Sting’s Cook: an interview with Tai Lopez

Sting & Shaggy performed two concerts in the Roman Theatre in Plovdiv last week. Smokini had the privilege and pleasure to welcome the musicians during their visit to the city.

Sting & Shaggy performed two concerts in the Roman Theatre in Plovdiv last week. Smokini had the privilege and pleasure to welcome the musicians during their visit to the city.

Here is roughly how it went: Sting's cook, Tai Lopez, was preparing the dishes for him and Shaggy in our kitchen, while our culinary team was focused on providing the breakfast, lunch and dinner menu for the rest of the musicians. Honestly, for our team, these were two days filled with music and fun!

We are pleased to share a short interview we made with Tai Lopez, a chef who has had the opportunity to cook for Sting and many other celebrities. We talked about music, adventures and his culinary experience. Enjoy reading!

Smokini: Welcome to Plovdiv! We know you are quite busy cooking for Sting & Shaggy, yet we could not resist asking you a few questions. Since we are always seeking new horizons in taste, we would like to learn about your greatest culinary adventure so far.

Tai Lopez: My whole life story is a great adventure. I first entered the professional kitchen when I was fifteen, working backstage in music venues in London - cooking, washing up, and helping around. Then I got trained by many chefs and traveled the world with different artists, not just with Sting. So I am still on that adventure.

Smokini: What kind of family are you coming from?

Tai Lopez: My family cooks a lot, my parents met in London many years ago - my father coming from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and my mother is Scottish. London is a cosmopolitan city of many cultures and is great for young cooks - you pick up many different styles, food, and cultures, trying to understand people through their food. Later on, I have taken time out and run a few restaurants to get more experience as a chef. And all that time I was around music, my whole career has been like that.

Smokini: How would you describe your cooking style?

Tai Lopez: Well, it is a fusion of multicultural foods and strong Asian, Afro-Caribbean, modern European and American cuisine. I try to understand the taste of American, English, Italian, Spanish, the different European cultures, and also Australia and Asia, the various people I have met over the years. And it really touches them when you serve something very close to their home cooking when they are away and traveling. So my culture being the cosmopolitan city of London, my style is modern world cuisine.

Smokini: What do you think - when people travel do they want to taste something new or they prefer to eat their favorite meals?

Tai Lopez: It really depends. Sometimes people want to try something new, and at other times they need comfort and want to try things from home. It is a form of art to be able to read that - to inspire them with new meals, but also to comfort them at times.

Smokini: Have you been to Bulgaria before?

Tai Lopez: Yes, I was in Bulgaria with Roger Waters not so long ago for his concert in Sofia. On that particular tour I was cooking for the whole group, so we provided service for 100 – 120 people, including Roger Waters who eats with his crew. There was a big buffet with really nice food and they were all dining together like a big family. Right now with Sting, we have a smaller group, but the same family atmosphere. We get very close when on the road. 

Smokini: Which part of that tour you enjoyed most?

Tai Lopez: I really enjoyed the part where some twenty local kids get the chance to perform the song “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone” with Roger Waters on stage. These kids have the opportunity to come and join us on the huge buffet full of cakes and soft drinks. They have a great time and it is a nice to see them so happy to have this experience. That is fun.

Smokini: Are you familiar with the Bulgarian cuisine?

Tai Lopez: I see the food that you are cooking in the kitchen is of different origins. I see the Italian and Greek influence. It is very interesting for me.

Smokini: You tried our typical salad yesterday at lunch – cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese. It is called Shopska and comes with a chili pepper and olives…

Tai Lopez: Yeah, it was very nice. I will try to remember it as it was really tasty! All the food that I tried at Smokini has been excellent.

Smokini: Do you have a favorite Bulgarian product?

Tai Lopez: I don’t know really. Last time I did not get the chance to go shopping and this time they just took me to a supermarket that may be was not the best. So, I did not have a lot of time to really go to many markets and see for myself or have the time on this trip. But I would like to come back to.

Smokini: Do you like to experiment in the kitchen?

Tai Lopez: I really like to do that. I think it is a great way to improve my cooking through experimentation. It is always good to try new things because you never know what you might discover. The more you understand your palette, the taste buds on your tongue – the sweet, the sour and the salt, the heat, the balance to get that right, the better a chef you get. Eventually, you can create something in your mind and know how it will taste when you prepare it.

Smokini: How can you define cooking?

Tai Lopez: Cooking ultimately is a science, so as an individual chef you want to perfect your science. It is a passion that drives you and there is an excitement in the mind to create things. The more you understand food, the more ideas you get. Talent is natural, but people that lack talent can learn and be strict in following the recipes. 

Smokini: You have been to many countries; which cuisine do you find most exciting?

Tai Lopez: I like many different countries for various reasons. I really enjoyed a tour with Paul McCartney in South America some years ago for the barbecue and how they cook meat on open flames. Now there are so many modern techniques and that is science that has gone a little crazy. But ultimately, if you know how to cook meat on traditional open fire really well – that is real perfection and something I enjoyed all over South America and how it changes from Chili down to Argentina. So, the BBQ experience was my most favorite.

Smokini: You picked our restaurant based on a visit from one of your team members. He photographed and tried our food. Can you tell us more about that?

Tai Lopez: Yeah, we have a production team that sets up all the locations and local productions that invite us for the show. We rely on the locals to cover all the services - to feed the crew and to provide a cooking area for me. So that is how they found you guys, and now we are here together.Smokini: What do you think about our kitchen?

