Travel Tales: Beauty and the Chef

Here in the kitchen of the Sunset Jamaica Grande Resort & Spa in Ocho Rios, line cooks are running, shouting and sweating. Whenever the kitchen door swings open, the antiseptic smell of chlorine from the pool some hundred yards away assaults, along with the shrieks of dripping teenagers racing toward the elevators. Suddenly, a willowy young woman sweeps into the kitchen amid the madness. Her bikini top and sarong complement her café-au-lait skin, and her blondish-brown hair is swept up in ringlets on top of her head. But I'm oblivious.

I'm staring at a small loaf that the king of this chaos, corporate executive chef José Riquelme, has just placed in my hand. It is golden, light, reminiscent of a buttermilk biscuit, and it defies centuries of culinary history: It is bread made from breadfruit. Every chef knows you can't make bread from breadfruit, a tree fruit that can be roasted, mashed or even fried. Yet here this little mi racle of precise gastronomic science sits, totally at odds with the carnival atmosphere around me -- which has reached a fever pitch with the entrance of Yendi Phillips, the 2007 Miss Jamaica World.

I had entered the frenzy the afternoon before, flung amidst a crowd of vacationing resort goers. Sunburned and twangy, with accents from the deep American South to the north of England, they were like a fl ock of seabirds. Dripping from dips in the pool or the ocean, they gathered around the hotel's massive buffets and dining areas -- all of which were overseen by Riquelme and were capable of accommodating hundreds.

As a visiting journalist and chef, I had been honored the night before by Riquelme with a dinner at LaDiva, the property's high-end Italian restaurant. I hadn't expected to have much in common with him, an Argentinean-born Ricky Ricardo look-alike with manicured nails and a heavy gold bracelet on one wrist. When I first met him, eyeglasses only partially obscured his heavy black eyebrows.

So after a dinner of risotto as good as any I would expect in a family Italian eatery back home in New York, I began to think of reasons to excuse myself from the table. But then my host steered the conversation to molecular gastro- nomy, a weird kitchen science in which proteins and fruit are reduced to foams, beads and gelee, often cooked under specifically low temperatures or under pressure.

"I don't imagine you do much of that here," I had said.

"No, no, not for the hotel," Riquelme had answered, waving his hand absently toward the pool area beyond the window behind him. "But for myself ..."

"Have you done anything with local ingredients?" I asked.

"Of course," he said, eyeing me warily. "This interests you?"

It does -- and so here I find myself the next morning in the frenetic clamor of one of the resort's many kitchens, where lunch is being turned out for the masses while Riquelme and executive chef Ravi Anne Kiran dash around the line, grabbing space for their gastronomic demonstration. The slew of line cooks are somewhat amused by their chief's machinations but far too much in awe of his skill and kindness to joke with their usual -- slightly taunting -- Caribbean humor. Instead, they answer like soldiers in formation: "Chef, yes, Chef!"

Still, despite the remarkable breadfruit bread I've already tried, I remain suspect. I can't help but remember the typical American buffet breakfast from that morning (gargantuan chafers of scrambled eggs, home fries and pancakes) and the panoply of pastas and meats-in-gravies that have made up lunch and dinner so far.

And now that Yendi Phillips has arrived, the contained pandemonium has started to unravel. Since work has temporarily stopped, the introductions are made.

We chat about Jamaica, Trinidad and the state of the world as Riquelme dashes up now and again to offer us tastes of his creations. He hands us each a chip that looks like a sesame cracker. I take a nibble and a salty, meaty taste explodes on my tongue. This is the elusive "fifth taste," the highly sensory meat flavor identified in classic Japanese and Chinese cuisine. I ask what it is, and Riquelme grins and tells me it's a chip made from seasoned, deep-fried blackfin tuna skin.

Next he dashes up, wielding a small bowl into which he ladles a cream soup made from ackee, the local (poison when unripe) tree fruit eaten for breakfast. It is reminiscent of roasted chestnuts and contains pasta made from callaloo, a local spinach. There is a foam of roasted chayote and dasheen, or taro, sliced thinly and fried with herbs in a classic lyonnaise. I am awed at the transformation of simple Caribbean ingredients -- the fare of a once-poor people -- into haute cuisine. I gobble greedily, and a wide-eyed Yendi nibbles demurely beside me, all the while exclaiming that she will get too fat. Still she turns nothing away. Next comes cow foot boiled into a golden gelee that is cut into bite-size pieces and served on top of the breadfruit loaf, interspersed with pieces of spiny lobster. To end there are mousses of grilled watermelon, pineapple, coconut and pumpkin.

Between courses, Yendi stage whispers conspiratorially, "The man is a genius!" She confides that she gains pounds every time she visits the resort, sampling fare created especially for her, even as the buffet machine churns on.

Amid the hectic scene, a photographer bustles in to take photos of the dishes. Only when the door swings open and screams from the pool assault the hot kitchen air do I remember where I am exactly. I look over at Riquelme, sweatily smiling as he plates his creations for the photographer, and I smile to myself. I guess if you can make bread from breadfruit, you can find culinary genius in a chlorine-scented, all-inclusive resort kitchen on the island of Jamaica.

Ramin Ganeshram, recently returned from an eating tour of Ireland for a feature article in our next issue.