Firing up the ‘big guns’ for Taste of the Caribbean
Guardian Lifestyles Editor
Published: Jun 22, 2013
Bahamian culinary teams to the annual Taste of the Caribbean competition have for the most part done relatively well, and returned home with hardware to their credit. But those squads have usually been comprised of junior chefs to give them a taste of competition. But this year to give the Bahamian team a better opportunity to take all the gold, and return home with the coveted Chef of the Year title, the team’s manager has assembled some of the big guns in the field.
Selected to the squad for the June 26-30 competition at the Hyatt Regency in Miami are chefs Sheldon Tracey Sweeting, a private award-winning pastry chef; Emmanuel Gibson, executive chef at the One&Only Ocean Club; Chef Simeon Hall Jr., corporate chef, Twisted Lime; Jamal Small from the Dune Restaurant, One&Only Ocean Club; Ron Johnson, owner of Savory Art; Charon McKenzie, junior sous chef at the Lyford Cay Club; Ancilleno Solomon, junior executive sous chef, Luciano’s of Chicago, and Junior Chef Dwayne Sinclair, a student at Lincoln Culinary Arts Institute, Fort Lauderdale.
The Bahamian squad of two senior chefs, one junior chef, one bartender, one pastry chef and one manager will be one of 14 teams from the region competing in a hot food/culinary team competition, bartender competition and pastry competition.
“In previous years, what we tried to do was hone the young people to be on the team, but we noticed that other countries had people on their teams who had been there for 15 years, and even since the competition started, so we decided to go back to our veteran guns,” said Chef Devin Johnson of his squad. “We put more of the senior persons on the team, to give us a better chance to take top gold and the whole show overall, but we still have some youth on the team,” he said.
The squad goes into the region’s prized mystery basket competition, an annual Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association event with a plan of attack to blend the best of Bahamian, Caribbean and international flavors. No matter the vegetable they get, Johnson said it would be pickled. Whatever beef they get their plan is to braise it. And whatever other protein they are surprised with, their plan of action is to make sausage.
Teams are assigned items from the mystery basket from which a three-course menu (appetizer, entrée and dessert) has to be developed within one hour. After the menu is developed, teams have three hours to prepare the meal, which is then served to attendees. The top scoring team on the culinary team competition receives the award of Caribbean Culinary Team of the Year. One senior chef and one junior chef from each participating team competes in an individual competition to select the Caribbean Chef of the Year and the Caribbean Junior Chef of the Year.
“The only thing we can do is put together our concepts and taking some of our cooking methods and enhancing them in a more beautiful style and giving the judges flavor,” said Chef Johnson who is in his fourth year as team manager.
The team has been practicing for eight months in preparation. They recently put some of their concepts on display at a demonstration dinner at the One & Only Ocean Club that was an eight-course extravaganza — an amuse bouche (duck prosciutto and melon); Long Island sweet corn soup with mini corn bird pepper muffin (prepared by Chef Ron); Backyard Farmer’s Plate (prepared by Chef Simeon); Spicy Bimini conch tortellini, fresh thyme and fennel cream (prepared by Chef Emmanuel); plantain-dusted Nassau grouper, pumpkin, black-eyed peas and okra succotash (prepared by Chef Johnson); Sands beer, vanilla shandy sorbet, Tamarine-braised short rib, farm chicken and smoked apple sausage, cassava puree with roast garlic (prepared by Chef Jamal) and white chocolate and coconut Bavarian with passion fruit, dark chocolate, sugar banana ice cream and mangola (prepared by Chef Sheldon).
During the cocktail hour, the passed hors d’oeuvres — compressed watermelon with feta balsamic lobster and green mango with artichoke and yellow grits and mushroom croquette crab and dough with crab butter were served.
Chef Charon McKenzie will compete in the bartender competition, for the title of Caribbean Bartender of the Year. Competitors prepare a variety of drinks to demonstrate their creativity, skills, personality and showmanship. There are three rounds of competition for beverages in the categories of non-alcoholic, vodka and rum. Each bartender has five minutes to prepare three portions of the beverage. In the final round, bartenders have 30 minutes to review the content of a mystery bar and then design a cocktail of their choice. After helping out the bartender at competition last year, McKenzie was given bartending tasks this year. His drinks include the Bahamian Summer Night Heat (Peach Schnapps, Bacardi white, Bacardi gold, spicy syrup and beet juice), Come Here Let Me Fix Ya (avocado puree, lemon-flavored soda, martini, vodka, cilantro, lemon and rimmed with cool ranch-flavored chips) and the Bahamian Shake n’ Whine (fresh juiced fruits of papaya, mango, pineapple and watermelon).
Pastry chefs create in advance, a dessert recipe that they prepare during four hours at the event. The top pastry chef is selected the Caribbean Pastry Chef of the Year.
In addition to the team competitions, various categories of individual competitions are available to participating team members. During these competitions, each individual must create in a two-hour period a dish showcasing the main ingredient from a mystery basket. A winner is selected for each of the individual competitions.
With days before the team heads to Miami, Chef Johnson said he literally had to beg some of the senior chefs to return to the squad, but he’s glad he did and that they agreed to. He said bringing together veterans at their level presented challenges but that it worked out in the end and that the team is ready for battle.
“The guys may know their stuff but they still had to gel as a team … that was the most difficult part about a senior team or a veteran team because everyone has different styles and everyone has different cooking methods, so you will have arguments all the time, but you have to disagree to agree. So sometimes I would just leave and let the argument go on and then we’ll come to an agreement. You may send the dirty emails, say this and that, and you may not speak to me for a day or two, or even a week, but afterwards we come back together.”
Bahamas Culinary Association President Executive Chef Michael Adderley said this year’s Taste team is probably the oldest, mature team that they have ever sent to the competition. And he believes that with this team, The Bahamas has the opportunity to go further than previous teams.
“This team is ready. This team has seasoned players. This team has unique players. This team I feel can do something that can make us get the only prize we haven’t won at Taste – Chef of the Year,” he said.
The team departs New Providence on Wednesday. Competition takes place Thursday through Sunday. Upon their return, Chef Johnson anticipates returning with all the gold.