SHE is a wife, mother and a chef who is committed to teaching children to cook and have confidence in the kitchen.
Born and raised in Ewarton, St Catherine, Latoya Panton told All Woman that from as early as she can remember she was cooking and her parents were very supportive.
“At first I used to cook sand and leaves. But I was always in the kitchen with her [mother]. I was one of those children who would get a piece of flour [dough], roll it and use a fork to cook it with the fire under a pot. My mother was very accommodating and my Aunt Gloria also helped develop my passion as she taught me a lot of things and helped me to truly love what I do,” she said.
Subsequently, when Panton was a student at St Jago High it came as no surprise to her parents that though she topped her class, she chose to focus on a non-traditional career path.
“For food and nutrition class I had Dr Grace McLean (now chief education officer in the Ministry of Education) as my teacher. She was a great inspiration and a teacher you just wanted to please. Classes with her were really eye-opening. I remember us going to a food and nutrition competition and other events that showed there was more [out there]. I was also a big part of Junior Achievement and it helped to build my entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, the second company I was in was food-based and I was vice-president for production. That made school even more fun than it was and further sparked my interest in the culinary arts,” she said.
During that time Panton also had an interest in meteorology and vowed to become the best meteorologist in Jamaica, but when it came to choosing she went with cooking and never looked back.
Panton then moved to the University of Technology where she pursued a degree in Institutional and Catering Management, then took up an internship at Walt Disney World before returning to Jamaica.
“After leaving Disney I came home and went to work with Lorraine Fung to confirm that it was what I wanted to do. I remember once there were three days back-to-back and at the end of it I was dog tired and crawled into the house on my knees. Then I said this is what I want to do. You have to be passionate to be in it, otherwise you won't last,” she said.
Following that stint, Panton went on to open her own catering business — Delicious Occasions — where she serves as “head cook and bottle washer”. The highlight of her business is that she teaches children as young as four years old to cook, but how she came to do that was after her friend's 16-year-old asked for lessons in peeling an orange.
“There was a group of children who wanted me to teach them but I didn't think of it until my friend's daughter wanted me to teach her to peel an orange. I found it rather strange but she really didn't have a clue as her parents didn't allow her in the kitchen. I showed her how to peel the orange, but it dawned on me that she was 16 and couldn't cook. That's when I decided that I was going to teach children how to cook and in the summer of 2006 I started my classes,” she said.
The classes are young chefs, beginners, international cuisine, gourmet and baking.
From there, Panton realised that after the summer ended parents and children still wanted to be part of the classes and that gave birth to her Young Chefs Cooking Club that caters to children ages four to 16. The club, now in its fifth year, is also the home of the Young Chefs television show, which started in 2016.
“Out of the summer classes we started the cooking show. After one week I saw remarkable stuff. What I saw coming out of the classes was amazing. We are now working on season two trying to get sponsorship. But I want to see children and people cooking again. The majority of my childhood memories are from being in the kitchen with my mother. It is a great bonding experience,” she said.
The cooking club also has a pop-up restaurant called Tarragon and Thyme and they have entered a number of competitions to include the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, where they had nine entries and won nine medals and two categories.
“With the pop-up restaurant the children come together, decide the recipes, and we get professional chefs to create it on the night. It is for charity, but on the night the children are the ones who serve.”
In addition to the summer classes, Panton dedicates two weeks each summer where she takes her classes to one rural and one inner-city community to give the children there the exact experience those who are part of her formal classes receive.
“We show them the possibilities, help them improve their knife skills, and we also use it as a back-to-school drive. Last year we went back to my community, my church, and shared with the kids who embody me many years ago. We also went to Grant's Pen and this year we went to Potsdam in St Elizabeth and shared. It is always a very warming experience and a good feeling. The aim is that even if it's to plant just one seed, we must plant as we don't know whose eyes we might open. I want to get to the at-risk youth and expose them to the culinary arts and see where it goes from there,” she said.
Further, she hopes to dispel the rumour that the culinary arts are for children who are not academically inclined.
“I did very well at St Jago. I was the top of my class, but I never wanted to become any doctor or lawyer. This is what I loved and it's true happiness. I tell people I do not work, I just have fun. It's a hobby and I make money from it. Even if you're studying the culinary arts you don't have to be a chef. Think about every package in the supermarket — someone food related had something to do with that; there are people who make flavours. It's a whole range of areas. Parents, allow your children to express themselves with food in the kitchen. Don't hold them back, maybe that's the next great world chef you are holding back. There are many possibilities out there with the culinary arts. If you are afraid to cook with them, send them to me,” she said.
Outside of kitchen duties, Panton enjoys family time with her husband Ryan and children Kimberly, 16, and Jason, 13. Outside of family time, she enjoys acting, tending to the herb and vegetable garden she runs for the children, and visiting Portland.
“There should be no unaccomplished task when I die. Whatever I can offer this world and do, I will do it,” she said.