At the top of their game
Six high-achieving chefs talk about their craft
At the top of their game
Six high-achieving chefs talk about their craft
What makes a great chef? Or, asked in a different way: What are the defining characteristics of chefs who have made it to the top? Welcome Bahamas talked to six–four Bahamians and two Canadians–who are standouts in their chosen field.
Perhaps the most striking similarity is that all of them knew from an early age that they wanted to cook for a living–some as early as grade school and others when they were in their teens.
As well, high achievers in the culinary game are made, not born. They spend years learning the ropes at well-established culinary schools. And after that, more years as an apprentice under one or more master chefs. They move around a lot– learning the techniques and flavours of different cuisines.
And, if these exemplars are a guide, great chefs love what they do. They enjoy pleasing their guests with good food well prepared. Here they are–six of the top hotel chefs in The Bahamas.
Virgil’s Real Barbecue atlantis
Virgil’s is one of the busiest eateries at Atlantis, serving up to 1,500 persons per day. Overseeing operations at the popular barbecue specialist is chef de cuisine Frederic Demers.
“I was always interested in cooking,” says Demers, who comes from a family with a passion for cooking. “It’s fun to serve people. It’s fun to see people enjoying their food.”
Canadian-born Demers graduated from the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec in 1996. His first senior position was chef de partie at the Ritz Carlton in Montreal. Later, he accepted a position at Club Med Columbus Isle on the Bahamian island of San Salvador.
In 1999, he moved to Atlantis where his career took off. Demers rotated as a sous-chef in several of the hotel’s restaurants before catching the eye of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
What followed was five years working at Vongerichten’s Dune restaurant and cross training at all of the celebrity chef’s restaurants in New York City for a better understanding of his concepts and how to apply them to Bahamian ingredients.
Next, Demers became executive sous-chef at the One&Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island. In 2005, he became chef de cuisine at still another Vongerichten-inspired restaurant, Café Martinique, in the Atlantis complex’s Marina Village.
Six years later, in November 2011, Demers was called on to head up a team to open Virgil’s Real Barbecue, managing a staff of 65.
“This is comfort food,” says Demers of the restaurant’s offerings. “Everything in barbecue is slow.
The food is cooked slowly. Wood is very important. Our meat is smoked over hickory or cherry wood. It’s
two different flavours and two different aromas.”
sheraton nassau beach resort
While his 10-year-old friends were playing in the schoolyard, Devin Johnson was baking cakes in his mother’s Freeport, Grand Bahama kitchen. “I’d box them and take them to my math class every Friday,” says Johnson, now 29 years older and executive chef at the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort. “At that age I already knew I wanted to work with food when I grew up.”
Johnson began his formal culinary training at The College of The Bahamas in Freeport. After three years he moved to Westminster
College in London before apprenticing at restaurants in Europe.
“I loved the European way of teaching,” says Johnson. “They stress the older techniques, the traditional methods. It helps you form a deeper understanding of the art and craft of food preparation.”
Next, Johnson travelled to the US and earned teaching credentials. After working for a time as a culinary arts instructor at a small college in South Carolina, he accepted a teaching post at his alma mater, The College of The Bahamas, Freeport.
From there he became sous-chef, and soon after, executive sous-chef, for a large Freeport restaurant. And it wasn’t long after that he became executive chef at the Sheraton Nassau Beach Resort, the position he has happily filled since early 2009.
Johnson’s culinary philosophy is as elegant as it is practical. Atmosphere and service are important, he says, but it’s “the final product–the food–that makes the crucial difference.” Johnson can imagine no greater compliment than a customer’s simple acknowledgement that they have just experienced a great meal.
Black angus, wyndham resort
For Canadian chef Steve Quigg cooking is about getting creative, playing with flavour and teasing the tastebuds. “My job is to make food not only look pretty and smell good but the taste has to explode in your mouth,” he says. “I want a wow reaction out of every dish.”
Quigg is executive chef at the Wyndham Nassau Resort where his duties include overseeing the kitchen at Black Angus Grille–the hotel’s steakhouse. “Black Angus is a steakhouse but we take it to a higher level. We buy the best meats and incorporate as many Bahamian ideas as possible. We are always asking: ‘how can we build more flavour in this dish?’”
And the flavours are something with which Quigg is very familiar–the chef’s mother is from Trinidad and cooked a lot of her local cuisine during his childhood. “I grew up with Caribbean tastebuds,” he jokes. The chef has worked in the region for over 15 years, including a three-year stint at Sandals in Jamaica and ten years in Barbados. This experience has given him an appreciation of the subtle differences in each island’s cuisine. “Each island [in the Caribbean] has similar dishes but each has its own twist on them. The Bahamas has developed its own cuisine that no other island has or duplicates.
