than my own son.

In your question you you said “encountered”, as well as “enjoyed”. Given our location, we have had an array of encounters on the block, but one of my most fearful moments was being at a table and being told a dish was better than their Grandmother’s while the Grandmother was right there beside them. Thankfully her death stare was not directed at me and I was able to make excuses to run back to the safety of the kitchen. We have really been fortunate to have such longstanding customers. Now more than ever we need their support and hopefully we can stick around to provide a place for them to enjoy themselves.

Times are tough for restaurants across the board and the DTES neighbourhood is, in its own way, especially rough for a small business. It must take a lot of love devotion, time and energy to keep going…and no doubt there are moments when it’s especially difficult or disheartening. In those times, what do you do to get rejuvenated/reinspired? What (or who) gives you strength and energy?

My wife and son give me strength. Their love holds me straight knowing I have them to get home too.

Any words in particular that you return to, that you can share with us?

The one word that has always stayed with me is “Love”. One must put love into what they do and be generous with it. Another is “It’s just food”. When it comes down to it sometimes we just need to relax and remember it’s just food and not that big a deal, lol. And finally (always preceded by some deep breaths): “They must be going through it right now.” Love, devotion, and energy or madness, I’ve yet to decipher which one yet, lol. I think to own a restaurant you need all four and more. And, in our area, your right to elude how difficult it is to exist.

In all truth, I really hesitated to answer this question. 13 years ago there were plans for a greenway on Carrall Street, a Community Center, a focus on helping those in the area that need it. To date none of that has happened. In fact, the area has gotten worse. The scene is right out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Yet amid all of that poverty and uncertainty, there is a sense of community that rivals and beats other areas of the city. Through all that ugliness, there manages to be a sense of community, stronger than most others, though it’s in its own way. Remembering that small fact helps navigate through all the addicts, dealers, police, and lack of hope it will change for the better anytime soon. It doesn’t seem like any real change is happening, lots of bandaid solutions but true healing of the community has yet to be established.

Calabash Bistro
Neighbourhood: Downtown East Side
428 Carrall St.

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