I could never have imagined the road I was walking on when two friends; Aliya Dunstan & Nasaria Budal encouraged me to enter into “this cook off thing”, and sent me the link to the application. I read it and re-read it…waited a few days and read it again. It seemed innocent enough; send in your favourite recipe – if you were selected then you would have to come and cook it…what could it hurt right?
So I sent in a recipe I enjoyed making; bacon and shrimp stuffed lemon sole.
To be honest, I didn’t think much of it after that and when weeks passed and hadn’t had a response, I pretty much forgot about it. I was almost confused when I got a response email from the Bon Vivant staff saying – CONGRATULATIONS! And giving me information on when to show up, what I needed to bring and contest rules.
First thing I did was run to Mom, I briefly explained what I’d gotten myself into and asked if she would assist me. She shrugged…sure, why not. We practiced the dish once, maybe twice so my Mom could see what it was all about – I knew it back to front and before we knew it, it was November and we were off to the first round.
There were 8 contestants chosen from about 26 entries. We had to cook on a stage! In front of a camera! And the judges were head chef’s from the Ritz & Bacchus! My stomach flipped lazily as I watched the competitors before me expertly prepare pecan crusted mahi mahi and lobster mac & cheese in gruyere and wine sauce. What had I gotten myself into?!
I pulled on my custom made apron, courtesy of one of my biggest supporters, my girl Jessica Dawson and despite the butterflies in my stomach, I smiled, so thankful for all the wonderful people I had around me supporting me. Any nerves I had disappeared when it was time to start cooking…zone out…chop, saute, broil – cook time! I couldn’t help but laugh as the chef’s crowded around my saute pan, inhaling deeply and discussing amongst themselves as to whether or not they could simply take that and run with my stuffing; thick cut bacon, mushrooms, onions, garlic…they drooled and reluctantly left the pan where it was.
I looked up and it was over, my dish was plated and handed to the judges. They weren’t gagging or turning green…yet. I listened to their comments of approval, smiling when I realized they really liked it. I wasn’t delusional, I could cook! Feeling accomplished, my Mom and I packed up and left, it had been fun. They let us know that they would contact us if we moved on to the next round, this time I didn’t forget about it and when I got that CONGRATULATIONS email two days later I was thrilled and terrified…what was I going to cook???
We had a week to prepare. All of a sudden my Mom was frantic. What did I mean “again” there wasn’t supposed to be an again! She insisted she couldn’t stand in front of any more cameras and for heavens sake did this mean we had to come up with a different dish? We did. This time we practiced on 4 different occasions; perfecting the reduction on the sauce and the carmelization on the side dish. Finally we had a dish we weren’t just happy with, we were in love with!
Peach & tamarind lamb loin served with basil parmesan yam cakes….oh yea baby!
Yes more cameras, more judges, an audience! Was I shaking? I couldn’t tell since I couldn’t feel my feet. Again, there wasn’t really much time to be nervous though and like it or not, it was go time. Chop, sear, broil, reduce, plate…done! An hour already? Yes and there were the judges again, eating my food! These were chef’s with 20, 30, 40 years experience! Were they really saying they loved my food?! My Mom beamed beside me – they LOVED the yam cakes which had been her idea entirely; though she looked very concerned when I added an entire stick of butter.
“Jo….don’t you think that’s enough butter?”
“Enough? Mom…if Paula Dean heard you…”
And so we were set to wait again, results to be announced on Daybreak the next day. I woke up at 6:45 to catch the program. Sitting with my mom in her living room we tried to act casual…pretending we didn’t care whose names were called as the two finalists but to be honest, I don’t know what was said on the show after they called my name…I couldn’t hear anything over the screaming and boy did we scream. This was unreal! We were going to the Ritz!!!
We floated on clouds of excitement, watching the ads on cable I was stunned to realize the judges for the final round would include Eric Ripert & Anthony Bourdain! We were under the impression we would receive a mystery basket of ingredients to prepare on site so we didn’t even consider any possibilities for the finals, we just enjoyed the ride. It was down to two people, this whole thing had become so much more than I thought it was when we started but wow what a blast we had!
It was Jan. 5th when I got an email from the Bon Vivant staff giving me the rules and details on the big event on the 17th and telling me the requirements for the dish I needed to prepare. Wait….dish? But that left me with less than 2 weeks….I called my Mother in disbelief to give her the news. We were both stunned into silence. What would we cook?
My first idea was to become the dish I eventually decided on, but prior to that we were to try two others repeatedly! Incidentally – if any of you ever want a KILLER oxtail recipe – ready to eat in 45 minutes….let me know. With one week left before the date of the Finals we decided; curry crab rundown with stuffed local snapper and baby cornmeal dumplings. And we practiced…4 times, 6 times? I lost track. We went to every market from West Bay to Bodden Town, I spoke to every fish vendor I could find and talked to ANYONE who had an opinion or suggestion and almost everyone did. The support we got from everyone we came across was phenomenal and I wish I could call and thank everyone individually but my Mom & I were so moved by the outpouring of help we got along the way, it was amazing.
