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Thursday, March 28, 2019

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At just 25, Lian Chen is perhaps one of the youngest restaurateurs on the island, and what a rep she has already! In but two years since opening her bistro, Voilà by Lilee, Chen has impressed Mandeville chowhounds, with reviews from diners consisting of superlatives.

As a child, Chen loved to eat and would help her mother, Rosie, in the kitchen. While attending Bishop Gibson High School for Girls, one day she made brownies that were such a hit that she started baking and selling to her schoolmates.

“In my teens, I always had doubts about what I wanted to be. I actually did the sciences for CXC, plus Food and Nutrition. But I was never interested in being a doctor or lawyer or anything of the sort,” she says. “I actually hated being in a classroom, listening and taking notes. I'm a very creative person, like my parents and brothers. I love music and even tried pursuing a career in singing, but accepted that I was no Celine Dion.”

After high school, Chen shored up her experience by working at a hotel in Negril. “I did have doubts about becoming a chef. I wasn't sure that I would be able to handle the strenuous hours and standing for long hours. But I realised I am more than capable and I love the pressure and constant activity in the kitchen. I like keeping busy,” she says.

Convinced that cooking was her passion, Chen enrolled at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College where she studied culinary management. She also did steady work in restaurants to build her kitchen credentials.

On her return to Jamaica, Chen did a stint in the hotel industry but then realised that wasn't for her. So she returned home to Manchester to work with her father, Alvin, managing the family business, Spaldings Bakery. Three years ago the family decided to bet on Chen's passion and launched Voilà by Lilee. Together, father and daughter designed the space with Alvin doing the construction work. Brother Warren, who owns his own carpentry business, Artisan League, did the woodwork, and mother Rosie, who is a fashion designer, did the soft furnishings. And, of course, the buns, breads and burgers are all made in-house, a tribute to the family's baking legacy.

So what's the Voilà by Lilee culinary aesthetic? “Our influences are European and American, and we regularly have Jamaican specials. I'm pretty old-school, actually. I love traditional Jamaican cuisine. I however fully embrace fusion elements,” Chen shares.

“The biggest thing in developing a recipe is accepting when to stop, and that comes from accepting that you cannot please everyone,” she says. “I have a wide selection on my menu so I urge my customers to try new things or even recommend a dish that they would like me to add. It won't happen overnight, but I will definitely consider it.”

In her pantry, you will always find: “The Best Dressed Chicken, of course! Salt is a must. Black pepper, olive oil, eggs, flour, sugar, soy sauce, fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, cilantro, oregano and much more.” On any given day there is a mix of the classic and the new on the menu at Voilà by Lilee. Chicken shows up in wraps, paninis, pastas and salads. There's a home-made burger with bacon, grilled salmon with sage beurre blanc and sweet potato fries with barbecue ranch dipping sauce, garlic butter lobster, and Belgian waffles with Chantilly cream and mulberries. Then there is the matter of dessert. Her range of baked bombshells includes chocolate strawberry shortcake, icebox kiwi cake and a cheesecake — which one fan gushed was the best, ever — and together leave you confused and incapable of making a single choice.

Many young women may struggle with the fact that men dominate the food industry and the restaurant world, but Chen says she has never gone into any business seeing it that way.

“I'm a very firm, independent and strong woman, thanks to my parents,” she states. “I was born and raised rough and tough, if you will, and I can be pretty stubborn but always a go-getter while still being very down-to-earth. So maybe these attributes helped me with taking charge in this male-dominated world.”

Having started the business with loans, help from relatives and her savings, Chen is determined to make it successful. She says young entrepreneurs should reinvest in their business and give it the constant attention that it deserves. “You have to love and enjoy what you're doing so that it doesn't become a burden. You have to allow yourself time to rest, as well, because it is easy for you to burn out,” Chen advises.

Many are oftentimes too excited about their earnings and tend to spend recklessly, leaving the business dry and in need of development or maintenance. “We all need to secure a future, look at the bigger picture and not just the short-term goals,” Chen says.

Voilà by Lilee
52 Caledonia Road
Mandeville
(876) 613-0339

 

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