Diary of Jolene Nelson, Cayman Cookout Bon Vivant Amateur Chef winner


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 relief. The Journal brings you Jolene’s full gamut of emotions.

I could never have imagined the road I was walking on when two friends, Aliya Dunstan and Nasaria Budal, encouraged me to enter into “this cook off thing”, sending me the link to the application. I read it and re-read it…waited a few days and read it again. It seemed innocent enough; send in your favourite recipe – if you were selected then you would have to come and cook it…what could it hurt right?
So I sent in a recipe I enjoyed making; bacon and shrimp stuffed lemon sole. To be honest, I didn’t think much of it after that and when weeks passed and hadn’t had a response, I pretty much forgot about it. I was almost confused when I got a response email from the Bon Vivant staff saying – CONGRATULATIONS!
First thing I did was run to Mom. I briefly explained what I’d got myself into and asked if she would assist me. She agreed. We practiced the dish once, maybe twice for Mom – I knew it back to front and before we knew it, it was November and we were off to the first round.
There were eight contestants chosen from about 26 entries. We had to cook on a stage! In front of a camera! And the judges were head chefs from The Ritz-Carlton and Bacchus! My stomach flipped lazily as I watched the competitors before me expertly prepare pecan crusted mahi mahi and lobster mac and cheese in gruyere and wine sauce. What had I got myself into?!

24 November
I pulled on my custom-made apron, courtesy of one of my biggest supporters, my girl Jessica Dawson and despite the butterflies in my stomach, I smiled, so thankful for all the wonderful people I had around me supporting me. Any nerves I had disappeared when it was time to start cooking…zone out…chop, sauté, broil – cook… time! I couldn’t help but laugh as the chefs crowded around my sauté pan, inhaling deeply and discussing among themselves as to whether or not they could simply take that and run with my stuffing of thick cut bacon, mushrooms, onions, garlic. They drooled and reluctantly left the pan where it was. I looked up and it was over, my dish was plated and handed to the judges. They weren’t gagging or turning green…yet. I listened to their comments of approval, smiling when I realised they really liked it. I wasn’t delusional, I could cook! Feeling accomplished, my Mom and I packed up and left. It had been fun.
When I got that CONGRATULATIONS email two days later I was thrilled and terrified…what was I going to cook???

We had a week to prepare. All of a sudden my Mom was frantic. What did I mean “again”? There wasn’t supposed to be an again! She insisted she couldn’t stand in front of any more cameras and for heavens sake did this mean we had to come up with a different dish? We did. This time we practiced on four different occasions; perfecting the reduction on the sauce and the carmelisation on the side dish. Finally we had a dish we weren’t just happy with, we were in love with! Peach and tamarind lamb loin served with basil parmesan yam cakes….oh yea baby!

9 December
Yes more cameras, more judges, an audience! Was I shaking? I couldn’t tell since I couldn’t feel my feet. Again, there wasn’t really much time to be nervous though and like it or not, it was go time. Chop, sear, broil, reduce, plate…done! An hour already? Yes and there were the judges again, eating my food! These were chefs with 20, 30, 40 years experience! Were they really saying they loved my food?! My Mom beamed beside me – they LOVED the yam cakes which had been her idea entirely; though she looked very concerned when I added an entire stick of butter.
“Jo….don’t you think that’s enough butter?”
“Enough? Mom…if Paula Dean heard you…”
And so we were set to wait again, results to be announced on Daybreak the next day. I woke up at 6:45am to catch the programme. Sitting with my mom in her living room we tried to act casual…pretending we didn’t care whose names were called as the two finalists, but, to be honest, I don’t know what was said on the show after they called my name…I couldn’t hear anything over the screaming and, boy, did we scream. This was unreal! We were going to The Ritz!!!

We floated on clouds of excitement, watching the ads on cable I was stunned to realise the judges for the final round would include Eric Ripert & Anthony Bourdain! We were under the impression we would receive mystery basket of ingredients to prepare on site so we didn’t even consider any possibilities for the finals, we just enjoyed the ride. It was down to two people, this whole thing had become so much more than I thought it was when we started but wow what a blast we had!

Read the Jolene’s experiences at the finale next month.


L to R: Jose Andres, Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Franz Ferschke, Gail Simmons, David Chang, Jolene Nelson, Arlene Nelson, George McNeil, Charles Brown and Neil Brown. Photo: David Wolfe