Celebrate Jamaica: A Chat with The Juicy Chef, Jacqui Sinclair
I got the Skype alert that “Juicy Chef” was calling the instant I was about to click the “Call” button on my end. I answered and onto my screen popped a smiling face that was soon accompanied by a British accented voice that was cheerful even though I know she’d had a long day and was tired. Jacqui Sinclair is exactly as I expected – passionate about Jamaican cuisine, intelligent, funny, easygoing, and honest. Feisty. We’ve been tweeting each other for a few months now. I followed her at the suggestion of another British Jamaican, Odessa Chambers (she of wizard public relations. talent search, and production….future host of E! red carpet events I hope). I felt my nervousness dissipate (it’s been a long time since I conducted an interview) and soon Jacqui and I were settled in for a long chat (more than 2 hours actually!). Jacqui isn’t “big on social media” but, overall, she’s enjoyed her time on Twitter and Facebook meeting all sorts of people and reaching people as The Juicy Chef. I explained that I would be placing this interview on my blog in the still-new “Celebrate Jamaica” category. For a minute I was the interviewee since Jacqui wanted to know why I’d created that section on my blog. So I explained: my blog is often about the serious and not so pleasant things going in Jamaica but I know that that is not all there is to Jamaica and wanted to highlight that as well…the Jamaicans and friends of Jamaica doing good and positive things need to be talked about too. I wanted to feature her, I said, because I love what she’s doing for and with Jamaican cuisine. What followed was an hour’s chat about Jamaica and Jamaica’s image that drew on Jacqui’s politics background. Those carefully thought about and typed up questions about food? Pushed aside for a bit. We got to food much later!
Jacqui’s background in politics comes from her studies and work with the United Nations. Growing up she knew that she’d be working in a field that took her around the world and allowed her to interact with people from different cultures. She was always curious and comfortable with people, making friends easily and loving to learn about new cultures. Jacqui grew up in “cosmopolitan London” where her parents and grandmother had friends from all over – her grandmother’s neighbours were Indian Ugandan on one side and Jewish on the other side. And, of course, she is the child of immigrants. She enjoyed travelling and was encouraged by her family to see as much of the world as possible. Jacqui planned to be either an anthropologist, international correspondent, or a diplomat. Working for the U.N. was right in line with those early goals. She worked on women’s issues and educational programs throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. This is the second time Jacqui has lived in Jamaica. She attended Holy Childhood High before going to college in southern Florida.
For Jacqui there is much more good happening in Jamaica than we portray. Like many – and not in a cliché way – she believes that Jamaica’s best asset is its people, many of whom she believes need to be nurtured and given the chance to excel. Based on her extensive travel experience, she knows that Jamaica is not the worst place to live…yet wonders why we live on “verandah talk” that thrives so much on negativity. This is not naïveté or thick rose coloured glasses. Jacqui knows that there are significant challenges facing Jamaica – illiteracy, indiscipline, classism, and shadism, are a few examples she mentions. She knows that Jamaica is politically immature and needs to focus on issues and results versus personalities. She knows thatJamaicaneeds better leadership that is not the old style, aggressiveness to which we are so accustomed. In fact, she has encountered some of these challenges as she’s established herself as The Juicy Chef. Some incidents are disheartening for her but she’s persevering and working toward making Jamaican cuisine culturally relevant (I saw this in a tweet and nodded in agreement, it is so apt). Jacqui is using food and her Juicy Chef brand to putJamaicaand Jamaican cuisine in a positive light. So far Jacqui was instrumental in bringing Andrew Zimmern and his popular Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods to Jamaica. I remember the evening when it aired – my timeline was so alive and proud. She’s received the 2011 Jamaica Observer Food Award for Culinary Personality of the Year, and has been featured in Caribbean Travel & Life Magazine, and will be featured in Saveur and in Wealth Magazine soon.
It was while in college that Jacqui did what came as a surprise to many friends and to her family: she took up and became very good at cooking. Jacqui recalls the poor cafeteria food (I share her memories of poor university cafeteria food *shudder*) that motivated her to start cooking her own food. The problem was that she hadn’t really taken an interest in cooking when she lived at home….so she had no idea how to cook though she apparently had a highly developed palate. She couldn’t even boil water (I almost fell off my chair when she said this…especially since I’d just drooled over Facebook pictures from her kitchen). Though she’d always enjoyed baking, cooking was something she remembers her mother and grandmother doing. She’d always been around good food courtesy of those two ladies. So when she encountered the University of Miami’s food, she did the obvious: call her mother for cooking advice. A few burnt dishes later, Jacqui was impressing her classmates and surprising her family and friends (the “posh” girl was now cooking). Running a boat became the norm and soon she was cooking for UM’s Jamaican club. She found cooking therapeutic and fun.
While studying for her Masters, Jacqui became ill and had to take a break from her studies. She turned to food. She ended up inLondonat Le Cordon Bleu, just for fun, and fell utterly in love with cooking. She earned her Grand Diploma and learned a lot about cooking, most of all that there was more to food than being a kitchen chef. There are, for example, food stylists and food tasters. After earning her Grand Diploma and getting well, she was off to finish her studies and work for the U.N. but she took that new found love with her. She took what time she could during her many trips to explore markets and learn about and collect spices. The ease with which Jacqui’s always made friends led to several invitations into the kitchens of ordinary people from the countries that she visited. She met people like Mr. Tamimi in Zanzibar (Zanzibar!) who ran the internet café she used regularly…his daughter needed to improve her English and Jacqui wanted to learn about Zanzibari food. She was soon learning about Zanzibari food in his kitchen and giving English lessons. A similar story is told about Morocco, Senegal…Jacqui was able to learn about many of the world’s cuisines in ordinary kitchens and over people’s tables in their homes. For her, food is a universal language.
