No small feat for JamalFrom a classic BLT to Caribbean Chef of the Year
As a fourth-grade student, Jamal Small knew that the sandwich his parents prepared for him to take to school should not be soggy when it was time for lunch – besides, he also could not stand eating it. He set out to make a sandwich that would not be a soggy mess by the time the lunch bell rang. His first foray into making his own lunch was a classic BLT (bacon, lettuce, tomato) on whole wheat bread. Since that day, he developed a passion for culinary arts, and proceeded to prepare the lunches he would take to school. He became immensely popular as well, as the entire class waited eagerly each day to see what he would pull out of his lunch tin.
The young man who saw his passion for culinary arts jump-started with the making of a simple BLT is now the Caribbean Chef of the Year 2018, having nabbed the title at the Taste of the Caribbean competition.
Recalling his early days, he remembered making his own lunches through sixth grade before toning it down because he didn’t want to look like a “baby” as he was trying to cultivate his “tough guy” image, but he was still secretly making his way into the home economics kitchen.
“Publicly I did music, but secretly I was in the kitchen still cooking … testing desserts, and I would bring stuff for the seniors to taste.”
He was very popular as a seventh-grade student, and said it was the culinary program at C.V. Bethel when he hit 10th grade that completely sold him on his future career path in culinary arts.
Two-and-a-half decades later after that first BLT foray and with the region’s top accolade to his credit, Small said it simply means he can’t let up and that he needs to continue to push, as he has a standard to continue to live up to and to continue to try to surpass.
“Being named Caribbean Chef of the Year doesn’t mean that I should stop, or let up off the gas, but that I should push harder.”
When it comes to food he considers himself to be eclectic and open-minded.
“I believe that food is life and there are different types, shapes, flavors; and to be a chef means to understand all aspects of food from the little to the big to the soggy to the sweet, from sweet to salty, savory, cold, hot … everything.”
Small prides himself on being an all-around chef who can do pastry, hot foods as well as cold.
It was the understanding of knowing when to reign things in that earned him his prestigious title. He noticed at the Taste competition in June that the judges were leveling complaints left and right, asking what the chefs were doing and why they were doing molecular. What he got from what was said was that whatever he produced needed to go back to the basics.
“I listened to the sip sip and all that stuff and said to myself, ‘Jamal you won’t win this competition doing fancy-fancy nothing’, so what I did was take it all the way back to the traditional old school plating just building flavors, worked extremely clean and blew them away with the taste, because at the end of the day it’s called Taste of the Caribbean, so the judges were now looking more at what the food tasted like than what it looked like. Before they were kind of focused on ‘it looks pretty so we’re going to give them full points’; but now the judges were going back [to] old school methods, and saying ‘we don’t care what it looks like, we want to know that it tastes good’ and you follow the right cooking method, so that’s what I did.”
Small said he did not tell anybody what he was going to do, as he decided to prepare a weeks’ meal of peas and grits, steamed fish, with warm coleslaw and barbecue beef.
His practical plate knocked the judges’ socks off.
“They weren’t looking at how fancy you plated it up, but could you take the plate, present it in a restaurant and do 100 covers. It was back to basics, and I was spot on – classic cooking methods, hot and flavorful.”
He also ensured that he had all of his tools laid out and on point, including wearing his thermometer, which is standard for any chef.
The Caribbean Chef of the Year pursued culinary arts at the College of The Bahamas (now University of The Bahamas) and after his first year he entered the three-year apprenticeship program at Kerzner International (now Atlantis) under the late Chef Jasmine Clarke-Young, who he credits with major impact on him as the chef he is today.
In the program he started from the ground up in stewarding and had to learn every aspect of it, from using the machines, to setting up functions. By then he was well-versed in running a station.
“It was very intense,” he recalled.
In his third year he learned expediting and what being an “office chef” entailed.
As an apprentice he also competed in numerous culinary competitions. At the completion of the program he opted out of Atlantis for an offer at the Sheraton as a cook in the Amici restaurant where he quickly ran up the line. It was there that he worked with Chef Devin Johnson, who he refers to as his “culinary daddy”.
“Everything I went through I went through with [Johnson]. This dude showed me a lot and to this day he still has my back.”
Johnson was a consultant on the team when Small won the chef of the year title.
Small has also worked at the Bob Marley Resort, before he jumped ship for the world of freelance on yachts. When he returned to the land, he was on the team that opened Albany with Chef Michael Pataran, before he went on to head up his own team at the now defunct Blu restaurant. When that closed he returned to the Atlantis at the Ocean Club, and worked in the Dune restaurant.
A move to villa chef allowed him to create memorable experiences for guests. He stayed at the resort for six years, moving up the ranks to executive sous chef in banqueting which further allowed his creativity to shine.
That caught the attention of many, including a former villa guest who pursued him and enticed him back to private life. His new boss had a lot of restrictions, but since working with them, he said he’s gotten them to open up more about food.
“They’re straight across the board one track – they eat the same way every day, they can eat the same thing every day, so I kind of created some curves and some fancy stuff and some funky stuff to open up their palate to say we can eat healthy but it can look better, it can taste better. They’re now saying I’m the best chef they ever had.”
The Caribbean Chef of the Year doesn’t eat red meat, but he loves working with it. Given a choice he says he would run to what he considers the Rolls Royce of meat – the filet mignon, tenderloin, chateaubriand – and he’s grown to like the rib eye now due to its fattiness (marbling).
His must-have ingredient, he says, is thyme in the herb region; the most overrated for him is tomato.
He may be a chef, but he also says he’s simple when he eats and cereal or a sandwich would do for him if he has to make it for himself.
If he’s traveling he goes for Asian food and you will always find that his pantry has Sriracha sauce, chilis and chili oils. He took a page out of Chef Pataran’s book and incorporates Asian flare into his cooking.
“A little bit of Asian just elevates what you’re doing. Working with Michael Pataran caused you to be very open-minded.”
He also credits chefs Addiemae Farrington, Mario Adderley, Wayne Moncur and others in helping him to be the chef he is today.
Small is the first Bahamian to win the chef of the year title at the Taste competition, and the sixth to win an individual title – Chef Sheldon Tracy Sweeting (2015, 2014, 2013 and 2006) and Sally Gaskins (2004) have won Pastry Chef of the Year titles; Hazan Rolle won the Junior Chef of the Year title in 2018; following up Kenria Taylor’s win in 2017. Marv Cunningham won the Caribbean Bartender of the Year title in 2016 and 2015.
Team Bahamas won the overall Caribbean National Team of the Year honors in 2015 – its first win in the competition’s 19-year history. Small played a vital role in executing the entree mystery basket plate for that year’s historic win.