Culinary Month is a celebration of the flavours, ingredients and talented chefs of the Cayman Islands.
Indeed, as part of the Cayman Cookout event, there’s a culinary cookoff competition that whittles down a host of entrants into two finalists, who will be cooking their final dishes for a panel of celebrity chefs.
In 2010, the competition was won by Jolene Nelson, who wowed a panel including Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and Jose Andres with her dishes.
It all began when friends of the Caymanian chef encouraged her to enter the competition.
“They knew I loved to cook and they came to my house and ate food quite often, so they thought I’d be a good candidate,” she said. “There were two elimination rounds before the final; there were 28 entries in total of whom they picked eight to actually cook in the first round.
“It was a lot more nerve-wracking than I expected it was going to be. Looking at the application I had no idea of the whole scope of what was going to happen. I conned my mum into doing it as my assistant, but neither of us had any idea it was going to be this extravagant affair with cameras, news crews and all the rest of it,” Ms Nelson said.
As the competition progressed toward the final, the demands became greater, with a need for new dishes and time pressures to consider – from raw ingredients to plating in an hour.
“There was a lot of practicing and a lot of eating! I think all of my friends got tired of eating the food and me practicing the dishes on them.”
The talented Caymanian described the final as ‘overwhelming’.
“The judges were culinary giants that we look up to as amateur chefs. Seeing Eric Ripert [and] Anthony Bourdain who is well-known for eating live, beating snake hearts and all sorts of outlandish things.”
Mr. Bourdain was more interested in Ms Nelson’s use of locally sourced ingredients such as her well-received cornmeal dumplings on this occasion, however, and complimented her warmly.
“To have someone like Anthony Bourdain say you’ve made great food is quite an achievement and a memory I’ll carry with me forever, I’m sure,” she said.
The experience of cooking in front of the camera, on a stage in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom, no less, is nothing if not
unique. With cameras ready to pick up on any mistake, both Ms Nelson and fellow finalist Charles Brown were under additional pressure.
“Because it was a man-made stage rather than a kitchen, the oven didn’t heat properly. You had all of these competition drama scenarios playing out in front of you. We forgot ingredients at home
and had no spoon to mix with… all of these things that are bound to happen when you are at a competition.
“It was so close, our competitor did this wonderful dish which was plated so nicely; it was an overwhelming thing. It was fantastic, it really was,” she said.
The prize was a trip to New York to see the Food & Wine Best New Chefs Event plus two nights at the Ritz-Carlton there. It was the first time she and her mother had visited that city. Quite a prize and an unexpected one.
“It was really fantastic; I honestly didn’t see myself winning. I didn’t ever think it would get to that point. You know, when you see an email and enter a cooking thing you don’t see yourself going to an international culinary festival. It really was a beautiful, beautiful thing,” she said.
Food is art
This year, Jolene Nelson is one of the semi-final judges,
which she described as an honour.
“It’s much nicer being on that side of the stage rather than literally in the heat of the kitchen,” she added wryly.
As for this year’s competitors, the current champion said that the finalists this year – Fraser Hughes and Tessa Gall – must centre themselves to prepare for the task ahead.
“It’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with, being creative and not necessarily following pre-set standards for what you think are acceptable, that people look at for food. Try something new and have fun with it. The stress part of it I can’t do anything about – but food is an art form in and of itself. Everybody loves good food; everybody loves to eat so make good food and everybody’s happy.”
Fundamentally, there’s a growing culinary expertise in the Cayman Islands that has developed significantly, concluded the chef.
“Cayman has really blossomed over the past few years; it’s gone into a whole new area with cooking. People are really seeing the value in local produce when once upon a time everything was important. One competitor this year had local duck as one of his ingredients. One of the crowning achievements of my final dish was that everything was local; we have local sausage, the fish was from the fishermen by Hammerheads on the morning of the competition, a beautiful snapper.
“You can’t compare the imported stuff. So pay attention to what’s local and really see the value in it. Everything is great quality now and it’s definitely worth it. This food festival in January is a huge event and it’s growing in leaps and bounds. A lot of people don’t really take advantage of it and get involved; there’s so many great things going on, for kids and local chefs putting their talents out there. People should take advantage of it.”