And his favourite Bahamian dish? “Conch. There are so many ways to do it. Everywhere you go they do a great job with the conch.”
aQua, British colonial hilton
Jethro Knowles, senior sous-chef at the British Colonial Hilton, knew his way around the kitchen from a young age. As a teenager the Nassau native helped his father fry burgers and chicken in the family’s takeaway business on Kemp Road and credits his love of cooking to this early experience.
After enrolling in the National Apprenticeship Programme at 17, the budding chef began work at Resorts International on Paradise Island, where he worked in 12 different restaurants, learning all aspects of the craft. “It was a lot of pressure,” he recalls. “It was then that I got the urge to really go deeper into the profession.”
Following his apprenticeship, Knowles got a job working for the US ambassador to Belize and found himself in a new challenging role. “I was 19 and I didn’t even know where Belize was!” he laughs. “It taught me a lot. I had to adjust to different products and seasonings and expand my repertoire of menus. I got to be creative.”
When he finally returned to Nassau, ten years later and a more accomplished cook, the chef joined the British Colonial Hilton, just before it opened. In Hilton’s Aqua restaurant, Chef Knowles tries to combine different flavours to create exciting dishes that please all tastes. “We take flavours from Asian, Caribbean and American cuisine,” he explains. “We’ve put our own twist on things.”
When it comes to food, Chef Knowles is a perfectionist whether he is cooking for ambassadors or his own family. “I like to know that when someone eats something I’ve prepared they are satisfied and they want to come back for more–even if I’m just doing a family barbecue.”
compass point beach resort
At 18, Charles Curtis, executive chef at the upscale restaurant at Compass Point Beach Resort, had a decision to make. He could pursue his passion for painting, or he could train to work with food, his other obsession. “I chose food. It seemed like more of a future,” says Curtis, now 30 and happy with his choice.
Born and raised in Freeport, Grand Bahama, Curtis got his formal start at The College of The Bahamas’ culinary institute, like many Bahamian chefs. After completing his studies, he apprenticed for three years at a large restaurant in Port Lucaya Marketplace.
After this, Curtis accepted a prime opportunity at the Four Seasons Emerald Bay on Great Exuma island. Later, he filled a sous-chef position at the prestigious Grand Isle Resort and Spa, also located in the Exumas. When he was offered the position in Nassau, he accepted gladly because he was given an opportunity to put his creativity to work.
Executive chef since late 2009, Curtis is among those chefs who value simplicity in preparation and using local ingredients. “I believe in good food, simply prepared and simply presented,” says Curtis, adding that simple doesn’t mean boring.
Another hallmark of his style is using what is at hand to plan and prepare meals. “Not everything a chef desires will be available,” says Curtis. “We need to embrace the resources that we have and be creative.” This inspiration shines through Curtis’s culinary offerings.
Graycliff and humidor
“I cook with a lot of love and passion. I don’t do it because I have to, or because it’s my job. I do it because
I love to,” says Elijah Bowe, the executive chef at Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant.
Bowe oversees the daily operations of the hotel’s two restaurants: Graycliff and Humidor Churrascaria. The 44-year-old chef came to Graycliff in 2001, following a four year stint as executive chef at Island Outpost’s Compass Point Resort in Nassau.
Bowe’s love for cooking started soon after high school when he worked as a short order cook for one of the resorts in his native Grand Bahama.
While earning his degree at the Bahamas Hotel Training College, he worked as an apprentice chef at Resorts International (now Atlantis) in all kitchen departments from garde manger (preparing cold food) to pastry. Bowe also held an internship at The Pump Room in Chicago, and took a course in Cajun and southern cuisine at the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University.
Upon graduation, Bowe worked as head chef at Cargill Creek Lodge in Andros where he oversaw the daily management of the kitchen at the
17-room bonefishing resort. He later returned to his Grand Bahama roots and worked as chef de partie at the Xanadu Beach Resort in Freeport and was head chef at Passin’ Jacks in Nassau.
“When people come to Graycliff I’d like for them to be able to say, ‘Wow, this was the highlight of our vacation,’” says Bowe, chief instructor at the Graycliff Culinary Academy where he shares his skills and secrets with students in both hands-on cooking lessons and wine and cheese tastings.
“I try to show people that what we do in restaurants is really not as difficult as you think. It just requires a little more attention. If you put a little bit of love and passion in what you’re cooking at home, you too could create a five-star meal.”
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