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Bronte reinvents the Wheel

Published: 
Monday, January 13, 2014
Phillip Brontë, proprietor of the Arnos Vale Waterwheel restaurant, stands near the 19th-century waterwheel on his father’s 410-acre Arnos Vale estate, in Tobago.

It’s dark by the time we pass the sign to the Arnos Vale Hotel. First opened in 1942, it has been closed since last year, a casualty of Tobago’s tourism decline. In its prime in the 1970s it was a holiday spot for rich European tourists, British aristocracy, Princess Margaret and the Queen’s servants, whom she sent there for their annual holiday. Now it is on the market for US$25 million.

 

The car swings round another couple of bends, the thick forest blocking out the moonlight is illuminated by the car’s high beams. We are close to the edge of the oldest, densest rainforest in the western hemisphere.

 

Pulling up in the car park we walk a few metres to a lit doorway framed by tall trees. From nowhere, our host, Phillip Brontë appears to greet us. It’s a low-key reopening ahead of a big launch planned for post-Carnival 2014. 

 

Brontë is the proprietor of the Arnos Vale Waterwheel restaurant. His father, William Brontë, owns the 410-acre Arnos Vale estate, including the famous old hotel. Now 84, William is the Trinidadian son of an Englishman descended from the literary Brontë family—Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell—who travelled to the Panama Canal and eventually ended up in Trinidad. Named after a cemetery in Bristol, Arnos Vale is a lush green estate bordered by the sea to the north and the town of Les Coteaux to the east. William Brontë acquired it in 1972, having amassed enough wealth as the owner of Winsure insurance company to accumulate a property portfolio across T&T. Every weekend, William would take his son Philip to the hotel in Tobago. 

 

Born in Santa Margarita, Philip Brontë grew up in St Augustine and finished school in Toronto. After his studies he travelled to England where he established a career managing restaurants.

 

In 1996, William Brontë asked his son to come back to Tobago to manage a project for him—a restaurant in the shadow of the 19th-century waterwheel, a relic of the 250-year-old British sugar factory. 

 

Philip had begun as a busboy at a pizza parlour in Covent Garden before moving to Sonny’s in the London suburb of Barnes, owned by two-Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard. He was on the brink of buying his own restaurant in London but the option of managing an exciting new project and developing his cooking style in Tobago was too good to turn down.

 

But having returned, he found the restaurant was not even built yet. It had been a lure his father had used to bring him home.

 

Unperturbed, Phillip set about the task, building a dining room, kitchens and a bar whose terrace looks up at the 60-foot wheel. At first people were reluctant to pay the entrance fee (the waterwheel grounds doubles as a tourist attraction and nature trail) so Brontë tempted them in with champagne receptions. 

 

Foreign chefs tried and failed to get to grips with the local ingredients so Brontë took over the cooking. 

 

“I invented my own cuisine, called Modern Caribbean,” Brontë explains, “and Holiday (the BBC TV programme) were the first people to come and interview me.” 

 

Gary Rhodes’ show Across the Caribbean also filmed an episode here.

 

“With Modern Caribbean I took ingredients from the whole of the planet earth. I didn’t limit myself to just what is here, which is what a lot of chefs were doing at the time. Root vegetables are wonderful—dasheen and callaloo—but you can’t just eat that. Having lived in London and been exposed to modern European cuisine I did the same but called it modern Caribbean. Everybody tried to copy it, so I changed it to New World Creole, and nobody copied that.” 

 

Amongst his signature dishes are a salad of jerk chicken, plantain, bacon and aioli. A dish he calls zarzuela, the name for a genre of Spanish opera, he describes as “a medley of seafood—shrimp, whatever fish is fresh that day, scallops—and it’s sautéed in white wine and herbs, coconut milk is added and it’s reduced. Its main seasoning is cilantro and ginger.” 

 

Then, in 2008, after many successful years, Philip grew bored of the slow pace of life in Tobago and fed up of the “pretty homophobic” Caribbean.

 

“Here I never hide who I am,” he says, “so people either talk to me or they don’t. If they talk to me it means they’re fine with me, if they’re not they just leave me alone.” 

 

Back in London, he intended to settle, working at Sonny’s and Belgo Noord, a Belgian-themed restaurant where the staff dress as Trappist monks. Asked if he took a vow of celibacy, he replies, quick as a flash, “Oh yes, I was celibate. I used to sell a bit of this, sell a bit of that!” 

 

Back in Tobago, after his second sabbatical in London, with nowhere to socialise, far from the bright lights of the city, he started drinking. This new habit was compounded by his experimentation and eventual addiction to drugs. A period of dependence and depression was only broken when his mother recommended him to psychiatrist Prof Gerard Hutchinson of UWI. Later another psychiatrist, Jonathan Vince, would visit him at the hotel. New Life Ministries at Mt St Benedict was his saviour, but it was too late to save the restaurant. Customers dwindled until he conceded defeat. 

 

Now, Brontë is ready to reopen the business, he feels so passionately about. If the food he and head chef Sylvia Ram cooked at the reopening is anything to go by, the Waterwheel should become a focal point of Tobago’s culinary resurgence. The signature salad was followed by a tender rack of lamb or spicy shrimp fettuccine, then a dessert of mango sorbet.

 

The following day, the restaurant by daylight looks stunning, nestled in a small valley amongst enormous trees where fruit bats swirl at dusk. Cocricos flutter into trees. A woodpecker rattles its pneumatic drill of a beak against a trunk. A mot mot appears on a branch and a hummingbird feeds on a banana tree.

 

The centrepiece, the waterwheel, is astonishing. Built in 1856, it replaced the original wooden structure and made it easier, though no less dangerous, for workers to produce the sugar that fuelled the colonial plantation economy. Along with the food and scenery, you get a history lesson. 

 

“The first wheel, built in 1765 was wooden and sunken in a pit,” Brontë says. “The spring behind this hill was dammed. A sluice would release the water through an aqueduct into a tank which then hit the fins of the wheel. In 1856 the steam-engine-powered iron wheel was installed, producing 70 tonnes of sugar a year. 

 

“Canes were fed five times through this press. If a slave’s arm got caught it would be immediately cut off. 220 slaves lived here, six of them per lot in a space the size of this table. They brought things from Africa, like this rope plant.” 

 

He scurries into the bush to find it. 

 

Brontë is a man who could talk all night and though it’s a delight to listen, it’s also a delight when he breaks off conversation to cook his fantastic food.