Thursday Food caught up with Michelle Rousseau a few weeks ago, at the official opening of Uncorked's new store location and its second anniversary celebration. Hired by owners Anna Kay von Dueszeln, Cynthia Hanworth and Debra Valentine as a consultant to help with expanding Uncorked's menu, training the staff, and assisting with their operating procedures, Rousseau spent three weeks working to fulfil her client's brief, as well as the needs of her client's clientele.
Raised by mum, culinary whiz Beverly Rousseau and father Peter (himself with an excellent palate), both Michelle and her sister Suzanne — Jamaica's first culinary princesses -— watched and enjoyed meals prepared from scratch. Michelle has continued to "make everything with fresh ingredients".
"We don't use things like store-bought bouillon or jerk seasoning," she shares, "and restaurants in Jamaica should be moving away from this, and learning to blend the flavours of fresh seasonings. Also, Jamaican chefs excel in knife skills, but they think fancy means overdone, with their carved fruits and tomato 'flowers', which is very eighties. However, it is perfectly possible to take the concept of simple casual dining up a notch, while maintaining simplicity."
Rousseau is passionate about her country and her culinary interests (Ciao Bella catering and Bellefield Great House & Gardens in particular), and though she has left the island numerous times to live for brief stints in places like Spain and New York, "I've always come back to my roots. After a year away, I find I need to come home," she states. This is a lady who goes away to strengthen her expertise and personal pillars, so that she may return to share it with her fellow Jamaicans.
Caught up in the midst of gracefully executing a series of samples from Uncorked's new menu, we could barely believe that Rousseau had been up cooking since seven that morning... it was now 7:00pm. "I haven't even had a chance to have a shower," she answers when we compliment her on how relaxed and good she looks for someone working so hard in a kitchen. Guests enjoyed her flatbread pizzas, grilled sausages, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds, sesame aubergine 'salsa', hummus, a balanced choice of cheeses and wines, and so much more.
Indeed the food never seemed to stop coming out of Uncorked's kitchen, which was a feat in itself as it is quite small and sparse compared to that of a regularly equipped restaurant. "It's part of what inspired this menu," she confirms. "I had to take into consideration that the facility was limited, as well as it being primarily a retail establishment of wines and cheeses. So I decided to base the menu off what Uncorked sells, with the idea of a customer eating a dish and having the option to buy most of the ingredients right there, so they might replicate it at home," Rousseau suggests. "Uncorked has things like dried figs and peppadews, and people don't always know what to do with them. The menu educates the customer, while serving the purpose of the premises," she stresses.
Rousseau's services are of course a luxury for many, but she, too, must make a living, as must all our food establishments (restaurants, cafes) and caterers. So how does the supplier and customer live in harmony, so that these businesses don't fold before the year is done? "One has to be realistic about the market," advises Rousseau, "and get creative with local produce, as well as keep a tight rein on operating and food costs. Restaurants can easily drop their prices by changing the ingredients they use. And changing those ingredients does not mean that standards cannot be maintained. They can be. Chefs must strip back down to simple and clean cooking, and strive to cater for a larger volume by keeping the prices of their meals affordable to more people."
Michelle Rousseau is possibly a culinary pundit of sorts - perhaps a culinary pundit of ALL sorts.
—- Emma Sharp Dalton-Brown