Taste of Jamaica a hit at SOBE in Miami

Observer writer

Sunday, March 03, 2019

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The recent staging of “Taste Jamaica” at The Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) in Miami was sold out with over 500 attendees. The event held at the National Hotel Miami Beach was a resounding success and represented the first time that Jamaica had taken over an evening at the world-renowned festival.

Recent years have seen the rise of Jamaica's cuisine as a promotional tool to further differentiate the Jamaican tourism market from its competitors. “Taste Jamaica”, an initiative of Jamaica's Gastronomy Network (that forms part of the Tourism Linkages Network) and the Jamaica Tourist Board, was in keeping with this promotional strategy and sought to highlight Jamaican cuisine to an international audience of gastronomes.

Participating chefs came from Jamaica and the wider diaspora and included Colin Hylton, Gariel Ferguson, Cindy Hutson, Delius Shirley, Wentford Simpson, Hugh Sinclair, Johnoi Reid, Andre Fowles, Patrick Simpson, Chef Creole (Wilkinson Sejour) and Matthew McDonald. Also taking part were Golden Krust Caribbean Restaurant, Naomi's Garden Restaurant & Lounge, Jamaica Kitchen and Donna's Caribbean Restaurant.

The Jamaican-themed occasion sought to go “beyond jerk” and showcase the wider variety of both classic and new cuisine from chefs at the cutting-edge of Jamaican gastronomy. It also featured musical entertainment from the famous DJ Irie who was raised in Jamaica and featured in Forbes magazine for his marketing ventures and business innovation in the Miami nightlife scene. The high-profile entertainer was complemented by an appearance from Walshy Fire of the internationally known, dancehall-influenced music group, Major Lazer.

The presence of such high- profile chefs and entertainers ensured that the promotion of Jamaica went beyond food and into the wider culture to leave a lasting impression on the very discerning audience that attends SOBEWFF.

Donnie Dawson, Deputy Director North America, Jamaica Tourist Board, was pleased with the event's success and highlighted the two cultural elements of food and music which combined well to put the island's tourism product in the international spotlight.

“To be a part of the iconic South Beach Wine & Food Festival is something we dreamed about and finally we are here and I think we were a hit,” he stated. “We were up against two other big events and persons were saying that they would prefer to be here than at the Burger Bash or Best of the Best. It speaks a lot for Jamaica and it speaks a lot for our cuisine and our music. We had DJ Irie, the top dj in Miami performing. It turned into not only a food fest but a party and that is something we are excited about. Jamaica is now on the South Beach Wine & Food Festival map.”

Patrons were treated to a wide repertoire of Jamaican dishes from traditional classics like patties and jerk chicken to pimento wet sugar glazed pork belly by Chef Gariel Ferguson, boneless oxtail with truffled macaroni & cheese by Walkerswood's chef ambassador Patrick Simpson and freshly made roti with curry shrimp by Food Network's 2016 Chopped Winner, Andre Fowles.

Serving up a twist on flavours and a crowd favourite was the event's culinary hosts of the evening, Cindy Hutson and Delius Shirley, with fresh cobia rundown and green banana mash. Not to be outdone was the sole dessert chef, Colin Hylton, whose dessert offerings were so well received his station was constantly busy and completely empty before the event ended.

“Taste Jamaica” was managed by a 16-year veteran of SOBE and Florida International University (FIU) graduate, Jamaican-born Kimberley Dunkley-Watkins who has been advocating for a Jamaican-themed event from the beginning of her SOBEWFF career which started in 2004. Dunkley-Watkins has held several positions over the course of her time with the festival from intern to sponsorship management, marketing, operations and now as an event management consultant.

She revealed that she was assisted at the event by a staff made up of 15 volunteers working in various areas including registration and culinary. The tickets which were sold-out were priced at US$150 each and all proceeds from SOBEWFF went to the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University.

Dunkley-Watkins confirmed that in keeping with the event's objectives “Taste Jamaica” was able to expose Jamaican cuisine to a wide audience.

“It was a pleasure to see that the attendees were of varying demographics spanning from millennials to baby boomers and roughly 80 per cent weren't of Jamaican descent,” she said. “I overheard a lot of guests discussing the various flavours and being mesmerised by the spices, aromas and textures. So for what may seem 'common' for us at home, lots of the guests were experiencing it for the first time.”

One of the impressed patrons was Tavi Johnson, a lifestyle blogger and social media influencer from Chicago. Her blog, Chiataglance.com, “Exploring Chicago At A Glance”, was featured in a curated list by Feedspot called “Top 20 Chicago Lifestyle Blogs and Websites To Follow in 2019”. She represented the type of discerning influencers that made up part of the event's target audience.

“The food, chefs, and music played by DJ Irie made you feel like you were on the island,” Johnson enthused. “I've been to Jamaica twice previously and “Taste Jamaica” at Sobe Fest captured the island feeling with the food, music, and ambiance. Guests were transported to Jamaica for a few hours and I didn't want to leave.”

The chair of the Gastronomy Network, Nicola Madden-Greig, revealed that Brand Jamaica was an official bronze sponsor of SOBEWFF in order to reap further promotional benefits through brand association. The event's promotional “swag bag” for patrons also contained a calendar of all food festivals in Jamaica and “Taste Jamaica” received publicity in Forbes magazine, the Miami Herald and the Miami New Times among other media entities, with the release of additional articles still ongoing.

According to Madden-Greig, the occasion fulfilled its promotional objectives and has set the stage for similar marketing initiatives in the future.

“It was a phenomenal, sold-out event,” she declared. “It was a showcase of not only Jamaican cuisine but Jamaican culture and we definitely made our mark at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Jamaican gastronomy is on the map and will be seen at many more events to come.”

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