Smokini: Does Smokini live up to your expectations?

Tai Lopez: Totally! It has been a wonderful experience! We met the team, many new people and that is part of life – to get to know the people and be friendly and nice to each other, as we are one big family on this planet. I am meeting with many different cultures and I always have a good time. So, yes, you are really good!

Smokini: What do you think about our kitchen?

Tai Lopez: Honestly, I really enjoyed the food and it seems you have many chefs there! I have worked with many other kitchens where the team is much smaller. But you can produce a lot of food very quickly, so you are really fast around the kitchen. You have a good team and they are all keen and happy. They work well together and want to learn, so I guess you can push them even more and bring them to a new level. I see the ability there.

This is a fantastic family restaurant, with excellent food - it looks great, you use only fresh ingredients, so you can’t go wrong with the formula you have. It depends on your vision – where you want to go. There is a lot of competition, restaurants with Michelin stars, but I do not think it is always needed. If you are successful in what you are doing now and have enough customers, you do not really need that.

Smokini: Which essential ingredients you couldn’t live without while cooking?

Tai Lopez: Oh, the basics – garlic, onions, ginger, carrots. You need all the basic ingredients, your olive oil, all your seasonings – spices, peppers, salt. There are quite a few basic ingredients I can’t really live without. I like to have all the dry ingredients like rice and grains. I also like to go out and buy fresh stuff I see when I travel. I do not plan, I go and see what there is. Sometimes I do make little plans, but then they change according to what I find and what is better. In short time I have to find ingredients and prepare them, which is a challenge.

Smokini: What is Sting’s favorite dish?

Tai Lopez: He loves fish and different soups, organic food, brown rice, whole grain food that has not been processed too much. I know that he likes to eat healthily and intuitively I prepare such food for him. I also try to keep it light, as he is performing on stage.

Smokini: Is it a challenge to cook for Sting & Shaggy?

Tai Lopez: It is, but any job is a challenge and I really enjoy it. I know I can cook all those great different dishes. It is nice to be able to see how they enjoy the food I cook for them. Now with Shaggy here, I have that culture in me, so it is nice to be able to provide the Caribbean and Jamaican food for him. In fact, I have prepared some in the kitchen today – I have made a beef pepper pot, which is like a beef stew, jalapenos chili and spice, and it is cooked for 4.30 hours for the meat to get tender and perfect and now it is ready in the kitchen.

I also made a version of Jamaican-Caribbean style stew chicken, which is chicken seasoned up with a lot of spices – paprika, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, lime, and spring onions. I marinated it for an hour or two, then put it sealed in the oven on high heat to get a nice color on it. Then in a pot, I prepared some peppers, onions, and carrots with some other Caribbean spices similar to what was on the chicken and combine that all with some soy sauce and some water and then I let that cook. That is a spicy kind of Caribbean style stew. The beef is similar, but a slightly different variation.

I also made a dish I call “Rice and Peas” – that is Caribbean rice and kidney beans. The rice has cooked in the juice of the kidney beans with coconut milk, thyme, garlic and hot pepper added. It takes on that flavor and the color of the beans a little bit. That is very traditional Jamaican and Caribbean style meal.

Smokini: Can you find a difference in the meat here in Bulgaria? Especially the beef?

Tai Lopez: Meat can be different all over. The meat that I bought for this stew was quite a tough piece and it took a lot of time to cook, but Jamaican meat can also be like that. The quality of the meat depends on how the animals have been looked after. If they are looked after well, the meat can be much better. I believe in countries like Bulgaria, you have that traditional style of animal breeding and the quality of the food is very good. I can see the tomatoes and all the varieties of the zucchinis, the different colors, the freshness, and the taste. You have very good quality ingredients.

Smokini: Can you tell us a joke, something funny from your cooking experience?

Tai Lopez: I can tell you a funny story about a chef on one of the big music awards events in London. We had to do the catering and cook for a lot of crew. That is quite an experience cooking for more than 15 000 people in massive kitchens. One of the chefs used another kitchen to put all those lasagnas in and then when he went back they were all burnt, so it was funny how he destroyed all those lasagnas literally for 300 people. When things go wrong in the kitchen it is not so nice at the moment, but later on, when you look at it, it is kind of funny. Because he is a good chef and it was not his fault, but somehow that happened. Such things happen in the kitchen and you have to adapt and overcome them.

Smokini: What about the locations you are cooking at?

Tai Lopez: A week ago, just before I came on this job, I was the head chef running a big operation for Taylor Swift at the Etihad stadium in Manchester. We had like 20 chefs and 10 washing up staff and a lot of agencies there that have never done it before. It was really difficult, but we pulled it off, the food was really nice. It is amazing how we did it – 350 people and we only had 3 days to plan it all and come up with ideas and order all the food for two days of catering on a stadium gig. We had a buffet with lots of different meals, similar to the ones you are doing here. We had a dessert section with lots of cookies, different nuts, and fruits, chocolates, cupcakes. It is really nice to make big eat-as-much-as-you-can buffets for everyone to help themselves. We also arranged a nice setting with a lot of trees, tables, and chairs. The dining room was very nice, like an art piece. It was quite a spectacle.

Smokini: Thank you for this interview, it was a great pleasure to have you here!

Tai Lopez: Thank you too, Smokini! Keep up the good work!