Chef Celeste Gordon
Here at Island Outpost we are gearing up for our first-ever NyamJam Festival—a celebration of the authentic spirit, culture and cuisine of Jamaica. Renowned chefs from around the world—such as Mario Batali, April Bloomfield, Jose Enrique, Seamus Mullen and Johnny Iuzzini—will come to GoldenEye for a three-day event that includes dinner at the Fleming Villa and a food and music bazaar. Tickets are available here.
While we are thrilled to host these superstars, we are even more excited to showcase Jamaica’s most talented chefs, such as Celeste Gordon, a veteran personal chef on the island who, after working in various roles in hospitality, decided to open a catering service, Whip It Up. We sat down with her and learned about her serious love affair with cooking, and why she considers herself an ambassador for Jamaican food.
How did your cooking career begin?
I like to tell people that my cooking career began when I was a little kid. I come from a very big family, and a lot of our celebrations centered around family dinner. Everybody was in the kitchen, and everybody had a job to do. They trained me from early on. I went to school thinking I was going to do law. I had to take a couple of electives and thought, let me take two food labs—and that changed my mind. I discovered that I really loved cooking. Ever since then it’s just been a continued love affair. I’ve been cooking professionally for 15 years now.
Tell me a little bit about your role at the NyamJam festival.
I see it as being an ambassador for Jamaican food. Jamaican food is already popular: Everywhere you go in the world you see some form of jerk on the menus, listed as “Jamaican Jerk Chicken.” But here we don’t tend to promote it as much as we could. The fact that people are coming to Jamaica to experience a food festival and see the talent that we have here is great.
In general, Jamaicans cook very well. We have a big culture of eating at home. A lot of people cook for themselves. People always say, “How come there aren’t more restaurants on the island?” Because most people tend to entertain in their houses. Being able to showcase the abundance of what we have here? I’m all for it.
Are you particularly excited to meet any of the visiting chefs?
I am excited to meet all of them and absorb everything I can. Mario is great. I watch him on TV almost every day. It will be great to actually meet him. I’ve seen some of the things Johnny has done. I dabble in baking, but it’s not a strength. Colin Hylton (a renowned Jamaican chef who will also be at NyamJam Festival) and I were looking at a video recently where they were pouring hot custard over this chocolate ball and it falls open like a flower. We were both marveling at the intricacy of the desert. Colin says “I’m sure if we speak to Johnny, he’ll know how to do this.” We’ll be opened up to a world of different expertise, and that will be amazing.
Any new foodie trends you’re beginning to notice in Jamaica?
I think NyamJam is part of a trend. The festival is a trend. Kingston Kitchen (an artisan open-air food market) put on their version of a night market recently, and now we’re having NyamJam, and others are coming up. There’s now an interest in celebrating food and making events around food in Jamaica.
Our culture has also become a lot more wine-centric. We’re seeing more wine tastings and pairings. The interest coming to Jamaica and companies are beginning to accommodate this. Now you’re seeing different types of wine, and not just one house wine or just one brand.
What Jamaican ingredients or techniques are you excited to share with the visiting chefs?
I think the one thing I noticed when I was abroad was that chefs tend to season with just salt and pepper. Here our food gets seasoned with everything. It gets seasoned with thyme, garlic and scallions. If you give Jamaicans something with just salt and pepper, they say, “but they never put no seasoning on it!” That’s something that is a little different between here and abroad.
Any kitchen tips, tricks, or methods that you’ve brought back to the kitchen from your travels?
Wherever I go I always tend to take back different seasonings and styles of seasonings. I like to experiment with flavors a lot. If I go somewhere and I see something for the first time, when I come back I’m for sure applying it to something new on the menu.
What distinguishes Jamaican food from the rest of the Caribbean? Where does Jamaican cuisine stand in the international food scene?
First off, there is jerk and there’s nothing else quite like it. There is just a technique and a way of cooking that no one else has ever really done. Jamaican food as a whole tends to be very natural. We don’t tend to use anything canned or processed. Ackee and saltfish—it’s all onions, tomatoes and thyme. It never really ever tastes the same for a Jamaican if you decide to put in canned tomatoes instead of fresh tomatoes. We have a dish called stew peas, which you cook down red peas in a coconut milk, seasoning, pig tail and beef. If for some reason you decide you’re going to shortcut it and make it with canned peas, Jamaicans will tell you that is not stew peas because you didn’t make it from scratch. Everything we make tends to be natural, and that’s why I think it tastes so great. We have a farm-to-table thought process, and that’s one of the things that is very distinct about Jamaican food.
What’s one ingredient that you’ll always find in every Jamaican pantry?
Instinctively I will say scallion. Everybody uses it a lot. We use it in a lot of foods. Scallion is in jerk seasoning. We cook it into a lot of stews, stew peas, curry and oxtail. The only thing we probably don’t put it in is dessert!
Be sure to check back next week for another interview featuring one of Jamaica’s most talented chefs!
Press play below and listen as Chris Blackwell talks about the upcoming NyamJam Festival!