With just 14 days to go before the highly anticipated Jamaica Observer Food Awards unfolds on the lawns of the historic Devon House, the judges reconvened at the Spanish Court Hotel last Monday for another exciting round of presentations. The evening had a welcome international theme as Chinese fare (from ascendant fast-food mogul Paul Yao), decadent sweet treats (by Chinese born-now-Rock-resident master pastry chef, Jing Shi), Argentine-inspired desserts (whipped up by South American beauty Mercedes Pino) and Jamaican coffee (the aromatic, delicious Marley Coffee) were served.
East Meets West
"We love to cook and Jamaicans love to eat," Chinese businessman Paul Yao told the judging panel midway his eight-course presentation. Resident here for almost two decades, Yao heads the expanding Chinese fast-food eatery that bears his surname. With three branches operational in New Kingston and the Sovereign Mall and a fourth set to open at the University of the West Indies this September, Yao is making a name for himself in the food industry. For his debut to the Food Awards panel, Yao opted to showcase a diverse menu that, while not immediately available in his restaurant chain, can be sourced through his catering services. Satiating the judges with a taste of the Orient, chef Kevin Zhou presented several dishes that married spicy flavours and veggies. Plated and served were stewed tofu with duck gizzards, cilantro with cashew nuts, stewed pork with foo yong, shrimp dumplings and shrimp balls, five-spice beef, dried bean curd with celery and pork belly. Yao is also in the business of coffee and introduced his Amber Estate line of Blue Mountain-grown coffee, which he exports to the captive and lucrative markets of Japan and China.
The Master of Desserts
To say that the judges were suitably impressed with the evening's second presenter Jing Shi and his decadent sweet treats would be an understatement. And If the oft-repeated mmms, oohs, and aahs were not clear signals they were enthralled, then the rapid-fire questions that came after each forkful of his desserts indicated the master pastry chef was the real deal. The Four Seasons trained chef impressed with his quintet of desserts -- sweet tomato cake with basil sauce and Parmesan tulips; baked mango and banana served with tapioca cream; roasted pineapple with yogurt sauce; latte cotto with tropical fruit salsa and a crispy chocolate tower mountain coffee coulis. Shi, who runs the Future Bakery on Main Street in Ocho Rios, also brought an ever-so-delightful assortment of specialty breads prompting judge Krystal Chong to exclaim: "I feel like a kid in Toys 'R Us". Shi told Thursday Food that he is no fan of run-of-the-mill pastries. He explained: "When I make desserts, it has to have three dimensions and be very different." The chef divulged that he supplies a host of hotels and restaurants across the island (but refused to name-drop) with his baked products and is on call for weddings and social dos.
Marley Coffee Stirs It Up Again
The second time around was just as good for Marley Coffee. The Blue Mountain brew, branded with the iconic reggae superstar's name, filled the cups of the panel at last year's Food Awards judging session. This year, thanks to an insightful presentation by Jason Sharp, director of both Coffee Traders Limited and Marley Coffee, and the product's indisputably rich taste, the judges' palates were still piqued. Sharp, joined by Marley Coffee director Arun Dadlani for the presentation, provided an in-depth walk-through of how premium coffee must be grown and harvested before it can claim a 'Grade A' rating from local coffee authorities. Dadlani revealed that the demand on the international market for Marley Coffee is high, with company director Balram Vaswani currently in Austria negotiating a deal for distribution there. There is, too, a deal with online company Amazon to sell Marley Coffee, which retails for US$45 for a 12-ounce package.
Don't Cry For Her, Argentina
After finding the man of her dreams, Mercedes Pino opted to stay in Jamaica instead of returning to Argentina with her former ambassador father. The South American beauty saw a window of opportunity to utilise her pastry skills on The Rock after "going to restaurants and noticing that the desserts were all very similar". Pino founded the home-based pastry operation Dolce Boccome, with several of the sweet treats being a nod to her Argentine culinary heritage. For her appearance last Monday, Pino presented two desserts: a chocolate volcano with vanilla ice cream and almond praline, and a coconut and dulce de leche pie.