Accounting for taste — Outstanding Caterer Celeste Gordon

Thursday, June 21, 2018

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The doyennes of cookbook writing and lifestyle empire—Martha Stewart and B Smith — started out as caterers. Many chefs open up shop in order to capitalise on the latest hipster food craze; we're looking at you, avocado toast! Others chase fame via the hungry pursuit of the elusive Michelin star. However, caterers generally tend to be a quiet breed who produce food worthy of international accolades and dedicated episodes on Chef's Table.


Here on The Rock, we are fortunate enough to have a solid crop of caterers who produce superb food. This year, at the 20th Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards, Celeste Gordon walked away with the much-coveted Outstanding Caterer Award.


Speaking with Thursday Food weeks after her win, Gordon is still overjoyed. “I actually gave a friend the name of the person who I thought would win, and that name wasn't mine,” Gordon said coyly. When asked about how she felt being the winner from a group of 13, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef said, “It was a strong group of people and it's a phenomenal feeling to win. Even though it's clichéd to say, it does feel great to be recognised.” She continued, “In the early days of the Food Awards the category was much smaller and I love the fact that we now have 13 top caterers to choose from.”


Gordon is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) which she refers to as “the West Point of cooking”. Not only is the admission process very competitive, but the CIA, as Gordon puts it, “is very militant in its structure”. No wonder famous alumni include Marcus Samuelsson, Richard Blais, Grant Achatz, Cat Cora and the late Anthony Bourdain. Gordon had “a phenomenal experience” at the CIA, and often talks about it. “Everything that you could think of cooking-wise, we did there,” but her cooking career wasn't linear.


She started at Boston University as a pre-law student before transferring to Hospitality Management. Her appetite was whetted after taking a few hospitality electives, and she finally came to the conclusion that poring over tort cases and discussing jurisprudence was not for her. When many Jamaican families would have chided, “you're throwing your life away” or threatened to cut the purse strings, Gordon's family was very supportive.


When she started her cooking career (at the Rousseau sisters' chic resto Ciao Bella), Gordon remembers the dearth of really top-notch restaurants in Jamaica. “There weren't a lot of good restaurants and you really had to fight customers on a concept. Now, we have varying versions of one concept, like bistros and wine bars, to choose from. There is such a strong chef community right here in Kingston.”


Jamaica is now blessed with a variety of restaurants — just look at the Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards nominees. In Gordon's estimation, this has been aided by locals travelling abroad and coming back to market unusual things they saw abroad, like Thai rolled ice cream from Rolly Polly. “A lot of us have gone away, come back and are doing innovative things with local ingredients.” She also credits Jamaican-based expats who serve the food of their homelands to locals, like the Valencia-born chef Enric Escriva of I Love Paella.


At home, Gordon's cooking is dictated by her two children. “At least now I am able to make something off-the-wall that they will eat” she said. However, whether she prepares fan favourites or tries out something new, dinner has to be “on the table in 30 minutes”. It makes sense that parents with small children were Rachel Ray's core demographic.


Chef Celeste Gordon has a refined palate and has made quite a study of foods from other cultures. However, she will always find comfort right here at home in a plate of stew peas with pig's tails. French-style training, an appetite for experimentation and a thirst for constantly enhancing skills make for a mighty combination and one top chef.

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