The stuffing for the snapper was graciously given to us by Dave, the owner of our local sausage producers, Caribo; it was a bold, spicy vindaloo pork sausage that simply sang in combination with the light, juicy snapper and mellow coconut milk. The snapper itself was purchased on the competition morning at 7 am from our local fishermen beside Hammer Heads. Even though we practiced with imported snapper bought at the supermarkets, NOTHING compared to the flavour of the fish caught in Cayman’s own waters. In the rundown were various local vegetables, purchased at the Farmer’s Market the Saturday morning before; cassava, sweet potato, scotch bonnet, an escallion the length of your arm and so fragrant you could wear it like perfume, huge ripe plantain, sweet peppers, onion, thyme and fresh dill. My Mother & I vowed to never by produce from the supermarket again, we were in awe at the quality and variety of what was available locally, for MUCH better prices and with superior flavour to anything imported.
This was it! Competition morning! Mom & I were so nervous, we packed the entire kitchen, went over the cooking process repeatedly, checked and re-checked the ingredients. Then there was no time left, we had to go. Pulling up to the Ritz and knowing that I was going to be cooking there in just a few hours was surreal there’s no other word. The Executive Chef’s Assistant led us through the kitchen (the Ritz Kitchen!!!) to our work station and we took in where we would be cooking. I had to pause at the size of the room; how many people would fit in here? 200?
I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I watched the camera crews setting up. As the Chef’s for the Ritz and other restaurants started to filter in we shook hands, smiled and seemed to run on auto pilot as the time ticked away. Mom & I set up our station – pans here, bowls there…were can we fit the cutting board? The crowd for the brunch started to come in…we watched from a distance, nibbling on biscotti and sharing a decaf coffee – 30 minutes left.Back at our station there were Chef jackets waiting for my competitor Charlie Brown and I, our names were embroidered into them – I swooned. This was really happening!
As we stood chatting amongst ourselves the MC for the event came up to us; Food & Wine’s own Gail Simmons – THE Gail Simmons! We had 15 minutes left and the room was now almost full. At the table directly before us, enjoying brunch was Eric Ripert & Anthony Bourdain!
I looked at my ingredients hoping I would remember what to do with them, nervously I fiddled with the knobs on the stove, making sure I knew which burner went to which knob.
Our first “oh crap” moment was upon us, when after introducing the esteemed judges panel and introducing us to the crowd, Gail announced we had 45 minutes to prepare our meal. 45 minutes??? Where was our 15 minutes prep time? We missed it?!!! WHAT??!!!
Instantly we sprang into work, Mom and I muttering between us
“No man, we can do this – 45 minutes – easy ting”
So we chopped, fumbled, tried to boil water…the induction cook top wasn’t working, the water wouldn’t boil! Saute the peppers – wait did we chop the peppers? Crap! Brown the sausage for the stuffing, add the onion – what onion? *groan* I had to mix the cornmeal for the dumplings! Wait..please tell me we have a spoon!!! No spoon!!! 15 minutes left on the clock…where’s the fish? Oh no! – we didn’t pre-heat the oven!
Somewhere along the line we pulled it together and when Gail started her countdown I was garnishing my plates…done! It was over, nothing more to be done now…I went to Charlie and hugged him, turned to my Mom, so thankful for the experience no matter how it turned out.
As the Chef’s began to taste my dish I held my breath and Bourdain nodded his head repeatedly, going for a second forkful…third. Ripert turned to the Chang whispering and pointing at my food. I turned back to clean up my station…I couldn’t watch anymore. My Mom and I were SURE we had lost – Charlie’s plate looked fantastic – he had a chopped fruit salad served in a pineapple! When Gail let me know Ripert had a question for me, I held my breath, certain he would want to know about the bones in the snapper we had filleted ourselves or why the roots in the rundown were still raw. On his fork, waving in air above his head, he had speared a baby cornmeal dumpling and was wondering what it was. I explained to him and he nodded profusely saying;
“I’ve never had these before, it’s very good, very good”
I bit down on a scream, nodded thanks and went back to cleaning my station.
As the Chef’s tasted Charlie’s dish my Mom and I spoke to Charlie about how the shortened time had affected us, what we missed out on and the errors we had made. I was glad to know I had not been alone in my confusion.
And then they were calling the judge’s up on stage with us, calling us to stand in front of the stage and were about to announce the winner. I stared at my toes wondering why my feet seemed to be steady but I felt as if I was reeling.
Gail Simmons paused for dramatic effect, my heart stopped and she called my name. My name…
Four months, 3 dishes, so many, many practices…my Mom…where would I have been without my Mom? No where! I could not have won without her. There were these people congratulating me and I was shaking the Chef’s hands; Andres, Chang, Ripert, Bourdain! And there was Anthony Bourdain whispering in my ear…
“Your dish…it was exceptional…very, very well done. Congratulations.”
My heart thundered and my knees buckled – Anthony Bourdain liked my food!!!!
As the camera flashes went off and we did interview after interview, my cheeks began to hurt from smiling and more than anything else I was so very, very thankful. As friends I knew and people I didn’t came to shake my hand and wish me well I was moved almost to tears by the outpouring of support and genuine well wishes that came from all around me.
Now days after as I settle back to reality, I look at the front page of tomorrow’s Compass and read “Cayman’s top chef crowned” above a picture of Mom & I, and again I am humbled. We will be off to the Ritz Carlton in New York in April, God willing, a first time for both of us. I am unbelievably excited and honoured by the opportunities we have been given and I’m hoping I can say this again and maybe, just maybe everyone will understand how thankful I am to everyone who has stood by me and supported me with not just this, but with everything that has helped me be this person. Thank you.
What a life experience this has been, and it is by no means over.