Impact of the Junior Culinary Conference

Over the last few weeks, we have made reference to the 4th Caribbean Junior Culinary Conference (CJCC) which took place from August 22 to 26. In this article, we take a critical look at the impact that this event has had on the culinary industry.

The Junior Duelling Challenge, the highlight of the CJCC, was designed to introduce our young culinarians to our regional cuisine in a different form, with particular care being taken not to dilute the unique flavours that make them identifiable as national dishes. It was also designed to enhance their culinary skills through the educational workshops and seminars held as a part of the conference.

To assist in achieving these goals, the first round of the two-round competition is a national dish. Here is where the competitors are allowed to recreate their national dishes, while enhancing the product to the point it can be presented in any fine-dining restaurant.

Generally, Caribbean food is known for being very flavourful and for being served usually in lavish portions, or, to put it in Bajan parlance, “nuff and rough”.  So our young culinarians were given the responsibility of glamorizing their presentations, thus making them more acceptable for world cuisine.

Based on the outstanding presentations, after deconstructing and skillfully reconstructing these national dishes, I am proud to say this objective would have been achieved. Further credit must be given to our young talent, for although creating these new presentations, the flavours remained very authentic and, in some cases, were enhanced due to modern trends and techniques being applied, which in most cases came through information garnered in the workshops.

The main technique which stood out this season was smoking. This technique was introduced for the first time in our competition after its origin and method of application were expounded in one of our workshops. Our young talent, like the proverbial culinary sponges, absorbed and later applied this technique in their presentation, which resulted in the enhancement of some of the flavours that already existed, thus taking their local dish to an even higher level.

Further testament to this was the Cou-Cou and Flying Fish served in a most elegant way by Team Barbados; the Crucian Fighting Land Crabs with Mofongo creation by Team St Croix; and, this year, an outstanding presentation of a conch dish with all of the elements, including the serving utensils, being uniquely displayed in their conch shells by the Turks and Caicos Islands team.

In the second round of competition, the teams are challenged even more when they are given 80 per cent of local products and produce and 45 minutes to create and prepare a Caribbean-inspired dish with proteins and a mystery ingredient which is only revealed to them a mere five minutes before they are asked to cook. This format is designed to test the depth of knowledge and understanding that these young culinarians would have of their regional cuisine, as points are awarded for Caribbean flavours and the best use of an indigenous item.

When we talk about depth of knowledge and understanding, it is clear that this aspect of the competition was well understood by our competitors, as they were given what might be considered weird and unusual items for competition, but which are commonly found in our pantry at home. These items ranged from liver, ground beef and sardines, to avocado and Chinese cabbage. And, much to the amazement of the very attentive and sometimes astonished audience, some great new dishes emerged from the three kitchens of the culinary arena.

Fortunately, these programmes are all recorded for television, so our Caribbean neighbours will get a chance to see the work done by these most talented participants.

I must also say here, hearty congratulations to the managers and coaches of these well prepared teams, as it was quite evident that hours of practice went into preparing their charges for this year’s competition. Additionally, the excitement and enthusiasm were alive and well within these trainers – which they all found it difficult to conceal – as they coached and observed their teams during the competitions.

Also evident is how seriously the islands of the Caribbean are taking on this initiative, as we have seen the evolution from community centre personnel and school teachers, to executive chefs and other professionals being selected to manage and accompany the teams on these trips.

Further evidence of the maturity and contribution of this programme lies in the fact that for the first time we have seen a past competitor return as a team manager and coach and leading her team to a gold medal-winning performance. Congratulations must go out to Elle Abraham of Team St Croix on her growth in competition and achievements gained through attending this programme.

With all these accomplishments, we can safely say that this programme is certainly realizing the goals from which it sprung and is providing encouragement to the organizers for its continued production. Additionally, with the Caribbean’s acceptance and understanding of the importance of a programme such as this, we have seen the Caribbean Junior Culinary Conference grow stronger each year.

Special mention must be made here of the Barbados Tourism Product Authority which has also seen the worth of the CJCC, as it now not only impacts the culinary and agriculture sectors, but with its 50-plus regional and international delegates attending this year’s event, it is obviously making an impact on tourism as well.

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