So The Juicy Chef’s style of cooking Jamaican food has been heavily influenced by her brushes with the world’s cuisines. It is also why every one of her recipes is linked with a story or vignette…that is The Juicy Chef signature: connecting with people, sharing food, creating memories. It is distinctive. As distinctive as Jamaican cuisine is. According to Jacqui we do need to push the boundaries with our food.; the flavour profiles and ingredients we use are already a good foundation but a little push of the boundaries and a touch of sophistication is what we need. Jacqui believes that while Jamaican food is homey and rustic and tasty, it can also be sophisticated. Applying international techniques – techniques learned in school and in those home kitchens – is one way that Jacqui is pushing the traditional boundaries of Jamaican cooking. Another way is through Meatless Monday, though only tangentially. The main purpose of Meatless Monday is to encourage people to have a meat free day once per week…I mean the name says it all! But in Jamaica, where meat is loved, it’s been a challenge…but it’s not an impossible task and Jacqui has persevered for a year to make Meatless Mondays a part of the Jamaican routine. She’s now working with a small team to do an official launch of the project next year, and was recently interviewed by the Huffington Post about her work with the initiative. Making Meatless Monday a success in Jamaica is important to Jacqui because it’s more than just a weekly change in diet; it’s a public health campaign that could have implications throughout the Caribbean. She hopes to introduce Meatless Monday into schools so that education about healthy eating starts early and becomes lifelong habit.
Another way that Jacqui is transforming the way we think about food and Jamaican cuisine is through her weekly Jamaica Observer column. She’s been writing it for four years now and the response has been overwhelming and heartwarming for her, but especially from Jamaicans not in Jamaica. Her recipes are healthy and emphasize the use of fresh food: buy locally, try to grow what you eat, and cook with love. Growing what you eat is something that I have written about and in that post I mentioned Jacqui’s own advocacy in her columns. Not only is it fresher, but it is easy. Jacqui also points out that you can augment your food bill buy growing even the simplest thing like herbs and cherry tomatoes on your kitchen window sill. All your plants need is sunlight, water, and ventilation. Another tip she offers is shopping at the market with a friend. Say there’s 2 pounds of a product on sale, you can both buy and split it and the cost according to what each of you can afford. This is something she did with friends when she lived in Paris, something that’s doable in Jamaica. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to cook her recipes (a cookbook is in the works along with a blog!). She suggests starting with these basics – the gateway to any dish – in your pantry: spices (which you can buy over time), a good oil, good vinegar, a quality salt (Kosher or sea salt). Buy in bulk when you can (e.g., sugar, flour) and if you can’t afford fresh, a good canned product works well too (beans, tuna).
A recent venture into flavoured bottled water was approached with the same care and attention to health and spotlighting Jamaican flavours. Island62 water is only 35 calories and is lightly sweetened with cane sugar. It is also 100% Jamaican made, including the bottles. The venture developed quite by chance: an evening chat with friend Darrell Burgess and a cousin segued into reminiscing, with Jacqui longing for flavoured bottled water from Britain…and then she mentioned that she wished there was water flavoured with Jamaican fruits. Darrell, who owns the company that produces Island62, was intrigued. He’d been looking for an addition to his food company and decided that the flavoured water would be good choice. Two years later, June plum, lemongrass cucumber, and Otaheite apple flavoured waters are for sale inJamaica. Export is planned as are additional flavours.
Jacqui is steadily working toward her goal of being an ambassador for Jamaican cuisine. A lofty goal, and maybe some would call it a nebulous one, but I think that it’s attainable. Jamaican food is well known but isn’t as renowned as our music. Yet, Jamaican cuisine really is an integral part of Jamaican culture. While Jacqui spotlights the beauty, complexity, and promise of Jamaican food, she is not shy about saying that she wants to demystify cooking. Jacqui was emphatic when she said that everyone has the right to eat well and that good food is not a luxury. Even virtually, Jacqui is making friends by interacting with her readers as much as possible. One young lady with whom she’s corresponded quite a bit was proud to let Jacqui know that she’d been recently accepted to the HEART program. The young lady credited Jacqui’s columns with helping to build her confidence in the kitchen…she was able to find the ingredients in the supermarket or substitute where necessary and to easily follow the recipes. It touched me to hear that the young lady highlighted Jacqui’s recipe for lasagna as the recipe that meant a lot to her. Why? Because she’d had the dish during a school trip to the north coast of Jamaica but didn’t think she would ever be able to make her own. Jacqui believes that people find her and her columns authentic and accessible. After spending the few hours I did talking to Jacqui I have no trouble agreeing that she is just that. And she’s passionate, too.
“Food is love and should be shared,”she says.
A popular column. A cookbook and blog in the works. Island62 breaking into the marketplace. Meatless Monday gaining traction and getting ready for its official Jamaica launch. Hopefully a cooking program! The Juicy Chef is working hard, sharing her love of cooking and Jamaica…and showing us and the world how to celebrate Jamaica and get a bellyful too.
Unless otherwise noted, pictures are courtesy of Jacqui Sinclair, The Juicy Chef, and can be found on her Facebook page.