The Future of the Culinary IndustryThursday, June 24, 2021
Caribbean food culture has always been resilient. Maybe it's because we're used to natural disasters. Or because our ancestors knew how to manipulate sometimes unforgiving terrain to grow the foods we have come to love. It could also have something to do with the fact that we have some of the best agricultural minds in the world. Or because our marine economies are diverse and bountiful. Like the rest of the world, the pandemic walloped the Caribbean food industry. But our resilience allowed us to create a new blueprint for a post-pandemic regional culinary industry. To discuss the way forward, the Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards hosted a virtual panel discussion on Tuesday, June 15, under the theme, The Culinary Industry: What's The Future?
Leave it to Food Awards conceptualiser Novia McDonald-Whyte to have a panel of serious heavy hitters. However, obtaining a particular panellist was a major 'get'. Food historian and author Dr Jessica B Harris has authored “12 critically acclaimed cookbooks “documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora”, including Sky Juice and Flying Fish Traditional Caribbean Cooking. But, you may know her from the recent Netflix docuseries High on the Hog, which was inspired by her cookbook of the same name. Dr Harris is an incredibly busy woman and not an early riser. However, as a friend of the late Norma Shirley (who brought Harris to Jamaica for the second staging of the Food Awards), she was honoured to participate.
The complete panel comprised The Best Dressed Chicken Regional Marketing Manager Avadaugn Sinclair; Trinbagonian chef and owner of Aioli John Michael Aboud; Food culturalist and founder of Nyam & Trod Jacqui “Juicy Chef” Sinclair; St Lucia-based chef and managing director of O Brand Incorporated and Orlando's Restaurant and Bar Orlando Satchell; Culinary Federation of Jamaica President Chef Dennis McIntosh; Head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica Myrtle Weir; and Atlanta-based chef and dinner party curator chef Brianna Riddock.
Compared to other regions and territories, the Caribbean has been fortunate in withstanding the industry-crippling effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. According to a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “The Caribbean and to a large extent Central American countries have been one of the most exemplary regions in containing the COVID-19 from the outset (in absolute numbers and as a share of country's total population).”
The pandemic shuttered over 110,000 restaurants in the United States. Britain lost a tenth of its restaurants, and across Europe, restaurateurs are encountering a “wave of bankruptcies”. Though we are by no means out of the weeds, the sun shines bright in the Caribbean. During the webinar, some of our best and brightest shared their best practices.
Avadaugn Sinclair, regional marketing manager, The Best Dressed Chicken, highlighted that the pandemic pushed many people toward healthier eating habits. Sustainability and food source have also been major focuses. This wave of consciousness informed Jamaica Broilers to launch its No Antibiotics Ever initiative. “Covid shifted demands, needs, and trends,” said Sinclair, and The Best Dressed Chicken wants to remain a brand that people can trust, ergo the offering of healthier proteins.
Along this sustainability train of thought, Aioli chef and owner John Michael Aboud highlighted the importance of the farm-to-table movement in moving forward and an integral ingredient of the “Caribbean growing together”. Indeed, using more local produce is the way forward. Last year, the Caribbean consumed US$ 6 billion worth of imported food. According to Trinidadian agricultural economist Omardath Maharaj, trade logistics are “under pressure”, hence there should be a heightened urgency for food security. The pandemic forced us to find new ways of using local produce, which has been an immense opportunity.
Juicy Chef Jacqui Sinclair, too, campaigned for farming and food security. She stressed the importance of self-sufficiency, growing food at home, and crop protection. Also, she emphasised how a flexitarian diet can ease the ecological impact of meat production. Caribbean cuisine is so diverse that many dishes can easily be transformed into a vegetarian option. And as 54% of the world now cooks at home, more than ever, we should be “proud of our culinary heritage”, said Sinclair.
For Chef Dennis McIntosh, “the future is bright”. He sees the positive impact on innovation and destination experiences. The region has a long history as a culinary destination and now more than ever, people are keen to visit the Caribbean once borders reopen. Yes, the beaches have their allure, but during lockdown many home cooks experimented with exotic ingredients and flavour profiles, including those from the Caribbean. Our flavours allowed people to travel; they were, in fact, ingredients without a passport.
History has revealed that crises drive innovation. Digital transformation has allowed many young people to become food entrepreneurs and secure a piece of the pie for themselves. Before the pandemic, chef Brianna Riddock curated epic dinner parties that started in Atlanta and enjoyed pop-ups in major US cities. When that was brought to a halt, she shifted gears.
The pandemic allowed food entrepreneurs like herself to create “income streams for products they created or are known for”. Riddock is also a well-known pastry chef and leaned into that during the pandemic. But like McIntosh, Riddock sees innovation as the way forward. Her examples include the rise of ghost kitchens (delivery-only restaurants promoted on social media, many of which popped up in Jamaica over the last 15 months) and, yes, you guessed it, chefs becoming food entrepreneurs.
The idea of enjoying a complete and diverse career in the food industry is a central pillar of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management curriculum at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Head of School Myrtle Weir evangelises about the “ecosystem of a career in culinary”. Customer service is a crucial part of that ecosystem. Interestingly enough, a restaurant's brand has less to do with the food and more to do with the experience. According to Deloitte Perspectives, it is critical for restaurants to “deliver consistently engaging, memorable experiences that drive a connection to the brand at every touchpoint”. The report highlights that over 35 per cent of restaurant customers across all age groups, incomes, regions, and genders want engagement and memorable experiences.
Chef Orlando Satchell meanwhile believes that we should be going toward cuisine concepts — food as an experience — #cuisinematters. The pandemic has curtailed wild discretionary spending. As Sinclair put it, “People have had a hard year and now want indulgence and convenience.” People want to be transported or become nostalgic by food, and cuisine is the perfect driver. The Orlando's Bar and Restaurant principal also wants to see more chefs trained in kitchen management. When the average food cost percentage for restaurants oscillates between 28 and 32 per cent, keeping the costs down, especially when supply chains are still not at 100 per cent, is integral to restaurant survival.
The seminar was a treasure trove of valuable insights. The culinary industry will once again dazzle and be prosperous. However, it has to offer well-paying jobs and opportunities for mentorship and growth for it to do so. Moreover, audacious authenticity and ingenuity have to be the fulcrum around which every restaurant, cook shop, catering outfit and food concept operates. The future is only bright if we, in the words of chef Satchell, “share our visions on the plate”.
The Culinary Industry: What's The Future? was presented with the support of the Tourism Enhancement Fund, The Best Dressed Chicken, Rainforest, and Sagicor.
— Vaughn Stafford Gray
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