When we first began exploring an interview with cookbook author Robin Lim Lumsden we assumed that we’d be learning more about Jamacian cusine. We did of course. However, as we developed the interview we quickly realized that Belcour was not just a cookbook, but as Robin told us, a catalyst to many people’s diaspora stories. Just like Belcour with its multiple layers from recipes to family history and insights about the diverse culture of Jamacia, our conversation with Robin is multidimensional.
Robin talks about growning up in a unique close knit family where a fusion of Asian, Jamaican and French food was the norm and reflected the diverse cultures of her relatives. She gives us a behind the scenes look at what it’s like for her and her husband Michael to take a food company from a start up kitchen table operation to entering the global market; and even offers a couple of not-to-miss recipes! Through out she is open, transparent and inspirational. We hope you enjoy Robin as much as we do. Needless to say a visit to Belcour Lodge is now on our bucket list!
Diva Foodies: With its beautiful photos of Jamaica and the history of your life on the island integrated throughout the book, your “cookbook” Belcour is very much an insider’s peek about life growing up in Jamaica. Before we delve into our food chat, what was it like growing up in a world that looks to be paradise?
Robin Lim Lumsden: I was born in 1958 in Jamaica and four years later we gained independence from British rule. My grandfather Peter Desnoes was of French extraction and was a manufacturer and an entrepreneur. He wasn’t wealthy when he took over his father’s confectionary and soft drink company Desnoes & Geddes in the 1940s, but by the early 70s, he had built the company into a large brewing company that manufactured Red Stripe beer.
Many of my family members worked in the business so I grew up in this large family where the business was the focus of our lives. It was a loving and protective environment. Jamaica was booming financially and my grandparent’s home, Bamboo Pen, was the center of my universe. I was very privileged to grow up there and those were halcyon years of my youth.
My father was half Chinese, one uncle was Parsi and my other uncle was Jewish, so even in my family, racial and religious integration was beginning becoming the norm in Jamaica. Although Jamaica is a racially mixed country about ninety percent of all Jamaicans are of African descent so I always felt that I was viewed as a foreigner even though I was Jamaican through and through. I was one of only a few “fair skinned” girls in my school and would happily have exchanged my “good hair” for brown skin and the anonymity that went along with that. My teens were fun years, however, despite sometimes feeling a bit of an outsider, particularly because we were all part of the Bob Marley and Reggae music revolution. This was an incredible experience and we knew we were witnessing the rise of a mega, global music star. Most young Jamaicans at the time wanted to become Rastas and espouse the Jamaican equivalent of “hippy culture”.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was this feeling of nostalgia for my youth growing up in Jamaica and partly, I think to validate my “Jamaicaness”. Unfortunately 50+ years after Independence Jamaica is a paradise for some and a land without opportunity for far too many. I think Jamaica is one of the most beautiful places on earth, the mountains, beaches are incredibly beautiful and our culture is vibrant, full of art and music. Jamaicans are a humorous, warm and fun loving people and is a layered and complex place, full of contradictions, but it’s my home and I am so grateful and proud to have been born there. I love Jamaica for with all its imperfections and contradictions. Where we live in the Blue Mountains is a nature’s paradise. Our home Belcour Lodge, which was my parent’s home originally, is in the Blue Mountains, which have just been granted World Heritage Status by UNESCO.
Diva Foodies: Belcour is also as much about your family’s story as it about the food you love. What was your family’s reaction to having their story told throughout the book not only from a culinary point of view but through personal photographs?
Robin Lim Lumsden: My family helped me write the book. My parents and our large extended family gave us a great childhood it was a wonderful experience growing up with them. We ate delicious food in our homes and they showered us children with a lot of love. I was also exposed to my family’s culture of hospitality. They had very progressive views and they were also involved with, and contributed significantly to, the social, economic, cultural and political life of Jamaica.
My Aunt Linda, who herself a published author, introduced me to an editor from the UK and offered to edit the book. My sisters Lesley and Mirah, not only edited, but helped by searching our combined memory bank for valued details that I couldn’t recall. My cousin Karen and my niece Kimberly Goffe proofed and checked my punctuation which would have been horrific otherwise. Other cousins, sister, Aunts etc. all provided numerous recipes that we all loved from their own repertoires and also help to test recipes.
