Growing up, Atarah Thompson never wanted to be a chef, she aspired to be a teacher. But after years of tasting her grandmother’s cooking, she just knew she had to bring more of it to the world.
Thompson, 27, a student at the Culinary Institute of America since September, largely credits those years growing up as the beginning of her culinary experience.
“Some of her earliest memories are of being in the kitchen and breathing in the divine smell of her grandmother, Mary Ann ‘Frances’ Ramoon, cooking homemade cakes and patties. It was nothing fancy, yet the flavours were outstanding and stuck with her – especially her conch stew and barbecue chicken.
“By cooking, I feel I can bring a part of me and what I have learned to the world and to make my family and my country proud by bringing a part of us to them,” Thompson said.
Thompson wants to stick to traditional Caymanian cooking, “such as the nice seasonings on the food – especially in the stews and rundowns”, she said.
Thompson credits Kenrick Webster, of Webster’s Tours, for believing in her and giving her the chance to further her studies with a donation of $19,077.
After Thompson attained an associate degree from the University College Cayman Islands in hospitality management, things became more complicated for her to continue her studies. Finances were limited, and Cayman didn’t offer a higher degree in the culinary arts.
To keep her focussed, Thompson grew her knowledge of the culinary arts by attending work experience events at Hard Rock Cafe, trained at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort, participated in the Department of Tourism apprentice programme and volunteered at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman culinary cook-off, where she met world-renowned chef Jose Andres, who signed an autograph for her.
Webster said Thompson’s mother, Zemrie, approached him to help her daughter. After meeting with Atarah, she assured him that if he put his efforts into her career, he would not regret it.
Webster said he locally sourced the funds to send her to school with a big chunk coming from Crystal Caves Cayman to make it possible for her to go to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, which he said he was quite familiar with because of their high standards and since he had supported another student through the same programme.
“As a young Caymanian, we want to give them hope. Once they have the confidence and show enthusiasm, equally it’s our part to try and encourage them,” Webster said.
Thompson said it took time to adjust and she missed her family but she’s loving every minute of her New York experience.
“At the school the culture is amazing. Chinese, Asians, Canadians, Caribbean and even people from New Guinea; it’s a lot to take in,” she said.
So far, Thompson said she has been involved in fundamentals of cooking, food safety courses and gastronomy, and wants to join various school clubs. The course is a four-year bachelor’s degree programme but Thompson can use her UCCI credits to finish her studies in 2021.
After finishing her studies, Thompson hopes to prepare some special dishes for her sponsors as well as work at a local restaurant.
Eventually, she plans to start her own restaurant using products that are locally sourced, basically from farm to table.
“It will be a restaurant, farmers market and catering centre combined into one. That’s what my idea is now. A little bit of international also but mostly with my grandmother’s favourite cassava and cream wheat cakes,” Thompson said.