Diary of Jolene Nelson, Amateur Chef winner

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Diary of Jolene Nelson

The Journal has the real insight as to what it takes to be a culinary winner. Nerves, excitement, sheer terror and utter excitement. The Journal brings you the full gamut of Jolene’s emotions. Third in a three-part series.

17 January
As we stood chatting amongst ourselves, the MC for the event came up to us; Food & Wine’s own Gail Simmons – THE Gail Simmons! We had 15 minutes left and the room was now almost full. At the table directly before us, enjoying brunch were Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain! I looked at my ingredients hoping I would remember what to do with them, nervously I fiddled with the knobs on the stove, making sure I knew which burner went to which knob.
 
Our first “oh crap!” moment was upon us, when after introducing the esteemed judges panel and introducing us to the crowd, Gail announced we had 45 minutes to prepare our meal. 45 minutes??? Where was our 15 minutes prep time? We missed it?!!! WHAT??!!!
 
Instantly we sprang into work, Mom and I muttering between us
 
“We’re screwed!”
 
“No man, we can do this – 45 minutes – easy ting!”
 
“Ha!”
 
So we chopped, fumbled, tried to boil water…the induction cook top wasn’t working, the water wouldn’t boil! Sauté the peppers – wait did we chop the peppers? Crap! Brown the sausage for the stuffing, add the onion – what onion? Groan! I had to mix the cornmeal for the dumplings! Wait..please tell me we have a spoon!!! No spoon!!! 15 minutes left on the clock…where’s the fish? Oh no! – we didn’t pre-heat the oven!
 
Somewhere along the line we pulled it together and when Gail started her countdown I was garnishing my plates…done! It was over, nothing more to be done now. I went to Charlie and hugged him, turned to my Mom, so thankful for the experience no matter how it turned out.
 
As the chef’s began to taste my dish I held my breath and Bourdain nodded his head repeatedly, going for a second forkful…third. Ripert turned to the Chang whispering and pointing at my food. I turned back to clean up my station. I couldn’t watch anymore. My Mom and I were SURE we had lost – Charlie’s plate looked fantastic – he had a chopped fruit salad served in a pineapple!
 
When Gail let me know Ripert had a question for me, I held my breath, certain he would want to know about the bones in the snapper we had filleted ourselves or why the roots in the rundown were still raw. On his fork, waving in air above his head, he had speared a baby cornmeal dumpling and was wondering what it was. I explained to him and he nodded profusely saying;
 
“I’ve never had these before; it’s very good, very good.”
 
I bit down on a scream, nodded thanks and went back to cleaning my station.
 
As the chef’s tasted Charlie’s dish my Mom and I spoke to Charlie about how the shortened time had affected us, what we missed out on and the errors we had made. I was glad to know I had not been alone in my confusion.
 
And then they were calling the judges up on stage with us, calling us to stand in front of the stage and were about to announce the winner. I stared at my toes wondering why my feet seemed to be steady but I felt as if I was reeling.
 
Gail Simmons paused for dramatic effect, my heart stopped and she called my name. My name…
 
Four months, three dishes, so many, many practices…my Mom…where would I have been without my Mom? Nowhere! I could not have won without her. There were these people congratulating me and I was shaking the chefs’ hands; Andres, Chang, Ripert, Bourdain! And there was Anthony Bourdain whispering in my ear…
 
“Your dish…it was exceptional…very, very well done. Congratulations.”
 
My heart thundered and my knees buckled – Anthony Bourdain liked my food!!!!
 
As the camera flashes went off and we did interview after interview, my cheeks began to hurt from smiling and more than anything else I was so very, very thankful. As friends I knew and people I didn’t came to shake my hand and wish me well I was moved almost to tears by the outpouring of support and genuine well wishes that came from all around me.
 
Now, days after as I settle back to reality, I look at the front page of tomorrow’s Compass and read: ‘Cayman’s top chef crowned’ above a picture of Mom and me, and again I am humbled.
 
We were to be off to The Ritz-Carlton in New York in April, God willing; a first time for both of us. I am unbelievably excited and honoured by the opportunities we have been given and I’m hoping I can say this again and maybe, just maybe everyone will understand how thankful I am to everyone who has stood by me and supported me with not just this, but with everything that has helped me be this person. Thank you.
 
What a life experience this has been, and it is by no means over.

Diary-ISM

Jolene in action

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