Recipe + Reflections: Chef, Bill Allison

Images supplied by Bill

My name is Bill Allison. I am a Jamaican Canadian Chef, currently based in Amsterdam. For the last two years I have been the Head Chef of Public Space in the north side of Amsterdam. I use this space as my hub; my base for creativity. It has enabled me to travel and carry my craft to different places—Paris, Istanbul, Brussels, London, Bangkok. I learned how to cook from an early age, the women in my family always allowed me to be in the kitchen. Watching, observing, and then eventually doing. That continued when my dad opened a couple fast food Jamaican restaurants and I had to spend early mornings prepping. After high school I focused more on fashion and social media marketing, working for brands such as Gucci and local clubs in the nightlife scene; now those two worlds collide in some aspects. I am a serial hobbyist, I love photography and I enjoy Djing, but I can also spend hours getting lost on Instagram or sucked into a new game. Becoming a chef has given me the ability to explore multiple creative art forms. I use my free time to tap into another world, another space that I can continue to work in and be inspired by. Chef is my title but I’m not bound by it. I want to continue to walk the life of a creative, someone that travels and explores, someone that can coexist in spaces with other artists and feel that I am meant to be there. I mean that’s how I’ve lived my life anyways.

Since starting out, what’s changed the most about your work and approach to cooking? What’s stayed the same?

I have been a head chef for about two years now. I think in the beginning I was all about experimenting, I would change the menu almost every two weeks. There is still an experimental aspect to my cooking, but I enjoy cooking classic dishes now, with a focus on food from my home country of Jamaica. More and more I tend to lean into Jamaican flavours and ingredients. I want to be able to cultivate a story through my food—that being my story, my personal experiences.

 

What’s the most rewarding risk you have taken? The biggest mistake?

Taking a one way train to Amsterdam during covid was easily the biggest risk I’ve taken in my life. I knew no one, I had no job, and just enough funds to get by for a month without work. In the time since, I’ve become a head chef, and created a community for other expats. I’ve had the ability to travel to many new places. In June I’ll be taking my first trip to Asia, all because people want my food—it is a crazy feeling. I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes, because every action has brought me to where I am today. I tend not to regret decisions.

Given the hours and lifestyle of a chef, it can sometimes be an isolating profession—much like many creative endeavours. How do you find a sense of community, engagement and support ? And how does this inspire your creative process and your will to continue to create?

To be honest, I don’t have traditional chef hours. We created an environment at Public Space where our chefs work normal 8 hour days, maybe one double shift a week. We all hang out together, we all go to the same gym together, so we have a great community here. Environment is incredibly important to me and I very much dislike the old kitchen world of working 14+ hours and having no social life. With that said, I enjoy staying home, too. I am a homebody, and I enjoy moments with my wife more than moments with groups of people. My biggest vehicle for inspiration is moments alone surfing the web (the online chef community is amazing on social media or on the flip side, moments eating and travelling. Sometimes we invite chefs to our kitchen and that’s another vehicle for inspiration.

 

Roadblocks can look different to each creative: a blank canvas, an empty page. What does this look like for you, and how do you find your way around it? 

I think I keep my mind preoccupied with so many different things, that it has become hard for me to not find inspiration. I have pages and pages of ideas for dishes that I haven’t yet tried, often also repeating recipes because I loved it so much. We have countless tools in our industry to overcome these blocks and hurdles; if you saw how many hours I spend on Instagram you’d understand (laughs). I’m always looking up food or dishes or techniques, manipulating what I see to fit my style. If you are struggling with inspiration, I would start from an idea that you liked or that you yourself have attempted before, and see how you can manipulate it to make it better or unique to you.

When you visit your family, what do they fix for you? Are there particular meals you long for when you come ‘home’?

Sadly I haven’t been home in about 4 years and I haven’t been back to Jamaica in 8 years. My family has some great cooks. But no one has that touch quite like my grandmother, she just knew flavour and I think that I cook like her in terms of taste. Family gatherings usually consist of the same Jamaican staples; braised oxtail, curry goat, rice and peas, chicken soup, and many sides. Communal eating is very big in Jamaican culture. Food is put on the table and you kind of just make yourself a plate. My favourite thing to eat when I go home is red peas soup. It isn’t made often as it takes time, but I always remember visiting Jamaica and that’s the first thing my mom would make for me.

 

How do you find trust within yourself, to follow your gut and experience? Or has experience allowed you to follow your gut?

From an early age I had to learn independence. I think that has carried with me throughout my entire life. Every decision I make isn’t necessarily calculated, it is just because I have had to learn how to survive on my own, so my impulse takes over. I am incredibly happy to be such an independent being, I don’t have emotional or physical attachments to places or spaces. I think that’s why it has been so easy for me to move around and find a sense of home wherever I am currently in the world.

Cornbread with Chipotle Hot Honey

Cornbread
120g cornmeal
125g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
113g duck fat
67g sugar
1 egg
240ml buttermilk
30ml hot honey

Chipotle Honey
200g raw honey
20g dried chipotle

(1)  Toast chipotle in a small pot until lightly smokey and fragrant. Add honey to the pot and slowly warm the mixture until honey is melted. Transfer to a sealed container and let infuse overnight.

(2) Preheat the oven to 200°C. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Whisk all the wet ingredients, except the duck fat, together until completely combined. Then add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and whisk until smooth.

(3) In a 24 inch cast iron skillet, heat up the duck fat. Once heated, pour half of the duck fat into the mixture and fold everything with a rubber spatula.

(4) Put the skillet with the remaining duck fat back on the heat and heat until the duck fat is hot and rippling, almost smokey. Remove from heat and pour in the entire cornbread mixture. Smooth out the mixture so that the top is flat and place it in the oven to back for 25 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it golden brown on top and a tooth pick can go through the middle and come out clean.

(5) To serve, heat up some hot honey and brush the top of the cornbread. This version of cornbread can be eaten with savoury or sweet elements, I served it with creme fraiche and trout roe.