Talented Caymanians and residents are being sought for the Cayman Cookout 2012 Bon Vivant Cook-off series.
This popular competition is becoming one of the most highly anticipated events in Culinary Month and it is only open to non-professional chefs who have never worked in a professional kitchen.
2010 winner Jolene Nelson tells Weekender that the process – which involves two qualifying rounds before the final itself – can be something of a shock to the system.
“At first it was just a little nerve-wracking as I’m not a particularly public person and I always get nervous speaking or being in front of people I don’t know.
“Once I passed the first competition, it became way more stressful as the level of skill increased and people became more competitive, but all in all, since I really love cooking and sharing my food with people, it was fun and I just tried to make that my focus,” she says.
Applications for that initial elimination challenge are open until 31 October. Eight contestants will be announced on Thursday, 10 November, and round one is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, 28 and 29 November. Round two – effectively the semi-finals – is on Wednesday and Thursday, 7 and 8 December.
“The biggest challenges for me was keeping calm while I was cooking and remembering everything I had to prepare,” says 2011 co-winner Tessa Gall.
“I always wanted to enter a cooking competition, to win, it was a wonderful feeling and it proved to me that I am a really a good cook and if you work hard you can be successful.”
Her fellow winner Fraser Hughes adds it was stressful to take a personal hobby and make it public and open to criticism.
“But I’m really glad that I did and got to share it with so many highly skilled local chefs and food critics whose opinions I hold in such high esteem.”
Those judges at the final have included such luminaries as Anthony Bourdain, Jose Andres and Eric Ripert. So how does one ensure the ‘wow’ factor is present?
“The advice that we received over and over again was to keep it simple. I agree with that, but would qualify it. I would say make it taste good first.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with creativity, unusual ingredients, elaborate preparation techniques, and artful presentation. But if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter.
“Start with a recipe that is simple and tastes good, then build on it, but always ask the question: does this actually make the dish taste better, or is it fanciful for fanciful sake? Does it detract from its simple deliciousness, or build on it? Fish is a perfect (and very Cayman) example.
So many of last year’s contestants did an incredible job cooking fish to absolute perfection.
Like most of us, the judges would rather have a wonderfully fresh, perfectly cooked piece of fish with the simplest of sauces and sides, than a tower of plate art featuring stale overcooked fish.
“My other piece of advice is to start with ingredients that taste good. This is something that became more and more clear to me as I practiced dishes for the Cook-off. Some of Cayman’s local produce is absolutely out of this world. Go to the farmers market, smell and taste everything, and don’t be afraid to think about new ways of using local ingredients.
Foreign cookbooks will never know local ingredients like you can. Try to build the distinctiveness of local ingredients into your recipes.”
It’s a journey that starts sooner than you think but one that can have great rewards, Jolene muses.
“I can without a doubt say that participating in and winning the competition steered my life in a whole new and wonderful direction.
“Since winning, I’ve been invited to do numerous cooking demonstrations with Bon Vivant and National Trust as well as some private events.
“Best of all, I was actually offered a job and have been working in the culinary division at The Ritz-Carlton, which is fantastic! It’s great being able to have something you love and live it every day.”
So come on Cayman, let’s see – and taste – what you’re made of.
The final takes place during the 2012 Cayman Cookout Bon Vivant Champagne Brunch on Sunday, 15 January, from noon to 3pm.
The grand prize winner receives a trip for two to the Food & Wine Best New Chef event in New York City, with airfare provided by Cayman Airways, hotel by the Ritz-Carlton and lunch at Le Bernardin.Sponsored by Bon Vivant, the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, Masi and The Journal.
Application forms can be downloaded from compasscayman/cookoff
Submit recipes to [email protected] or return applications to the store by 5pm Monday, 31 October.