Cook off winners share their passion for food

Tessa Gall’s first love for food came about quite traditionally from observing her stay-at-home mum who worked as a seamstress, who spent many an hour in her kitchen feeding her four offspring.

“I’d sit and watch her prepare our food, seasoning the meat, preparing vegetables and so on,” she remembers. “Sometimes she would allow me to do particular jobs in the kitchen, which I looked forward to.”

Tessa says it was as she became a teenager that she took a more hands-on interest in cooking, in particular preparing breakfast and then graduating to main courses.

“Growing up in Cayman, we cooked all Caribbean foods – turtle, beef, lobster, conch, chicken and sides of red potato salad, rice, breadfruit, plantain,” she confirms.

One dish that her mother prepared often remains her favourite – stewed local crab that she says tasted out of this world.

At school Tessa enjoyed home economics, which helped her hone her cooking skills.

“I remember making a chicken fried rice dish and I took the recipe home and made the dish every day for two to three weeks so that I could perfect it!” she recalls. “Then it was shortbread. I managed to perfect that recipe as well!”

Broadening horizons

Once leaving school Tessa’s interest in cooking broadened, especially with the introduction of cable television, which opened a whole new world of cooking up to her.

“I began experimenting with more international recipes while at the same time always putting my own unique Caribbean twist on the dish,” she explains.

Tessa’s home soon began to become a mecca for her family and friends, as she enjoyed trying out new recipes as well as old favourites and sharing them with willing guests.

“My house is always full of people for whom I’m cooking,” she confirms. “It’s so exciting to explore new cuisines and flavours. I just love eating food in restaurants in local restaurants and then trying to recreate the dishes at home. I once worked for months on a creamy broccoli penne pasta dish I’d eaten at a local Italian restaurant until I perfected it.”

A favourite includes Chinese food and she said she recently made fried shrimp wontons with her own dipping sauces on the side.

In particular, Tessa says she is drawn to the healthy side of cooking, relying on the freshest ingredients and the best quality products to create dishes that are packed with both flavour and nutrition.

Taking her love for food into her working environment, Tessa, who works for a law firm, says her co-workers have also had the benefit of her talents.

“I used to provide a lunch time menu for my colleagues – they would choose what they wanted at the beginning of the week and I’d prepare it for them and bring it in each day. I concentrated on items such as health soups, baked potatoes and sandwiches as well as fresh fruits. It went down really well with my colleagues.”

Sticking to her roots…
with a twist!

Ultimately it was her friends and colleagues, with the support of her family, who encouraged Tessa to enter the Bon Vivant Cayman Cook off event.

“I started practicing the dishes that I wanted to enter and brought them in for colleagues to sample,” she says. “They went down well so I knew I should go ahead and submit them to the competition.”

Tessa decided on a dish of curried conch full of curry flavours as well as the usual onion, scotch bonnet and seasoning peppers that accompany the dish, adding that she never expected to be picked to move forward to the semi final cook off and was therefore pleased that she was already prepared for her next dish – stewed turtle.

“I added my own secret ingredient to the dish, which consisted of my mother’s recipe for sweet potato, which includes brown sugar, cinnamon and butter,” she says. “I think the judges appreciated the flavours.”

Moving on to the final was a dream come true for Tessa, because she would finally cook for one of her all time cooking heros – Anthony Bourdain.

“I did not mind whether I won or lost – just to get the chance to meet with and cook for Anthony Bordain was reward enough,” she says.

Tessa decided to pick the freshest possible ingredients – lobster along with fresh and mostly local ingredients.

“Everyone had lobster done in as many styles as I could think of leading up to the event – my husband, friends, co-workers, everyone!” she says. “I combed the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings for interesting local ingredients, including bottler beans that were quite difficult to source. Whatever was fresh influenced what I would cook.”

Tessa finally decided to brave lobster cooked six different ways – Cayman-style; curried; ravioli; with vanilla and nutmeg; with pineapple, ginger, garlic and honey; and with mango.

“The main feedback from the judges was that they really enjoyed the interesting blend of flavours and the focus on local fresh products,” she confirms.

Tessa says she is incredibly excited about enjoying her winning prize – staying at The Ritz-Carlton, New York City; dinner for two at Le Bernardin and the chance to go to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs Event.

She concludes: “I really love to cook and who knows, one day I might even get the chance to realise my dream – to open a restaurant of my own. I would like to thank Bon Vivant and The Ritz-Carlton for giving me the opportunity to live out one of my dreams.”

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Tessa’s dream chef Anthony Bourdain. – Photo: davidwolfephotography.com

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