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V.I. Culinary Team Hungry for Gold in Puerto Rico

Chef Ashley Allan Sr. of The Big Easy in Frenchtown prepares jerk jumbo crab cakes for the V.I. Culinary Team Practice.Preparing for June’s upcoming Taste of the Caribbean Competition, the V.I. Culinary Team exhibited a flair for spice Thursday while whetting its own appetite for gold—an upgrade over last year’s silver-medal performance. At a practice at Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Resort, the team tried out its menu on a group of local journalists, hoteliers and “foodies.”
Thursday’s four-course menu started with a roasted ginger butternut squash bisque, with a dollop of coconut sour cream and colorful drizzle of mint and cilantro oil, followed by a second course of jerk jumbo-lump crab meat, using local mangoes and herbs in its accompanying salsa.
The third course of cornmeal-encrusted, pan-seared red snapper was served over a golden-brown disc of polenta, made with pumpkin and cream cheese. The cornmeal, used in both the crust and the polenta, showed off the different textures the team can create using the same ingredient. The dish was served in a Creole buerre blanc.
“It looks like a Creole sauce, but with a little upgrade,” chef and team captain David Benjamin said.
Delighting the test diners for dessert was an elegant rum sabayon (a cousin of the light, egg-based Italian dessert zabaglione) with spiced coconut cream and tiny guava-and-coconut pearls under a loose spiral of chocolate. A Gallo of Sonoma chardonnay complimented the courses.
In addition, the team’s mixologist and showman Joshua King offered up two tasty liquid concoctions, including “One More Night,” which featured a variety of berries with a basil-infused vodka base.
King’s other offering, "The V.I. Spice," was a sassy golden, peppery, gingery solution of cinnamon, cardamom, and simple syrup with orange zest and homemade spiced rum—which no doubt speeds the spices’ curative powers to the bloodstream.
The cuisine of the Virgin Islands is a critical component to attracting higher-end visitors, many of whom base their vacation destination decisions on the cuisine quality, according to Jose Gonzales Espinoza, general manager of Frenchman’s Reef.
The culinary team’s success in competition brings back accolades that catch the attention of epicurean travelers and bring them here to investigate.
“My customers spend an average of five days [in the territory], and will go to three restaurants,” Espinoza said.
New to the team this year, chef Benjamin has been in the culinary field for 15 years, starting on St. Thomas, and working his way up to head chef at the Blue Water fine dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton.
When asked to describe what sets V.I. cuisine apart, Benjamin didn’t hesitate. “Spice,” he said. “We have a lot of spice here: Jamaican, habaneros, agaves, salsa, passion fruit.”
Acting as food ambassadors for the territory, the culinary team sets the bar for high-quality food in the islands. While regionally, the team pits their version of V.I. cuisine against other Caribbean nations each year in the Taste of the Caribbean Competition in Puerto Rico. This year San Juan will play host to teams from 16 nations on June 4, 5 and 6.
In addition to setting standards, the team’s participation in competitions like the Taste of the Caribbean also showcases the culinary arts as a career, setting the example for local young people to develop their culinary talents and use Caribbean ingredients, according to Marc Langevin, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton.
“It’s like the Olympics,” Langevin said. “It’s inspiring.”
Six chefs and one bartender represent the U.S. Virgin Islands, and they practice just as Olympic athletes do, working on their teamwork, performing their specialty and then assessing their strengths and weaknesses.
“Our strength today was our teamwork,” Benjamin said. “We need to work on plating up and timing.”
This year’s team includes Benjamin, Dennis Vanterpool of Frenchman’s Reef, Ashley Allen of The Big Easy in Frenchtown, Brian Wisbauer of Café Amalia, Joshua Vilain of Restaurant Bacchus on St. Croix, Kunal Chakrabarti of the Ritz-Carlton, and bartender King, also of the Ritz-Carlton.
The team is sponsored by a number of local businesses and organizations, including the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association, the V.I. Department of Tourism, the West Indian Co. Ltd., Frenchman’s Reef Resort, the Ritz-Carlton, Innovative Communications, Gallo and West Indies Corporation, and International Capital Management Company.

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