Last Updated on December 13, 2020 by Novotaste

Tobenna Wells: Images: Contributed

HALIFAX — Local chef Tobenna Wells is making a name for himself in the city with his new venture, Bajan Epicures. Wells, who grew up in Barbados, works as a private chef in the city, serving up Caribbean meals with a French, fine-dining twist.

Covid-19 has meant a pivot into a meal-prep service for Bajan Epicures, but Wells’ food remains rooted in his Barbadian roots, and French training.

Wells got his first job in a kitchen when he was 14 years old. He’d always loved eating, so when a family friend wrangled him an internship at an all-inclusive resort, he was game.

One morning, he dragged himself out of bed at 6am and made his way to the resort. That day changed his life forever.

Today, his face still lights up when he talks about walking into that kitchen for the first time.

“As soon as I got there and I smelled all the spices and I saw the salad chef and the prep chef and the line chef all working in beautiful unison I was blown away,” he says.

He still remembers the very first task they gave him: grilling tomatoes for a mozzarella sandwich. The chef explained he needed to use super-high heat, a little bit of oil, and cook them for only 5 seconds a side.

“Even though that was such a simple thing, like a tomato, it was like a spark, you know? I thought if this is how this works, let me see how everything else works,” he recalls.

His next task was to peel vegetables for a brown sauce. Wells remembers the chef explaining browning and the caramelization process, what it does to the starches, how it better incorporates flavours into the water, why it was important to start with cold water and how to precisely adjust the temperature to ensure the sauce was as smooth as possible.

“All this information just from one question,” Wells recalls. “And I obviously still remember it all because my mind was blown, I was actually so impressed.”

From then on, Wells says, he went non-stop, taking courses, going to culinary camps, doing everything he could to learn more about cooking.

His parents, both artists, had gone to college and university in Canada, and in 2012 Wells earned a scholarship, starting a culinary management course in Kingston, Ontario.

From there he found work back home in Barbados at an upscale French restaurant, which he says was “very much like a Hell’s Kitchen scenario.”

His mentor was a “cutthroat” chef who constantly pushed him to be better.

“He took all of the skills I had and fine-tuned them,” Wells says. “Because I was a chronic overthinker I was trying to be that culinary perfectionist, and he was like, ‘well, that’s impossible. You will never be perfect. Just do your best every day.’’’

The experience still informs his cooking today.

“Every time I cut an onion, I’m trying to be better… just one percent every day adds up, you know?” he says.

Eventually, Wells deicided to return to Canada and began working as a chef in Toronto. After a few years, with his work permit set to expire, he needed to find a new job to keep him in the country. Immigration told him he couldn’t get a new work permit in Toronto so he needed to look elsewhere.

He was willing to go “anywhere” so he turned to Kijiji, where he found a couple of potential gigs in the Maritimes.

One was a steakhouse in New Brunswick, the other an Irish pub in New Glasgow.

“For the life of me, I still can’t remember why I chose the Irish Pub — because it’s not at all my forte, right? It’s not my field,” he recalls with a laugh.

But he was attracted to the “culinary atmosphere” in Halifax and wanted to be part of it. Wells worked in New Glasgow for 15 months before he could apply for his permanent residency. As soon as he got it, he “came straight down to Halifax.”

He worked a brief stint at The Exchange on Hollis, before moving on to a job at The Keg.

There, Wells worked all over the kitchen, fine-tuning his steak-cooking skills. Everything was going great, he says, “and then Covid happened.”

Wells has always wanted to be a personal chef because the role allows chefs to interact more directly with customers and share the experience of cooking.

Rather than being crammed into a back kitchen somewhere and sending food out into the void, he could walk his customers through his process, show them what he’s doing, explain why he’s doing it, and hopefully give them a better appreciation for the food he’s preparing for them.

So he used his time in lockdown to build a website, design a logo, take courses on social media marketing, and work on his menu.

The result of his work is Bajan Epicures, where he combines his experience in French fine-dining with his Barbadian roots, with a menu of largely Caribbean-style dishes prepared with a French twist.

“I want to stay true to my roots and I want to give people a whole new light on Caribbean cuisine,” he says. “Although my main dishes are purely Caribbean, there’s a lot of French elements in them because that’s how I was trained. I find that combining [Caribbean food] with the French elements actually makes people more eager to try it to taste it.”

Since starting Bajan Epicures, Wells has worked hard to spread his brand and build awareness through partnerships and social media outreach. It can be a daunting task.

“Not only am I like the new game in town, I’m not Canadian, not Nova Scotian, so I need to really work to build my network,” he says.

He accepts that is how it will be as he starts out but is also confident, he won’t always have to work so hard. Already, he says, he’s got a few people on standby to help him handle bigger events.

His customers generally hire him for private parties, weddings, and other celebrations. But as Covid-19 continues to shut down most social interaction, Wells has pivoted to focus on his meal prep service.

Through the service, he works with customers to create weekly menues, then personally purchases, prepares, and delivers a set of meals to them for the week.

The service is remarkably affordable, and Wells says it’s a great way for individuals or families to get a professional chef experience and the opportunity to eat quality meals at home.

Trevor Nichols is a reporter for Huddle in Halifax. Send him an e-mail with your story suggestions: nicholst@huddle.today.

Source: New Meal Service Brings Caribbean Flavours, With A French Twist, To Halifax Homes – Huddle