From Panama, With Love

Thursday Life — George Matthews

Thursday, June 12, 2014    

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George Matthews, current chef-in-residence for the US Ambassador in Jamaica, was on a diplomatic mission of sorts recently. Chef Matthews was representing Jamaica at the IV Volcán Verde Integral Festival in Volcán, Panama, and promoting what our island had to offer was high on his diplomatic agenda.

"My main thing was to showcase our local products, which are much better than the products we import," he told us.

The Volcán Verde festival is a wealth and fitness event meant to promote regional gastronomy.

Matthews, along with 11 other chefs from across the world, was there to display his talents by presenting a signature dish to an audience of government officials, aspiring chefs and local community members. And while wowing the crowd of over 200 with his culinary skills was definitely a part of his mandate, bringing greater global awareness to some of our signature brands had much greater significance for him.

"I see myself in that way because of the job I do."

For the festival, which took place from Saturday, May 17 through to Sunday, May 18, Matthews brought with him Walkerswood seasonings, Red Stripe beer and other liquors.

"I brought J Wray & Nephew White Rum, and the guys went crazy!"

He even lent a helping hand to one of his fellow chefs. Melissa De León, also known as the Cooking Diva in Panama, couldn't quite get the right flavour for a sauce she was preparing. Matthews gave De León a bottle of Walkerswood Scotch Bonnet Sauce.

"When she tried it, she said it was perfect," he said, smiling.

It's spreading the magic of Jamaican cuisine that laid the path for Matthews to take part in this year's festival. Patricia Miranda Allen, a chef and restaurant owner in Panama and an organiser of the Volcán Verde festival, met Matthews at the Jamaican Epicurean Escape in St Ann two years ago. She got to try his signature jerked pig's tail dish and she loved it. And the rest, he says, was history.

He described himself as being humbled to be a representative for Jamaica at the festival this year, particularly because the event was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal's construction. Fitting too, because labourers from all parts of the Americas were involved in (and died during) its construction. And it stands as a lasting allegory to the immeasurable impact of our regional industry.

For the commemoration, Matthews and his fellow chefs collaborated to create one of the largest paellas on record in the Panama — a gargantuan pan of garlic, peppers, onions, rice and meats three metres in diameter.

It was a fantastic experience, he tells us. And worthwhile, too — the dish served over 2, 000 persons and another 500 portions were donated to charity.

Which leads Matthews to wonder: why can't something like that be done in Jamaica? Why can't we organise a collaborative event involving Jamaican chefs commemorating a traditional dish on large scale? A 300-ton pot of curried goat, perhaps?

The logistics aren't clear, but Matthews is certain an event like this would attract much needed attention to the remarkable culinary talents that exist in Jamaica.

"People from all over the world were flying in to see this event [in Panama]." Imagine, he gushed, what something like that could do for Jamaica.

And it's worth noting that those two words — "for Jamaica" — seem to cap an awful lot of his sentences. Even with all his accomplishments, from working in some of the most prestigious hotels in Jamaica to being deemed a chef-on-the rise at the Jamaica Observer Food Awards in 2010, Matthews still speaks as if he were indebted to his country. And the act of cooking, he reminded us, is ultimately an unselfish act meant to enrich and enliven others. He spoke fondly of the people who taught him this by example — his mother, who often cooked for church functions, and the legendary Norma Shirley, who taught him the value of sharing your expertise with others. Throughout his years of hard work, which led him from a small kitchen in Spanish Town to the US Ambassador's residence in Kingston, he has held on to the mantra that the ego should be checked at the kitchen door.

"Humility," he says, "goes a long way."

And the satisfaction that comes with seeing foreign dignitaries clear a plate that you've created? Well, that's just icing on an already satisfying cake.

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