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Copyright 2005 Susan Pierres


Copyright 2005 Susan Pierres


Copyright 2005 Susan Pierres


Copyright 2005 Susan Pierres











“TASTE OF THE CARIBBEAN”

12th annual “Taste of the Caribbean,” a prestigious culinary competition held this year in the U.S. for the first time since 2000.

As complex as the fascinating history of the region, Caribbean cuisine incorporates influences from its native Indians to its diverse European settlers (Spanish, Dutch, French, English), from their African slaves to more recent migratory streams such as Arabic, Chinese, and East Indian. All of these elements were evident in the bounty of brilliant combinations served, many bearing the imprint of European technique, tangy Creole flavors with zesty spices, and a particular talent for “making do” – often required in the islands.

By Susan Pierres


While island flavors are nothing new to Miami, the “Magic City” recently got an authentic sampling of the best of the best at the 12th annual “Taste of the Caribbean,” a prestigious culinary competition held this year in the U.S. for the first time since 2000.

Premier culinary teams from thirteen islands flew up for the event hosted by the Hyatt Regency Hotel June 26th through 29th in conjunction with CHIC, the Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference, which had never before been held outside the Caribbean region.

Represented were national teams from Anguilla, Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bonaire, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, St. Maarten/Martin, Trinidad & Tobago, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each team, consisting of a culinary coach, three chefs, a pastry chef and a bartender, was given a mystery basket of ingredients with four hours to create a menu and prepare a three-course meal for 33 persons.

For months the teams had been practicing on their respective islands, cooking for fundraising dinners, adhering to the various criteria set by the competition’s judges. Finally at the Hyatt the teams were set up at work stations, each with a work table, cutting boards, and a four-burner stove with oven. For the first two days they put their toques together, chopped, grated, sifted, stuffed, sautéed, reduced and garnished an amazing variety of tantalizing dishes, as judges roamed throughout, observing, sniffing, tasting and evaluating. Enticed by the cooking odors emanating from the Jasmine Room, hundreds of conference attendees passed through as well, ogling the chefs at work, photographing the final results as they emerged.

Both evenings the competition meals were open to the public (for $50 including wine), adding a consumer component and a festive air to the gastronomic scene. Dining tables were assigned to one or another island’s menu, but dishes were eagerly passed around to neighboring tables, cheers filling the room from time to time, and a jubilant time was had by all.

From the mystery basket, which included four “proteins” (chicken, shrimp, pork, and sirloin of beef), assorted tropical fruit and vegetables (including avocados, coconut, mangoes, papaya, boniato, malanga, yucca, chayote, okra), Caribbean spices, herbs, and rum, as well as some obligatory ingredients supplied by sponsors such as Angostura and (a very non-Caribbean) blue cheese, came innovative dishes such as Puerto Rico’s “seafood mousse with a mango and chayote slaw in a coconut corn espuma,” Anguilla’s “roast pork butt in burnt cane and ginger glaze, pigeon pea and blue cheese fritters, papaya chutney and crispy provisions,” and St. Lucia’s “sweet pepper orange mousse with its caramel, avocado-coconut pudding, spicy honey glazed pineapple, chili-vanilla tuille, and a star anise and redberry sauce.”

As complex as the fascinating history of the region, Caribbean cuisine incorporates tantalizing influences from its native Indians to its diverse European settlers (Spanish, Dutch, French, English), from their African slaves to more recent migratory streams such as Arabic, Chinese, and East Indian. All of these elements were evident in the bounty of brilliant combinations served, many bearing the imprint of European technique, tangy Creole flavors with zesty spices, and a particular talent for “making do” -- often required in the islands when shipments of provisions arrive late or are spoiled sitting in the sun awaiting customs clearance.

The chefs had an opportunity to demonstrate this last when presented with many ingredients inadvertently frozen by one of the hotel’s refrigerators. “Chefs must be able to adapt,” said Dr. Robert Nograd, Dean Emeritus of Johnson & Wales University, one of the distinguished judges. (Johnson & Wales University developed a training program years ago in St. Maarten and is now operating a facility in the Dominican Republic.) “Cooking is not recipes – it is creation. Some of the ingredients were completely frozen, but chefs need to know how to make do if at the last minute food doesn’t show up.

“And profit is not a dirty word,” continued the Hungarian-born Dr. Nograd. “Most of the islands live from tourism, so it is very important for the chefs to be involved in production, in quality of service – to provide good room service, for example, to serve hot foods hot and cold foods cold – in order to avoid getting chefs from Europe.”

Eight approved culinary officials judged the event, some assigned for the kitchen judging, others for the blind tasting, and two for the bartending competition. Teams were expected to maintain a clean, safe and efficient working environment, and were judged on taste as well as the execution of skills and presentation.

“The kitchen judges watch methods of preparation, team work, skill level, sanitation, timing, and waste,” said head judge Rick Crossland, Bahama Breeze executive chef and senior vice president of culinary and beverage development. “But tasting gets the most amount of points, taking in flavor, combination of textures, temperature, presentation, and use of indigenous ingredients.

“Because this is a Caribbean competition, it’s really important to use Caribbean ingredients and techniques,” he continued. “So even though there are some European chefs on these teams, we’re really here to taste Caribbean food. It’s important they embrace the culture of their islands, to really demonstrate the cuisine of the islands.”

After the meals were served, the teams received from officials valuable detailed critiques of their performance and the dishes they prepared, mainly from judge Andre Niederhauser, a Swiss born and trained chef, founding member and past president of the Caribbean Culinary Federation. Niederhauser, who is also a member of the Chaine des Rotisseur, also stressed the importance of “the creative use of ingredients related to the Caribbean culture in the past.” At the Coral Gardens Resort on Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos Islands, where he is managing director, they even make their own salt. Chefs listened intently to the constructive criticism offered, and by the end of the second evening, some teams could already sense that they were out of the running.

On the last day four teams who made the finals competed once again in a final cook off – Aruba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago, and St. Maarten/Martin – and at the black tie awards dinner that night the tension was thicker than the (overcooked out-of-competition) Black Angus steaks. The winning team came from the only island divided by two nations and many cultures: Dutch/French Sint Maarten/St. Martin.

The 2005 Best Culinary Team of the Caribbean was comprised of Mario Tardif of Mario’s Bistro, Dino Jagtiani of Temptation Restaurant, Cecile Briaud-Richard of Le Chanticleer, and Scott Clagett of Terra Restaurant. Their prize-winning dishes included a coconut curried grouper cake (with a roasted corn ‘panna cotta,’ whipped avocado, sea scallop and tropical fruit ceviche, caramelized ginger aioli and balsamic Angostura syrup); chili sugar cane marinated pork loin (served with plantain stuffed with braised flat-iron steak, cardamon hollandaise, ‘arroz verde’ and black beans, chimichurri and tamarind infused pork jus); and pineapple dome filled with chocolate mousse (caramelized mango and cashew nougatine, based on a coconut dacquoise, topped with ginger and coconut tuille, Brunoise of pineapple and mango with ginger infused pineapple caramel sauce). Other culinary awards included Most Innovative Caribbean Menu, which went to Anguilla, and Chef of the Year to Carlo A. Portela of the Ritz Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa and Casino, Puerto Rico.

“Caribbean cuisine paints a beautiful menu, because the Caribbean is the culinary crossroads of the world,” concluded head judge Rick Crossland. And Miami, with its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural ties and particularly strong Caribbean roots, as the industry’s buying capital, provided such an ideal venue for the international event that it has been chosen to host next year’s conference as well.

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