The Sweet Taste of Success

Melissa Logan sets the bar high. It’s part and parcel of her role as executive pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.

“My team knows me very well. I am very particular. They know if the cookies come out too dark, they won’t go out to the guests,” says Melissa, who leads 20 cooks in the resort’s bustling pastry kitchen. “If it’s not right – make it again.”

Melissa’s exacting standards, along with her drive to keep pushing the culinary envelope, have led to some inspired – and award-winning – creations.

That includes wowing the judges at the Caribbean National Culinary Team Competition in Miami, where she captured the coveted title of Caribbean Pastry Chef of the Year 2017 for her entry, Cayman Tropical Passion. The creation: mango mousse, vanilla-macerated mango, goat cheese and Cayman honey semifreddo, sorrel foam, and mango and passionfruit gel.

Supported by Chef Vidyadhara Shetty and assisted by Britanni Seymour, Melissa was part of a six-member culinary team that brought home five gold and two silver medals. It had been 14 years since the Cayman team participated.

The competition was an adrenalin-pumping experience. In a mystery basket competition, the team created a three-course menu – appetizer, entrée and dessert – within four hours, preparing 40 portions.

“It was exceptionally intense,” Melissa recalls. “We were cooking in a ballroom; the space was tight and our home-style electric oven wasn’t really working properly. It was nerve-racking.”

But the effort paid off. The Cayman team received gold overall, and was only 0.17 points short of winning the Team of the Year title.

The C4 Sundae. Photo by Stephen Clarke.

In the pastry competition, Melissa had four hours to make a gourmet dessert from scratch, preparing eight portions. “I knew it had to be amazing,” she says.

Amazing is an apt description not only for the winning entry, but for her other original concoctions, including the C⁴ Sundae – the most popular dessert on the menu at Seven and winner of Best Dessert at 2017’s Taste of Cayman Food & Drink Festival. (See page 37 for the recipe).

The sundae is a warm brownie with chocolate fudge sauce, smoked logwood Cayman Sea Salt and molten chocolate ice-cream. The sea salt was crafted by Monique Polack of Cayman Sea Salt especially for Melissa, who also uses it in other desserts.

Chocolate power

Melissa came up with the C⁴ name while working in Hawaii, where she created a different dessert of the same title.

“I was looking for a clever, fun name for a chocolate dessert and I came up with this as it represents chocolate to the fourth power. So there are four chocolate components on the Seven version of the dessert.”

Fire & Ice, the newest addition to Seven’s dessert menu, is also popular. It is a S’mores Baked Alaska with graham cracker ice cream, hot fudge, marshmallow meringue and smoked sea salt.

“We pour 151 Bacardi rum on it and light it at the table,” says Melissa. “I like to name my desserts. I find it more of a fun way of connecting to the guests.”

Fire + Ice Dessert, finished by blowtorch

Before Fire & Ice, guests were wild about Melissa’s B.Y.O.B.s dessert – a throwback to adolescent years and BYOB (“bring your own booze”) parties. However, Melissa’s dessert stood for “Build Your Own Banana Split.”

Behind the scenes

Melissa oversees all pastry and dessert operations for the resort’s restaurants, racking up 12- to 14-hour days. In high season, that’s usually six days a week; there are no holidays save Halloween.

“All the breakfast pastries, all the cakes, all the desserts, the afternoon tea – everything is coming from our kitchen,” she says. “It’s a juggling act. It’s a 24-hour operation. It’s exhausting, especially when you have a little one at home.”

The team shifts into high gear for special occasions, such as Easter and Christmas. That includes everything from gingerbread house-making classes to creating the enchanting all-chocolate holiday elves, which are a huge draw for guests.

While the hours are long and the work challenging, Melissa wouldn’t have it any other way. “My job is exceptionally rewarding,” she says. “I have an amazing group of people who work in the pastry kitchen. We’re proud of what we do.”

Melissa puts the finishing touches to a dessert. Photo by Stephen Clarke.

Appetite for adventure

Working in the industry for 24 years, Melissa has been at The Ritz for more than two years. Her culinary talents have taken the New York native to many exotic locales, including Hawaii, California, Las Vegas and the Bahamas – and now the Cayman Islands.

“My husband and I came on a cruise here in 2006 and we really fell in love with the island,” she says.

The 43-year-old is a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America in New York City, which boasts such notable alumni as Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz and Charlie Palmer.

Melissa’s culinary career working in some of the finest restaurants is worlds apart from her unassuming background growing up in rural New York state.

But those simple roots spurred her interest – and success – in the demanding industry. Melissa spent part of her childhood on her grandmother’s farm, picking fresh vegetables from a huge garden, and helping in the kitchen with canning, pickling, preserving and preparing family meals.

“My grandmother had 14 children, so she did a lot of cooking. I was always in the kitchen with her. My grandmother on my father’s side also loved baking. The Christmas cookies she used to make were phenomenal,” says Melissa. “It’s had a huge influence in my life.”

Everything was grown at home. Indeed, she was living the farm-to-table life before the term had ever been coined. “I love that we’re on this trend going back to our roots and back to sustainable living,” she says.

While Melissa enjoyed cooking and baking, it never occurred to her that she could make a career out of it; it was the ‘90s, long before the Food Network and the whole celebrity chef phenomenon.

Fate intervened when she met a German confectioner while working at a cake shop. “She said to me: ‘You should go to school for this.’ So, I took her advice, started looking for culinary schools, applied and got accepted.”

Coconut mango sandcastle cake

Family affair

Cooking is now a family affair, as her husband Vincent is also a chef. They met while working at the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas.

“The profession brought us together,” says Melissa. “It’s almost easier to be with someone who is in the industry because they get it: the late nights, the long hours. It’s also a shared passion. We can bounce ideas off each other and share current trends. It’s a challenging profession, but it’s something we both love.”

Vincent is a private chef with Luxury Cayman Villas. The job has more flexible hours, allowing him to care for their six-year-old son Malcolm.

While a demanding career means making sacrifices, Melissa ensures time together is well-spent. “I try to make little moments memorable,” she says. Every Sunday, for example, she cooks Mickey Mouse pancakes from scratch. Birthdays are also big – Malcolm chooses a theme and Melissa builds an elaborate cake. This year it was a velociraptor dinosaur.

The irony: Her son is not a fan of sweets – not ice cream, cake or even chocolate. “The only sweets he likes is sour candy!”