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V.I. Culinary Team Set for Its Big Competition

Team members Al Boston, Negust Kaza and Dennis Vanterpool share a moment Monday. The VI Culinary Team and about a dozen supporters joined Monday evening at the Morning Star Resort for the culinary group’s final food presentation before participating in the Taste of the Caribbean competition in Miami on June 22.

The small group shared well-wishes as they nibbled on sample appetizers and desserts, washing them down with custom-made drinks.

2011 will mark the USVI’s eighth year in the competition, where they will compete against 11 countries. Only those organizations within the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) can participate.

This is the first year since 2006 that the event will take place in Miami. In recent years, it was held in Puerto Rico. Chefs and spectators are excited about competing in Miami, hoping the neutral ground will calm nerves.

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Lisa Hamilton, president of the organization, expects that having the competition in Miami will bring stateside exposure and help the chefs to network and learn from a larger group.

The 2011 VI Culinary Team consists of Captain Ashley Allen, senior chef Dennis Vanterpool, seafood competitor David Benjamin, chef Joshua Vilain, beef competitor Negust Kaza, pastry chef Kunal Chakrabarti, bartender Al Boston, and junior chefs Afiya Agustus, Myan Esprit, and Kwanzaa Francis.

The team offers two students the opportunity to join them each year. Typically, the team invites one student from Charlotte Amalie High School in St. Thomas and another from Educational Complex High School in St. Croix. Thank to sponsors, the 2011 team will be accompanied by a record 13 students from St. Croix Central High School and Educational Complex High School.

Team members said they are confident they will bring home the gold. The team pulled together to focus on weaknesses from previous years. Instead of again trying to improve taste, they’re working on technique and attention to detail.

“This time we’ll have a better understanding of what we’re being judged on and held accountable for,” says chef Dennis Vanterpool.

During each stage of the competition, participants will have four hours to conceive and materialize their creations. The first half hour is devoted to creating a menu, pulling food and measuring it. In the next half hour, judges take away the remaining ingredients. This is a critical point in the competition because after the first hour, chefs will only have access to the items they originally pick. The next three hours is dedicated to cooking and preparing the dishes. At the end of the four hours, chefs must plate 40 appetizers, break them down, and then repeat the process with entrées and desserts.

Each group begins with a perfect score and points are deducted throughout the competition as judges assess presentation, flavor, use of time, and much more.

Bartenders will compete in making a rum drink, a vodka drink, and a non-alcoholic beverage. Participants are judged on their shake, strain, muddle, style, and more.

One of the most interesting aspects of the competition is the mystery basket. Each category of chefs and bartenders will receive a basket. Chefs face the difficult task of using all 20 items and three proteins in the basket, while bartenders must gain inspiration from the items in the basket.

Competitors practice throughout the year to prepare for the competition in June. The chefs work together on technique and breaking down dishes, while board members and sponsors act as taste testers. Bartender Boston and pastry chef Chakrabarti practice together, mixing fruits and other concoctions to inspire one another.

Kaza, who has been part of the VI Culinary Team for more than two years, is cooking in the beef category.

“Beef is new for me,” Kaza says. “I’m not 100 percent in my element. But I’ll only feel like a failure if I go and don’t give 110 percent to make-up for it.”

The chefs say they’re looking forward to the event.

“This is the pinnacle of competitions for us,” says Hamilton. “When we bring home the gold, we have bragging rights for a year. We get to say that the best chefs in the Caribbean are here in the VI.”

More information is available on the CHTA website at www.caribbeanhotelandtourism.com.

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