Once the book came out my little sister Mirah and my Grand Aunt Rosie, became the top sellers of the book. My Chinese family in the US, also helped by providing photos and help to recount some of our shared history. Gan Ma, my father’s God Mother who became his surrogate mother, often visited us in Jamaica and she taught Mum how to cook Chinese food. Her daughter Aunt Hui made it possible to experience Dad’s Chinese heritage by hosting family gathering at her home in Westport, CT. when we were growing up. Hui’s children still live in Westport, CT and they still host Thanksgiving dinners so helping to keep our family memories, tradition and culture alive. We stay with them every summer in order to attend the Fancy Food Show in New York City and last year they helped me launch the Belcour Cookbook in NYC. This book was definitely a family effort. I think everyone is happy that I recorded some of our history.
Diva Foodies: For those in our community not familiar with Jamaican food, beyond an occasional jerk chicken dish, would you please tell us what makes the food special?
Robin Lim Lumsden: I think it is the soil, climate and the cross pollination of cultures. Jamaica is a fertile, volcanic island close to the equator. It grows the best of a number of things: coffee, ginger, thyme, scallion, pimento, marijuana and obviously yam from the way Usain Bolt runs. Then there are the cross-cultural mixes that have resulted in different foods.
Some of these dishes have become so ingrained in our food culture that we are oblivious of many of them being of foreign origin. Take for instance Mackerel or salt fish (cod) Rundown. Salted fish comes from Scandinavia and Rundown is a way of cooking in a coconut sauce from Africa. This is often eaten with roasted Breadfruit, brought to the island from Indonesia by the explorer Captain Bligh.
Our food is a “mix up” and it also reflects the genesis of our people.
Jamaican’s love to eat: curried conk, Charsu Bows, oxtail, cow tail and pepper shrimp, fry rice and sweet and sour chicken and we consider these dishes ours. Jamaica is truly out of many one cuisine.
Diva Foodies: I love that you incorporated the rich, multi-cultural aspects of your family’s food story, which runs from Jamaican, of course, to French and Asian. When you were developing your cookbook how did you determine which recipes to include and which to leave out?
Robin Lim Lumsden: That was a long process, of elimination because some recipes were too common, for instance my version of (curried) Singapore noodles, even though my family love our version. In 2005 I had printed the precursor of the book, which was a spiral bound book and I gave it to all the women in my family that Christmas. They told me which ones were their favourite recipes so I made sure those recipes were included in the book. I forgot to include a few other great recipes from my 2005 version, which will be in my next book.
Lastly, I also wanted each section to flow: starters, soups, salads etc. I wasn’t planning originally to organise the book by the different decades of my life, but rather around the usual categories: chicken entrees, beef etc., but as I started to put the book together around places and eras the book took on a life of its own almost started to tell me how it wanted to be written and organised.
Diva Foodies: Did any of your family have strong feelings about which recipes absolutely had to go into the book and which family ‘secret’ recipes where not to go beyond the family table?
Robin Lim Lumsden:Well the answer to the last questions is yes. I make my Grandmother Mimi’s tomato chutney commercially, so that recipe didn’t go in the book. It was I think it was a tacit understanding that family favourites like Ja Ja Mien, Mimi’s black beans, Alma’s Sweet Potato casserole, Deb’s Chocolate Cake and Mimi’s Ice box cake would go into the book, but as I said all family members have many of these recipes anyway so they didn’t care.
Diva Foodies: As a first time cookbook author what were some of your challenges researching, writing and producing Belcour?
Robin Lim Lumsden: I don’t view them as challenges in a negative way; I look at the process as more of a journey that tested my will and determination to write a book. I don’t want to turn off prospective authors.
If you do write a book, however, I guarantee, you will understand yourself a lot better after the process.
I think when I decided to write a book it was more of a case of blissful ignorance; I had no idea what it would entail. I started at the end not the beginning. I didn’t even have a title in mind. All I was certain about is that I wanted to make a beautiful book and capture my memories of people and places that I loved. I wanted to give people a glimpse of our joyful family life and share these great recipes that I associated with those memories. I set out to write a book about good food and good family times. Then it became an introspective journey into my past and a search for my own identity, I didn’t want to write an archetypal Caribbean story, I wanted to say we are all unique although we are all one people and that’s okay. I wanted to reconcile, as I mentioned earlier, my sense of belonging.
