Jamaican Chef to host Food Network show

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Thursday, July 05, 2018

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Not many Jamaicans can boast about feeding the Obamas. Being invited by then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to cater a private dinner at her residence. And cooking for Brandy, Dionne Warwick and Dru Hill. May Pen-born chef Wenford Patrick Simpson (who's affectionately called Chef Patrick) can claim all these milestones, in addition to being the host of a new Food Network cooking show.

Food Network reached out to me; I even saved the e-mail! I was just wowed,” said Simpson, speaking with Thursday Food during the drive home from one of his establishments — the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan's hip Chelsea neighbourhood. The show, which for contractual reasons he can't get too detailed about, is currently filming and will air early in the new year. “Imagine turning on your TV and seeing a Jamaican chef preparing our food and hearing our music and language? Imagine seeing bammy, ackee and festival on the Food Network? That's a big deal!” Simpson is elated and we can't blame him.

From very humble beginnings in Clarendon, battling acute depression (which led to two suicide attempts) and an early culinary career that alternated with other jobs, Simpson has beaten the odds and made himself into a stand-up figure on the New York culinary scene. He wants his success to impact the lives of others; as a result, he's opening a culinary school in Ocho Rios. The idea for the institute came to him during one of his many mentoring trips to Jamaica.

“I met a guy selling tea from a pushcart late at night. Speaking with him, he said that he wishes that he had a trade,” said Simpson. “I told him that I was a chef in America and he said he would love to be a chef, only if he could learn how to cook.” Reaching out to contacts here and abroad, Simpson started to raise the funds needed to build the cooking school. The Simpson Culinary Institute will begin accepting applications in September and operate as a not-for-profit. The school will allow youth from vulnerable communities to earn a skill and get mentoring and career placement.

When he isn't hosting cooking segments on morning television shows or doing cooking demonstrations at Bloomingdale's, Chef Simpson manages the day-to-day running of three NYC kitchens — the Highline Ballroom, Sony Hall and Blue Note. The BB King Blues Club in Times Square, which he was also in charge of, closed on April 29 due to an astronomical rise in rent. The owners are in the process of finding a new location for the legendary venue.

In addition to these NYC venues, Simpson oversees the menu planning for a restaurant consortium that has locations in Beijing, Dubai, Hawaii, DC and Barbados. He's a busy chef, a dedicated father to his 13-year-old daughter and loving partner to his girlfriend.

Jamaica is a strong brand. The trademark black, green and gold is recognised the world over. Jamaicans have taken our heritage and made a mark on some of the world's most visible institutions — the United Nations, Hollywood, the Olympics, Broadway and the Man Booker Prize, to name a few. And, thanks to Chef Wenford P Simpson, come 2019, we can turn on a major cable television station and see breadfruit being fried, fish being brown-stewed and hear patois, to boot.

Simpson is not the first Jamaican to appear on the Food Network. The late culinary doyenne Norma Shirley appeared on the Network as well as former Round Hill Hotel & Villas and Rockhouse chef, 2016 Chopped Champion Andre Fowles; Jasmine Stewart eliminated 19 other contestants to walk away with $100,000 and the 2017 MasterChef Junior trophy; and between 2001 and 2002, celebrity chef Cheryl Smith hosted Melting Pot that has a cast comprising of Michael Symon, Padma Lakshmi, Cat Cora, Rocco DiSpirito and Wayne Harley Brachman. The US has always embraced a Caribbean experience and in Simpson's view, “non-Caribbean Americans love Jamaican food but tend to be unfamiliar with the ingredients”.

From an internship at Club Caribbean to 12 years cooking on cruise ships, to overseeing restaurants and concert venues in the US, Asia and the Caribbean, Chef Simpson has come a far way. All these roads will lead to him becoming a certified Food Network star.

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