Last week I dolled up myself, just a little and strutted over to the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. It was time for the Taste of the Caribbean 2016. Hosted by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourist Association. Taste of the Caribbean (TOC) is a 4- day long showcase of Caribbean food and drink put on by the best talent across the region. For a food-obsessed Caribbean Chef like yours truly this was the ultimate high.
As I entered the venue, teeming with the activities of 14 teams at work, I was immediately drawn to team Barbados. Their movements were so in sync it was obvious that they had spent time working together. Assistant Team Manager, Glenroy Alleyne explained to me later on that they had spent 3 months hosting a series of dinners at home in preparing for TOC. Asked how egos were balanced he quickly replied “There are no egos. We’re a team. Everyone understands that we’re representing our country. Our individual actions reflects on the whole country.” They would eventually score a silver team medal and a few other prizes including the top honor, Chef of the Year. A few hours before claiming the Chef of the Year award, Chef Damian Leach said to me “this is the highest award in this industry in our country. If I win tonight, my whole life changes.”
Over the course of 3 days and several events I had the opportunity to talk with and observe many of the competitors at work. One of the things I heard repeatedly was that, because Jamaican cuisine and culture is so well-known, many patrons compared the flavors of their dishes to Jamaican food. A few Chefs remarked that they were compelled to explain the difference. So I was more than a little disappointed to see the crowd favorite walk away in 3rd place. On the other hand a conversation I had with a fellow Jamaican on day 2 went a long way toward explaining the ultimate outcome.
There we were sitting in a crowd watching a bartending competition and making small talk. She said something about COOKED Pork Tartare and I squealed “them mek Mark manager the team?” and from there my expectations for ‘my team’ sank. You see Mark is Mark Cole the Executive Chef for one of Kingston Jamaica’s most prestigious hotels. He is also the man who famously jerked pork, chopped it up, molded it, called is tartare and served it to President Obama. Mark’s #TeamJamaica proudly repeated this faux paux at the TOC. It left me wondering, didn’t anyone on that team know that tartare is a dish of seasoned raw meat molded into a small cake? Did the actions of 1 man cause the entire team to falter?
Still one can’t help but wonder why a Chef of Mr. Cole’s caliber would allow a dish that completely betrays its name on the menu and on the stage with so much at stake. Or, what else may have been changed had this menu truly been a team effort instead of a grand staging of one man’s vision. Jamaican Chef, Patrice Malcolm would eventually walk away with a conciliatory bronze medal for her hard work.
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In between the competitions there was plenty to keep patrons fed and entertained. Bartender Phillip Antoine, last year’s gold medalist motivated the entire room into cheering for his fellow Barbadian Ryan Adamson. Adamson would end up sharing the gold with Paul Petersen of St. Martin/ St. Marteen and Frank Robinson from USVI. Team Jamaica’s Adrian Johnson would take home a silver medal.
On day 3 There was plenty of traditional and Caribbean inspired fare to feast on. Each participating island served up samples of traditional island fare complemented by countless cocktails. Costumed dancers jamming to soca and reggae beats kept the crowd on their feet. I discovered that Bajan make fried dumplings just like Jamaicans and confirmed that my Bahamian Conch Chowder recipe could hold up against the authentic stuff. I ran into some old acquaintances and made new ones. But best of all I had the amazing opportunity to talk and eat with a bunch of wonderfully talented people who share my passion for great food.
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Sian Rose is an award- winning Chef who has appeared on the Food Network. Her first cookbook Nyammings: 88 Authentic Caribbean Recipes, can be found on Amazon.com in print and Kindle. Visit Sian’s website at www.sianscooking.com to stay up to date with all her culinary adventures.