It became in essence an immigrant’s story. It’s easy to see that now, in retrospect, but when I started writing I just focused on one task at a time: first the food photography, then getting my chef friend to edit the recipes, and then it occurred to me that the book needed some binding together, something that differentiated it from other cookbooks, this lead to the writing of the narrative about my history and then I realized it needed a cover and then a title. I worked with an incredible team of people, mostly women and my poor husband had to help me manage all these different personalities while trying to keep the project from suffering from “scope creep”. He said I birthed a baby, because it took nine months to write and it kept growing and growing.
Then there was all the work trying to make it perfect as possible, sweating the details, proofing etc., which was another huge challenge, because by then I was worn out. I may not have succeeded, but I think I succeeded in moving people, because many people see their own diaspora story in the narrative. And I provided them with some fabulous recipes that they will hopefully use and enjoy forever, so I’m proud of that. Did I answer your question?
Diva Foodies: Yes, indeed Robin you more than answered my question! So many people would like to write a cookbook. Based on your experience, what advice would you give them?
Robin Lim Lumsden:
- Get a good agent and work with a publishing house so you don’t have to put up all the money and do all the work yourself.
- Start at the beginning with a specific plot, an outline and a unique selling proposition.
- Choose your target audience. In my case it was people who like to entertain family and friends.
- If you decide you are going to self-publish, like I did, then first decide with your food editor what recipes you are including in the book and get them tested first. Consult your food editor and food stylist the photos you should shoot.
- Basically assemble a great team and then trust them help you. It took me a while to let go of all the work.
For instance, I am very controlling and I wanted the food to look like real food, so I insisted on cooking everything myself, much to the frustration of my food stylist who is super talented wanted to cook the dishes specifically for food styling. I think there was value in what each of us was trying to do, but I should probably have trusted her more. Thank God remained friend. It’s a fine balance because the book is your vision and you have to keep creative control of that and what you want it to look like and be, while letting the experts in the various areas do their job.
Diva Foodies: Let’s change dishes, so to speak, and talk about Belcour Preserves. You began as a home cook and hobby gardener and now are the owner of Belcour Preserves, a thriving culinary business. Many in our Diva Foodies community are small business owners. What are some of your challenges growing an international food company? In other words what keeps you up at night Robin?
Robin Lim Lumsden: Firstly you have to be in it for the long haul. We’ve been at it for 10 years. My grandfather and father were in business for at least 30 years before they were successful.
Then it helps if you have a supportive family and they are willing to put up some of the initial startup capital. It’s hard borrowing from a bank when you have an idea for a business and you have to pay high interest rates when you’re not making any money and you don’t know if the business is going to work. I grew up in a manufacturing business so I had some idea of the work involved and the risk my family took and what they went through, but I thought it would be easier than it has been. I was fortunate that my husband Michael had managed the export for Red Stripe in the States for a number of years, so he knows a lot about that side of things. I call him my competitive advantage, but sometimes there is tension between us, because Mike is also my husband.
You can’t know or run every aspect of your business you have to have partners who have other competences. Mike and I are a team, but we also work with other great people, like Icon Food Marketing in the US. There is also lot of bureaucratic red tape in Jamaica; fortunately Michael knows the ins and outs and has the patience to deal with all the agencies involved in export, including the FDA in the US. We have recently found importers and distributors in the US, after about 5 years of trying, but here’s where the fun begins, because selling in the vast USA is a whole different ball game to selling the products in tiny Jamaica.
As a dear friend of ours in the food business once said, getting the products on the shelf is one thing, getting them off, is another.
What keeps me up at night is wondering when we are going to realize our dream of having an international gourmet food business. I feel we are on the runway, but you know there is many a slip, so I am anxious for America to discover how great our Belcour sauces and condiments are.
