My third day here. Around 8:30am Tuesday morning a tall, dark-skinned Lucian decked in dark, gold-rimmed shades picks me up at my door. As I entered his car I am met with a smile and somewhat of a rehearsed cab driver/passenger greeting, a funny one given too, I’m sure every visitor to the island that graces his brown car doors receives. With promises to get me there in no time. My taxi driver flew down the hilly, hairpin bend back roads in the attempt by pass the Castries traffic to get me to the Castries Comprehensive Secondary School on time to be apart the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) National Culinary Competition 2017.
I assisted the day before in preparing for this event. A yearly preliminary judging that takes place in most Caribbean islands, choosing the best of the best chefs to represent their country at the anticipated Taste of the Caribbean competition held in Miami, Florida. Sponsored fresh fruits and vegetables delivered direct from local farmers a part of the SLHTA’s Virtual Agriculture Clearing House initiative (VACH). Together with pantry items, fresh and salted fish, cryovac bags of meat and poultry stacked in disposable coolers line two of the long countertops of the large home economics room at the secondary school. I was so ready for this day, for just the scene of head chefs dressed in monogrammed coats and tall hats preparing mystery baskets of ingredients, talking amongst themselves of best practices and giving pep talks to the competing chefs as keen eyes of students and well-wishers pierce through the ground floor windows to the large room an overwhelming feeling came over me. I doubt anyone noticed though, as the only lady chef on that day in a judging capacity I had to be cool and collected. Okay Leigh-Ann – first time to the island to judge your first serious cooking competition, ha! Yeah whatever with the cool and collected crap.
Taste of St. Lucia posted by MBS Television Saint Lucia via Facebook
Wendel George – such a professional person who wants the best for the youth and the island is one of the main persons that made the day’s event take off and run smooth. He is the Apprenticeship Coordinator at the SLHTA and overseas a program that places culinary students and unemployed youth in the Hospitality and Tourism Industry. Wendel, now considered my tall, younger brother is a celebrity – everyone knows him! From head chefs and managing staff of the St Lucia Culinary Team, various media houses covering the event, the teachers at the school to the competing chefs and line cooks. He is what we in the US call “a mover and shaker”. As he hands me a clip board with pages of judging criteria, dressed in his long-sleeved SLHTA monogrammed shirt my day, a delicious day had officially started.
With 100 points given in each of the five cooking categories mirroring the Taste of the Caribbean competition: Junior Chef, Beef & Seafood Round, Chef of the Year and Pastry Round. I and two other judges tasted twenty-one dishes over two days. The chefs, constantly encouraged to go back to their roots, to represent and showcase local ingredients. An ideal that can be lost in young, ambitious chefs focusing on technique and plating ideas and forget how to treat and enhance the flavors of local ingredients. And that’s the thing about Caribbean cooking. The story that is told through local and indigenous fresh vegetables and fruits. Meat and fish seasoned in jewel colored herb blends and a myriad of spices. The vibrancy of the flavors. The intensity of the colors. All supporting characters in a story only we can tell.
Normally I’m glued to my phone, taking pictures of food from every angle to post and comment about its deliciousness. But this day I focused on the competing chefs: their cooking and interpersonal skills to engage respective hospitality students of the school that graciously volunteered to assist for that day. And their ability to transform foods they grew up eating into fine dining quality and winning dishes Boy did I taste good food! The dishes that stood out for me – Christophine and Ginger puree, Provincial mashes made from the ground provision the island is known for like Sweet Potatoes and marbled colored Yams. Breadfruit, Green Figs and sweet Plantains. In the Chef of the Year competition, one chef created a spice rub for his beef course after an inspiring hiking trip countryside. To top it off the most amazing Soursop mouse and Sorrel glaze I’ve ever had for dessert. My words can never make up for the lack of pictures but you have to trust me when I say there is a lot of talented chefs on the island of St Lucia.
There is also room for growth from the younger competing chefs. That reminded of my time in culinary school prepping for my last final. The nerves, the ideas circling my head: “use salt, did I use enough salt?” “Oh god, is it cooked yet?” “Why isn’t cooked yet!” ‘I have five more minutes!
What sets you apart from others is being true to yourself, your craft and culture. Unless practiced or have working knowledge you should not set out to create anything foreign to you especially when competing! In cooking you must exude confidence and if that means executing a dish your grandmother handed down to you–do it! Turn it into something amazing. Wow the judges with the story and flavors and don’t forget to use salt!
The result are in meet the 2017 Saint Lucia Culinary Team!
I’m honored to have experience Lucian food and be a part of the National Culinary Competition. These guys are doing great things for themselves and the island of St Lucia. I will see y’all in June!