Amateur chefs shine at Bon Vivant Cook-off final

The Bon Vivant Cook-off competition came down to two Canadians who battled in front of a live audience and a celebrity chef judging panel, but it was Eric St-Cyr and his team that came out on top.  

Amateur chef Eric St-Cyr looked over his cooking station in ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman at the room packed with brunch guests just before the final round of the 2012 Bon Vivant Cook-off got under way. 

“We’re going to need more fish,” he said to his wife. 

St-Cyr really only needed enough fish to serve five judges, but cooking in front of a hundreds of people would have shaken most home cooks. Not St-Cyr, who explained his calm under pressure as an occupational hazard. 

“I managed people’s money for a living and if you know how the stock market behaved recently, you understand that cooking is a piece of cake on my stress level,” he said. 

The Bon Vivant Cook-off series started in November with eight contestants. After two preliminary rounds, St-Cyr faced Maureen Cubbon in the final, which was held as part of the Champagne Brunch on the last day of the 2012 Cayman Cookout.  

Instead of the local judges that had been used in the early rounds of competition, St-Cyr and Cubbon were cooking for the refined palates of celebrity chefs Eric Ripert, José Andrés and Anthony Bourdain, as well as Food & Wine Magazine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin and Cayman Islands Governor Duncan Taylor. 

The event was hosted by Bon Vivant’s Cynthia Hew, with help by Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais, who noted that all of the judges – with the exception of Governor Taylor – had at one time judged his cooking. 

“But that was one at a time, but not all together like this,” he said. “Together, this is the most powerful table in the industry.” 

At stake in the competition was not only the title of top amateur chef in Cayman, but a trip for two to New York on Cayman Airways to attend Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chef event and to have lunch at Le Bernardin, Chef Ripert’s restaurant that is sometimes called ‘The Temple of Seafood’. 

St-Cyr’s sous chef for the entire Cook-off series was his wife, Rosa Scarpellini-St-Cyr, but he was given an extra set of hands for the final: Imani Abdul-Jabbar, one of two winners of competitions held during the week-long Cayman Culinary Camp held at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman last August. 

The CEO of Clover Asset Management by day, St-Cyr said he started cooking from the age of 16. The French-Canadian said hunger was the thing that usually inspired him to cook and that some of his favourite dishes included bone marrow, pigs ears, caviar and oysters. 

“Is there anything you’ll never eat,” Hew asked him. 

“My words,” he said. 

Cubbon’s sous chef was her friend Gina Peck, and she was also helped by Chelsea Pierson, the other Culinary Camp competition winner. 

Although she was born in Vancouver, Cubbon was also raised in Fiji, from where her mother comes. She described her cooking style as rustic and bold, and said she likes to use some of the Fijian spices and flavours she knew growing up. 

The two cheftestants – as they were called during the competition – were given 45 minutes to make five servings of a dish that had to contain protein, vegetable and starch portions. At least half of their ingredients had to be produced, grown or caught locally. The dishes were scored on four criteria, including originality of the recipe, presentation, taste and showmanship/skill. 

To throw a little more pressure on the amateur chefs, they were asked to create a cocktail using provided ingredients. However, to offset that twist, the cheftestants were able to choose from a line-up of professional chefs on hand for the brunch to help them. St-Cyr chose Chef Vidyadhara Shetty from Blue Cilantro while Cubbon chose Chef Gilbert Cavallaro from the Cracked Conch. 

While the two cooks prepared their dishes, guests drank Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial Champagne and dined on a vast array of delectable foods prepared by The Ritz-Carlton chefs. In addition, chefs from many of Grand Cayman’s top restaurants, as well as Certified Angus Beef’s guest corporate chef Scott Popovic, prepared single dishes at stations set up along the balcony outside of the Ritz ballroom.  

St-Cyr prepared a very impressive plate that included pan-fried red snapper brushed with Tortuga pepper jelly. The fish was set atop a coulis of local pumpkin puree and bone marrow and topped with a layer of mangoes sautéed in butter. He also made two side dishes – local lobster tempura served in a banana leaf cone and wing beans. 

“I really wanted to use local products as much as possible,” said St-Cyr, adding that about 90 per cent of his ingredients came from the Cayman Islands. “The wing beans are a great surprise to people; many locals don’t even know about them.” 

In the end, St-Cyr said he was satisfied with the plating. 

“It looked like I wanted it to look,” he said. 

Cubbon’s final plate featured local beef tenderloin with Cayman ratatouille, rustic béarnaise and foie gras sauce and local sweet potato gratin.  

Unfortunately, she experienced the dreaded technical glitch during the competition. 

“I had some unexpected challenges,” she said. “My blender died.” 

As a result, Cubbon had to hand blend some of her sauces, which meant they didn’t come out as smooth as she would have liked. 

Cubbon also sourced most of her ingredients locally, including the beef tenderloin, which she purchased at Kent Rankin’s farm. 

Governor Taylor praised both cheftestants for their use of many local ingredients. Chef Ripert seemed enthralled with St-Cyr’s wing beans, a local ingredient with which he was unfamiliar.  

When the judges’ scorecards were all tallied, St-Cyr was declared the winner by just a few points. The celebrity chefs joined the cheftestants on stage and Ripert sprayed Champagne all over St-Cyr. 

Cubbon said the feedback she received from the judges afterwards was that she should have made the plate more Caribbean in nature, but she said she was delighted just to have been a part of the final. 

“It’s one of my top five experiences in my life,” she said. 

For here efforts, Cubbon received a set of Le Creuset cookware, a very nice consolation prize indeed. 

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Celebrity Chef Eric Ripert, centre with mircophone, interviewed cheftestant Eric St–Cyr while he was cooking as the other judges looked on.

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Cheftestant Maureen Cubbon, right, and her sous chef friend Gina Peck.