Next-Gen Chefs

The future of Cayman’s culinary scene is now in the hands of the next generation; an alarming thought some might say, but the future is looking bright. Initiatives such as Budding Chef, Seed2Table and the National Youth Cook Off are educating and cultivating promising culinary talent.

A timely education

With the food industry spending billions on advertising junk food, and confusing nutritional guidelines and food labels in supermarkets, it is more difficult than ever to make educated and conscious choices about food. Add to this the fact that grocery stores are filled with processed goods and produce grown hundreds of miles away, with many kids never seeing the source or original form of foodstuffs they consume.

Statistics suggest that all this is having a detrimental effect on our children’s health. In the Cayman Islands, 16 percent of four- and five-year-olds are obese and another 21 percent are at risk of becoming overweight, according to the Health Services Authority. Like parents everywhere, Cayman moms and dads are concerned.

“We want children to understand the cycle of food and why we should care where it comes from,” explains Maureen Cubbon, wellness coordinator at Bestlife Wellness Solutions. “By understanding and making better food choices, they learn an essential skill in life and hopefully start creating healthy habits that last a lifetime.”

Fortunately, a score of initiatives has been set up in response to this issue.

One such initiative is Bestlife’s partnership with Bon Vivant to host Budding Chef cooking classes and the Tween afterschool culinary program, running throughout the year and during term time respectively. The Budding Chef program is held on Saturdays, teaching basic cooking skills like measuring, chopping and grilling to students aged between four and 12 years old. They produce tasty creations in a safe yet hands-on environment using local ingredients – dishes such as scratch-made pizza, bread, cakes, desserts, fresh pasta, stir-fries, chicken Parmesan and fresh sauces and dressings.

“they learn an essential skill in life and hopefully start creating healthy habits that last a lifetime.”

Seed2Plate is another initiative that Maureen, as Cayman’s Food Revolution Ambassador, is involved with. It provides an afterschool farm-to-table program in government schools, in partnership with the YMCA. There are currently programs running in Red Bay Primary, East End Primary, North Side and George Town, with approximately 100 students participating weekly. It is based on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Program in the U.K. and Australia, which promotes food education in schools and tackles childhood obesity.

As part of Seed2Plate, students build food gardens in beds, greenhouses and hydroponic gardens while learning about farming, local agriculture and nutrition. The students then use the produce they have grown to create something in the kitchen; a process that instills a sense of responsibility and basic cooking skills. This educative approach allows the next generation to experience local, organic and sustainable instead of food with an unusually long shelf life. They learn that if the food they buy in the supermarket hasn’t been alive at some point, it’s probably not nutritionally beneficial to their bodies. This knowledge is vital for the health and wellbeing of generations to come and hopes to inspire some budding chefs for Cayman’s culinary future.

Gold medal gastronomy

For teenagers and young adults, The National Youth Culinary Program is a partnership between The Youth Services Unit, The Ritz-Carlton, Progressive Distributors and Home Gas Ltd. Aimed at students aged 10-25, it has a broad reach for young people in Cayman, and runs from October to Ash Wednesday of the following year.

The brainchild of Katherine Whittaker, and now headed up by James Myles (both of The Youth Services Unit), the aim was to ignite youth interest in the food industry and culinary arts, giving talented youngsters an opportunity to learn from experienced chefs and showcase their skills. Initially piloted in 2006 by the Commonwealth Youth Club, the program firmly established itself with the launch of The National Youth Cook-Off competition in 2012, which has become a calendar highlight. Contestants go head-to-head, serving up dishes for judges in district competitions and the finalists compete in a grand showdown at the Annual Agricultural Show. In 2017, the dishes showcased included lionfish and chili con carne.

The NYCP concept has already proved successful, with prefect Brittney Bodden, aged 18, representing the Cayman Islands at Taste of the Caribbean 2017 and scoring a gold medal in the Junior Chef of the Caribbean category.

Brittney was also part of the team who competed at CARIFESTA XIII – the Caribbean Festival of Creative Arts – in Barbados. After running a food stall at the Cricket Grounds to raise funds for traveling to the host nation, the teenagers sailed through the rounds with dishes such as Cayman-style conch stew, ultimately winning second place overall. It was the first time a Youth Culinary Team from the Cayman Islands had competed in a regional contest.

Leslie Anderson, another NYCP alumnus, ended up pursuing a career in food after the competition. “I learned the basics like how to hold a knife properly, how to chop and how to season well – quite a bit that I would never have learned without this training. The skills and applications that I learnt through the course have driven me to improve and try even harder.”

She says the course focuses mainly on traditional cuisine made with local ingredients, making dishes like Rundown, Cayman-style beef, chicken stir-fry and cassava heavy cake, but as Leslie jokes, “I still haven’t found one that’s better than my mom’s.” The chicken stir-fry stood out as her favorite dish to cook: “I make it at home sometimes and everyone loves it. It’s pretty simple and I love the flavor.”

As a child, Leslie’s interest in food and cooking came from time spent in the kitchen with her mother. “I used to bake a lot with my mom when I was younger, and she also taught me some basics about cooking chicken, rice, vegetables,” she says. This childhood training has had a lasting impact; she now works full time at The Ritz-Carlton with hopes to open a Caymanian-style bakery in the next few years.

Not only are these programs educational, but students have returned year after year because of the element of fun. “They love rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty,” enthuses Maureen. “They love the fact that they are empowered to create dishes that show off the kind of flavors they personally enjoy and incorporate healthy items without even thinking about it.”

And the response from parents and children? “Fantastic!” she says. “We are really proud to be able to offer classes in the Bon Vivant studio and also work with kids in the schools. There is great synergy between the store, studio and what is offered to inspire people to get in the kitchen and get cooking.”

It might be time to put your feet up and pass dinner time over to the kids.