Jamaica is known for sand, sun and sea. But could its cuisine soon be a tourism draw?
That’s what the island’s top chef and tourism officials are hoping after arriving in Miami this week to go head-to-head with some of the Caribbean’s best chefs and mixologists during the annual Taste of the Caribbean cooking and cocktail competitions.
While not the popular Bravo TV reality “Top Chef” series — sorry, chef Tom Colicchio will not be doing a walk through the kitchen, questioning that choice of beef grade — Taste of the Caribbean does, however, offer up the same intense, nerve-wracking, knife-cutting competitive environment. Bragging rights go to the team and chef that ends up besting the competition.
“We are doing this for flag and country,” said Michael Barnett, Jamaica’s Chef of the Year, and first time competitor at Taste of the Caribbean, which runs Friday through Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency, 400 SE 2nd Ave. in Miami. “We’re trying to promote our cuisine that a lot of persons know of, but we want to take it to the wider world. We want to market Jamaica as a food destination.”
Over the course of several days, 11 national teams from throughout the Caribbean compete in categories for seafood, beef, pastries, chocolate and overall team lunch/ dinner competition, as well as a junior chef individual competition. Bartenders also compete in non-alcoholic, vodka, rum and mystery basket competitions.
Like on the television show, chefs are given an allotted time — an hour in this case, Barnett said — to write up their menu, shop for ingredients and prep dishes. They will then have two hours to cook and plate dishes for judges.
In years past, chefs were asked to include the same staple ingredient, like the time when Anguilla’s national team wooed guests with its experiment of a nonalcoholic cocktail made from breadfruit and fused with sweet potato. This year, however, it’s everything goes as chefs are encouraged to use indigenous Caribbean ingredients. That means, scallions, thyme, pepper — but with a flavorful twist.
In addition to Jamaica, there are 10 other national teams competing this year, representing the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Curaçao, St. Lucia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos. A 12th team known as Caribbean Strong will feature chefs and a mixologist from Puerto Rico, Anguilla and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Still recovering from last year’s hurricanes Irma and Maria, the islands opted not to send national culinary teams and instead will provide two individuals each to represent them on the combined team.
“It’s a blessing to be a part of this team,” said chef Lester Gumbs, 34, a winner in past Taste of the Caribbean as a member of Anguilla’s national culinary team and an individual winner in the seafood competition.
Gumbs said while he and most of his team members have yet to meet face-to-face, they’ve been preparing via conference calls and a WhatsApp message group. This year, he’s also a competitor for the first time in the individual beef competition.
“The idea of the Caribbean Strong team is to mix and match the different flavors,” he said.
Aware that Jamaica, and others, are determined to walk away with the coveted Caribbean top chef title, Gumbs said not so fast.
“Hurricane Irma showed up we had to sink to endure and rise above everything,” he said, “so we’re going to put our strength forward to rise up and stay strong above all.”
Sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, Taste of the Caribbean dates back to 1983 when it was first held in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. It has grown in popularity since, not just among chefs, but Caribbean tourist boards, which view it as way to promote their islands and cuisine. It has also become a training ground for the chefs, as well as culinary students attending Johnson & Wales University in North Miami.
While the event and its accompanying Caribbean305 party showcase the various islands and their resorts, they also demonstrate something else. All Caribbean islands may use the same basic ingredients, but no two johnny cakes or peas and rice — or is it rice and peas? — tastes the same. Every islands has it’s own unique way culinary twist, from the recipe to the cooking.
“I look at it as an opportunity to visit  different islands through one visit,” said Gumbs, the veteran competitor from Anguilla. Everyone, he said, while getting to enjoy the food served, from street fare to fine dining, also get to “see how we manipulate the same palate we all use, but in a different way.”
Marsha Grant, who has been preparing and leading Jamaica’s culinary teams to the Miami competition for the past five years as team manager, said it’s not about the individuals chefs. Rather, it’s about “making our country proud, making our sponsors proud and helping us to develop our nation’s human capital.”
“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. “But it’s rewarding and it’s challenging.”
To decide who best could represent Jamaica, the country held an elimination competition, Taste of Jamaica. Team members have spent the past five months preparing with mock competitions, complete with guest judges, at different resorts around the island.
Barnett, an executive sous chef at Hedonism II clothing-optional resort in Negril, said all have been familiarizing themselves with each other’s cooking style and flavor palate.
So why should other Caribbean chefs be worried about him?
“I do what they call a fusion style cuisine,” he said. “I mix flavors…. I infuse other regions into our Jamaican cuisine. As we like to say, ‘Out of many, one people.’ We have a lot of different ingredients that came over, and I like to put them all together to form unique flavors.”
If You Go
What: The Caribbean 305 party, which caps off the annual Taste of the Caribbean competition, includes an open bar, unlimited bites from the teams in the competition and Caribbean music and entertainment.
When: June 23 from 7-11 p.m.
Address: Parrot Jungle, 1111 Parrot Jungle Trail, Miami
Tickets: $95 and $125. To purchase tickets go to Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/caribbean305-tickets-45144720073