Amateurs with some serious talent

Four amateur chefs recently tested their skills against each other in two semi final cook out challenges to see who would progress to participate to the final cook out in front of celebrity chefs during Cayman Cookout 2010. Each showed individuality, flare and skill and cooked some amazingly flavourful dishes that wowed the judges and made assessing the winners a tough job. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports.

When Bon Vivant’s Cynthia Hew first suggested that I judge the semi finals for the amateur cook out it sounded like an easy task, simply enjoying great food and then picking a winner – but this was certainly not the case. Four superb local amateur cooks showed the experts (the other judges were Bacchus Chef and owner Keith Griffin, Ritz-Carlton General Manager Franz Ferschke and The National Trust’s Denise Bodden) that amateurs made excellent chefs, causing the judges some serious headaches when it came to decision-making.
First round semi finalists Mike Mandish and Charlie Brown (ably supported by daughter Kristen and son Neil respectively) pitched a serious battle with two well presented, expertly executed and highly flavourful dishes, while simultaneously keeping a relaxed composure and even made time to chat with judges and guests.
Mike’s black and white sesame crusted rainbow runner with a shiitake mushroom sauce was a delight. The fish flaked magically and the shiitake sauce enhanced the fish with its depth of flavour.
Mike said he loves to cook, clearly obvious by his entry, and confirmed that he probably only ate out a handful of times a year, preferring to cook each night instead at home for his family. Mike’s favourite source of food is the George Town harbour front where the fishermen most likely know him by name, so frequently does he visit to suss out the catch of the day.
Charlie Brown is most known to residents as the Gifts with a Difference owner, however perhaps not so well known is his passion for cooking. Charlie said his love for cooking stemmed back from when he was young, catching wild duck in the Cayman bush and then cooking them to enjoy their delicious flavour. Charlie said he loves to take part in Ironman cookouts with his friend so is no stranger to cooking under pressure.
His cranberry duck was bursting with spicy flavour and his potato side was pronounced so good by judge Franz that he requested it as a breakfast dish at the Ritz-Carlton Seven restaurant.
A week later the second semi finals took place and again judges were left scratching their heads as to who they would mark the winner.
Jolene Nelson supported by mum Arlene was a super talented duo and even though Arlene admitted she did not enjoy cooking as much as her daughter she provided an excellent back up resource for her cook daughter. Jolene’s tamarind peach lamb loin was a memorable dish, a brilliant marriage of sweet and sour as well as a lovely combination of textures and served with a yam cake infused with parmesan and basil leaves that made you want to rush home and try it yourself.
Husband and wife duo Shaun (the cook) and Rebecca (the knife) Green were another excellent team and produced a seared tuna steak with an Asian sesame crust that wowed the judges. As the duo both hailed from Australia, perhaps it was no wonder that their fish dish was so well executed. The wasabi mash that accompanied the fish was perfectly seasoned to give a gentle but flavourful oomph to the dish.
Shaun said he and Rebecca also took part in a recent cookout competition with their friends, winning first prize which was brunch paid for by their friends.  
After a really tough decision making process, the judges finally decided that Charlie Brown and Jolene Nelson should move onto the final round.
Cynthia was delighted with the success of their first-ever amateur cook out and said that it was a real team effort to pull it off so smoothly: “There are a number of individuals who helped us make this a memorable first. Max from Tortuga provided some excellent wines to help the evenings go with a swing and The Ritz-Carlton provided some tasty nibbles so that nobody went hungry. My thanks also goes to Vicki Wheaton, who gave an entertaining commentary throughout both events and really did a great job. I would also like to thank Kristin Royle and husband Joey for their support. We are all looking forward to the finals with anticipation!” 
Don’t miss the final cookout, which takes place on Sunday, 17 January, at The Ritz-Carlton Sunday brunch. Winners will receive a trip for two to the Food & Wine Best New Chef Event in New York in April, airfare courtesy of Cayman Airways, accommodation provided by The Ritz-Carlton and lunch at Chef Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin restaurant.