No matter what the outcome of the 2012/13 Bon Vivant Cook-off Series final at the Cayman Cookout Taittinger Champagne Brunch on 20 January, a Canadian will be crowned the top amateur chef in the Cayman Islands for the third straight year as Canucks Maureen Cubbon and Marty Tammemagi compete in a rematch of their semi-final cook-off in 2011.
One of the annual Cayman Cookout events most anticipated by Grand Cayman residents is the Champagne brunch in the Royal Ballroom of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman in which the final two of eight ‘cheftestants’ in the Bon Vivant Cook-off series compete in front of a live audience and a panel of celebrity judges.
This year, like last year, it will be an all-Canadian final, with Toronto native Marty Tammemagi taking on Vancouver native Maureen Cubbon. This year’s final is a rematch of a 2011 semi-final cook-off that Cubbon won, sending her on to last year’s final where she lost to Montreal native Eric St-Cyr.
To get to the final of the event, which is now in its fourth year, Cubbon and Tammemagi had to win two difficult preliminary cook-offs over an eight-day period in early December. Cubbon defeated Megan Timmons on 5 December and eked out a narrow decision over Michael Treacy on 12 December. Tammemagi, cooking without a sous chef in the opening round, edged Cody Bush on 4 December and then sous chef Sabha Utarid got past Jacqueline Hastings on 11 December,
With the all-Canadian final set for the 2013 Cook-off, it will make three years in a row that a Canadian has won at least a share of the title of Cayman’s best amateur chef. In the 2011 final, Canadian Fraser Hughes shared the title with Caymanian Tessa Gall when the judges’ scorecards indicated a tie.
Although both Cubbon and Tammemagi are Canadians, their cooking styles differ greatly. While Tammemagi’s dishes tend to be well presented and technically crafted, the kind of meal found at a fine-dining restaurant, Cubbon’s dishes focus on rustic flavour and the kind of food found in a good home-cooked meal.
The Cayman Cookout’s Bon Vivant Cook-off Series Taittinger Champagne Brunch is a grand version of the regular brunch at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. It has all of the elements of the regular brunch – a great selection of food and free-flowing Champagne – but it adds a mini-Taste of Cayman element. Chefs from many of Cayman’s best restaurants have stations where they freshly cook-up a speciality dish and serve it to guests. The hardest part about attending this brunch is making the difficult choice of what not to eat because there’s so much selection. There are plenty of desserts, as is normal for the Ritz brunch, but there is also an expanded array of cheeses from which to choose.
While guests eat to their heart’s content, Tammemagi and Cubbon will be on stage cooking their meals, using as many local ingredients as possible, in front of the panel of four judges. Adding to the pressure of cooking in front of hundreds of people will be a panel of celebrity judges that includes celebrity chefs Eric Ripert and José Andrés, restaurateur, author and television celebrity Anthony Bourdain and Cayman Islands Governor Duncan Taylor. Joining Bon Vivant’s Cynthia Hew in emceeing the event will be Chef Spike Mendelsohn from television’s ‘Top Chef’ fame.
A four-time entrant into the Cook-off, Cubbon will try once again to capture the elusive title of top amateur chef.
Although her cooking is rustic in style, it features some exotic spices and techniques, things she learned from her Fijian mother, whom she helped in the kitchen while growing up.
After high school, Cubbon got a job working ‘front of house’ in some restaurants. It was then she says she started loving the world of food.
Since then, she’s learned a lot from reading cookbooks and by trial and error in the kitchen.
Because she’s also worked in health-related industries, Cubbon often cooks healthy meals and she likes to use fresh, locally-produced ingredients like meats, greens, vegetables and fruits from Cayman’s farms, supermarkets, friends and from her own herb garden.
She has recently been involved in cooking classes for children. It was at one of these classes that she met 11-year-old Justin Derrick, who she says encouraged her to enter this year’s cook-off competition, even though she was considering not doing it again. She agreed, but asked young Justin to be her sous chef during the competition.
Though he’s only 11, Justin handled the pressure of the preliminary rounds well, showing sustained concentration on the tasks Cubbon asked him to take care of.
Cubbon says she’ll approach the final this year with more of a sense of urgency.
“I’m going into it with a different perspective, with Justin as my sous chef,” she said. “The fact that I’m in the final again is great… but I’m looking at it as more of a competition. My goal is to have fun with it, but hopefully to insure Justin has a good experience as well.”
Last year, Cubbon said she was just glad to be in the final, but this year she’d really like to win, especially because she doesn’t want to disappoint the youngster.
“I’m working with Justin to hopefully keep him enthusiastic and passionate about cooking,” she said.
“It’s nice to see there’s a young generation that cares as well.”
After the first round of the 2011/12 Cook-off, if odds makers would have picked the most likely winner, it would have been Tammemagi, who easily won his the quarterfinal match-up with excellent presentation and great flavours.
But things unravelled for him in the semi-finals when he tried do prepare a trio of dishes around local pumpkin. His pumpkin pasta was great, but his souffle lacked flavour and his soup was too thin. Against Cubbon’s big flavoured duo of beef, Tammemagi fell short.
Although he took last year’s loss hard, Tammemagi came into this year’s competition with a new approach.
“This year I kept it a lot more simple,” he said. “I listened to the judges’ advice.”
The judges raved about Tammemagi’s homemade pastas last year, so he made dishes that were accompanied by pasta – homemade gnocchi with coconut sauce with pan-seared mahi mahi in the quarterfinal and pumpkin cappelletti with pork tenderloin in the semifinal.
His new approach worked and he will now go up against Cubbon’s big flavours again, but this time with even more on the line: the winner of the competition not only gets bragging rights as Cayman’s top amateur chef, but also a trip for two on Cayman Airways to New York City to attend Food & Wine Magazine’s Top New Chef event and lunch at Chef Eric Ripert’s famous Manhattan restaurant, Le Bernardin.
Tammemagi has been cooking since he was around 15 years old and in high school.
“What got me into cooking is my step-mom was a very good cook,” he said. “I used to watch her bake bread and other things and I helped out.”
As he learned to cook, his stepmother would occasionally let him cook the meal for the whole family, a task for which Tammemagi got welcome concessions.
“I didn’t have to do the dishes if I cooked and I preferred cooking to doing dishes.”
Tammemagi learned more about cooking while in university, where he had to fend for himself for meals. After university, he started to get more elaborate with his techniques.
In the mid-2000s, Tammemagi volunteered to cook Christmas dinner for his wife’s family and her extended family, about 15 people in total. The meal was a hit, and he’s been doing it ever since, now days with the help of his brother-in-law.
His family liked his food and often asks for his recipes, so Tammemagi created his own self-published cookbook, made about 35 copies, and gave them away as Christmas presents.
He says if he has one speciality dish that people always rave about, it’s his tomato pie.
“Everyone thinks it sounds weird, but it’s a hit,” he said.
Going into the Cook-off final, Tammemagi said he won’t know exactly what he’s cooking until closer to the date, when he can figure out what ingredients will be available fresh.
“I’m trying to prepare something that’s going to be special to the chef judges that are participating,” he said. “I want to do something a little outside the box. Even if it’s a bit of a risk, I might take it.”