Riu's Executive Chef O'Neil Vernon shares journey as hotel marks 20 years in JamaicaThursday, February 25, 2021
BY HORACE HINES
MONTEGO BAY, St James — Hanover native O'Neil Vernon attributes the culinary skills he acquired in his mother's kitchen to his meteoric rise from an assistant cook at Riu Palace Tropical Bay in Negril — where he started 20 years ago when the Spanish hotel chain set up shop in Jamaica — to executive chef at Riu Palace in Montego Bay.
After graduating from the Green Island Comprehensive High School in Hanover, Vernon attended the then HEART Trust/NTA to sharpen his culinary skills before branching out on the hotel circuit.
After a short stint with other hotels, Vernon was among the first group recruited by the Spanish hotel chain when they commenced operations in Jamaica at the then newly opened Riu Palace Tropical Bay in Negril in 2001.
Wasting no time in announcing his ability, he got his first promotion in less than six months on the job.
“I was an assistant cook, then was promoted to a lead cook in the pantry; then to a supervisor, to a sous chef and from a sous chef to executive sous chef, and from an executive sous chef transitioned to being an executive chef at the Riu Palace in Montego Bay,” Vernon shared.
Throughout his 20-year stint with the hotel, he is particularly proud of having the privilege to visit other properties in the hotel chain in countries such as Mexico, Dominica Republic and the USA, to provide chefs with the template for the preparation of jerk chicken.
In fact, he emphasised that gastronomy is among the major pull for tourists to the local shores, adding that word of tantalising taste of the indigenous jerk chicken has spread globally.
“The CEO sent me to Mexico because they wanted to put jerk chicken in all the hotels they have worldwide. So, I went there and planned the menu with all the chefs in Mexico and chefs from other Caribbean countries. Jerk chicken is in high demand internationally, so he wanted jerk chicken with the same flavour and same taste as in Jamaica in all the hotels in other countries. So, I went there to make that happen. I also went to Dominica Republic and Miami Beach…then COVID came in and so I did not get to go to all the chefs,” he explained.
Vernon stressed that he is impressed with Riu's policy “to give the first option to in-house employees to fill any vacancy created by Riu,” which now has six hotels with 3,300 rooms and employs more than 1,500 people in Jamaica.
“Personally, when I want an assistant cook I will look for the steward and I will train that person. So that's how Riu is. So, if they want a manager, if they need an executive chef and they see that you can do the job they won't go outside and take persons from overseas or persons who only know their theory; they will promote you from within,” the executive chef stated.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Tanesha Campbell Davis, now the bar manager at Riu Palace, who, fresh out of Rusea's High School in Lucea, Hanover, started at Riu Palace Tropical Bay as a bar server.
“They [Riu] promote from within the company, I really like that. For example, if a position is available the first preference is for persons within. They don't normally go out. Growth is possible with Riu,” the Hanover native stated.
“I started as the bar server and I am currently the bar manager at Riu Palace, Montego Bay. My intention was to go to college after saving enough money for tuition and other expenses, but honestly, starting to work I didn't get the inclination to return to school.”
According to Luis Riu, the chief executive officer of the Riu hotel chain, after the opening of Tropical Bay in 2001, he then committed to Jamaica as a destination in which to develop further operations.
“Since my first visit to the island in 1998, I knew I had to open a Riu hotel in Jamaica. I was entranced by its beaches and nature, but above all, by the culture and the charisma of its people, and I knew our clients would feel its charm too. At that time, it seemed crazy, but today it's a success story. Jamaica is one of the Caribbean's major destinations, not only for American tourists, but rather for almost all the European countries,” Luis Riu argued.