Diva Foodies: Belcour’s products range from honey, from your own hives (!), to hot pepper sauces, savory condiments & fruit preserves. All look delicious. We like that you support local farmers. Farm-to-table movement is rapidly growing in the States. Can you speak to us a bit about your preservation beliefs?
Robin Lim Lumsden: Calling the business Belcour Preserves was not an accident. In a way it was a double entendre. The concept of food preservation – making jams (fruit preserves) and condiments and sauces – is as old as the hills. We preserve our products naturally using the old fashion techniques of heat, sugar and vinegar, so they are all natural and devoid of any chemical additives or preservatives, so we are in essence, preserving food traditions. We may add other products list in the future such as pickles and dry rubs. That is how the work “to preserve” applies to food.
Lastly, like most people across the globe, we are increasingly concerned about the preservation of our natural environment and the preservation of life on this planet. Not to get too deep, but it is clear that using sustainable farming methods, eating what we grow, supports local agriculture and our farmers, leaves a smaller environmental footprint. In so doing we preserves our health, the financial health of our country and the health of the world. It’s a virtuous cycle that makes total sense.
Diva Foodies: You write a Facebook page, we like to call it a social media assets. How are you using digital and social media to extend you brand for Belcour Preserves and your cookbook? What is working best for you and why?
Robin Lim Lumsden: I was trained in Integrated Marketing Communication in the early 1990s, that’s before the Internet, also just around the time when the reliance on traditional media advertising and newspapers was drastically decreasing as communication vehicles and information technology has supplanted these. What I’ve discovered, however, is that you can apply all the same skills and communication theory to social media. People want content, they want information and they want to receive this from friends and through social media.
I was afraid of social media at first and then I discovered that it is a dream medium.
Firstly because it’s free and it’s immediate, it has a huge reach, it’s interactive and totally integrated. I love to write and I’m passionate about food, so I’m really enjoying using social media as a vehicle of expression. I feel I’m just getting started. I also love photography and have been taking pictures of my garden and food, so I’ve been exploring this as another form of creative expression.
I try not to hard sell and speak about the products all the time on our business page. That’s so boring and I find it crass. I don’t think people mind occasional self-promotion, but I think in general people are interested in the personalities behind the brand and the personality of the brand itself. They want to know more about the brand story, the development of the company, the wrap around values of a brand, specifically what you and your brand stand for. That I believe is what builds brand equity and brand loyalty.
People want to know how to use your products, how they will better their lives and in general to receive interesting and useful information. Not to come off as being arrogant, I think people want you to keep it real and to go on the entrepreneurial journey with you, to see you fail and try again and to be the first to discover your brand when it was just starting out and was little Thomas the Tank Engine, little engine who “thought he could” climb that hill to success. Facebook | Website
Diva Foodies: We’d love if you would share a favorite recipe with our community.
Robin Lim Lumsden: Toby, I love food, so that’s so hard:
I love to eat so I could go on and on. I’ve attached 2 recipes for you to try out.
Diva Foodies: An important question or two ~ where can we purchase your lovely book and your delicious products?
Robin Lim Lumsden: The book is available on Amazon and I have just got them into Books And Books, an independent chain in Florida. I may also look at trying to get the book into some other independent bookstores in other US cities. We now have two US distributors who are just starting to place our Belcour products on Amazon and in stores on the East Coast and in Florida to begin with. We hope one day to go nationwide.
Diva Foodies: What’s on the horizon for you Robin?
Robin Lim Lumsden: A lot of work in the US promoting Belcour Products throughout the US, then in Canada and in the UK. Developing more products to add to our product line. Another cookbook or book, who knows.
Diva Foodies: As is our tradition at Diva Foodies, we’re tossing the virtual mic to you! Wrap it any way you’d like!
Robin Lim Lumsden: Thanks for your interest in me, Belcour Preserves, Belcour Cookbook and Jamaica. Come visit us and get to know our fascinating country and experience our delicious food yourself. I hope you will watch the progress of our brand in the US and grant me another interview in a few years when the products are nationally distributed.
To all the aspiring authors and entrepreneurs out there, hold onto your dream, don’t listen to people who tell you can’t do it, learn from your mistakes and keep going. Try to “celebrate your muchness” Lewis Carroll and “stay hungry stay foolish” Steve Jobs.