Sejah Farm brought the Bush Cook event back to the community Saturday a year after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Dale and Yvette Browne, the owners and farmers of Sejah Farm, organized the first Bush Cook event in 2016, after the long drought in 2015.
Everything went down during the drought, according to Dale Browne.
“The drought was like a silent hurricane, devastating everything in sight,” he said. “We lost livestock and realized that we were using too much water to keep our plants going.”
When the rains came in September, all the fruit trees bounced back and that was the motivation to organize the first Bush Cook in 2016, he said.
“We were able to utilize those significant crops that came out after the drought.”
But then came 2017 and Hurricane Maria.
“We were devastated again in 2017, this time by Hurricane Maria. We had to rebuild from scratch all of our years of work on our farm. Our infrastructure and our home were damaged,” Yvette Browne said.
Everyone had challenges, but when the Brownes suggested doing the Bush Cook this year, all the chefs were game, Dale Browne said.
On Saturday morning 13 committed chefs came out armed with their cooking tools and personal condiments. Everything else was provided – local meats, pork from Pedro Gonzales, lamb and goat from Sejah, Gonzales and Schuster, even rabbit. Produce came from Sejah and other farmers. The coal to build the chefs’ outdoor fires was local and donated by Badeau.
It was a total community effort making visible what is possible in the Virgin Islands.
Chefs shopped for their meat in advance from the local farmers to prepare for the event. “Everything must be local,” Browne said.
Sejah Farms provided water and seasonings.
Kimba Kabaka, chef and owner of Café Roots-n-Kulchah, won first place in the Bush Cook Competition. He has been a vegan chef for almost 17 years. Kabaka opened his Frederiksted café at 67 King Street, corner of Market & King Streets, in February.
“I learned the basics from my father and took my love of food and cooking to just putting things together,” he said.
Kabaka grew up on St. Croix and is a certified raw foods chef from Living Light Culinary Institute in Fort Bragg, California. He holds a masters degree in horticulture from the University of California Davis.
His winning dish was a slice of roasted breadfruit topped with ackee and a spinach ricotta sauce, made with local spinach and cashews, laced with a mango habanero chutney and a sprinkling of shredded local coconut.
Kabaka shared the secret to his success: He dug a Dakota pit with a tunnel and a smaller hole adjacent to the larger hole. The smaller hole allowed the fire to breathe, so it created less smoke. A griddle was placed on top of the larger hole and the breadfruit was roasted on top of the open fire.
Local food lover Joan Keenan said this year’s was a step up.
“It was my second time at this event and it just gets better,” Keenan said. “I was happy that it was held again. I hope more people come out to enjoy it. … Although I’m not a vegan, I especially liked Kimba’s dish. It not only tasted great, but it looked so appetizing.”
Frank and Katherine Pugliese are no newcomers to the restaurant business. They owned and operated Bacchus for 10 years, EAT at Cane Bay for five, and started up the Zion Modern Kitchen for one year. They opened Un Amore at Five Corners in Christiansted three years ago.
Chef Pugliese offered a lamb stew with all the ingredients from Sejah, including bok choy, chard, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers and many other ingredients.
“My stew has been cooking and simmering since 10 a.m.,” he said.
Folks began lining up when he signaled that it was ready for tasting.
Entrance to the Bush Cook event allowed a ticket holder to taste any and all of the dishes prepared by the cooks on Saturday.
Frank Robinson, owner of Bes Craft Café Lounge, had something for the meat eaters and the vegans. Although he does not consider himself a chef, Robinson worked in the kitchen at Salud Restaurant in 2010 to 2011.
“I love to cook and I love to eat,” Robinson.”
He offered a guacamole, which he prepared on the spot in view of his audience. A green papaya slaw with dragon fruit was “brewing” as they looked on. All his ingredients came from Sejah Farms, he noted.
Robinson unearthed a buried hindquarter of a local pig from the ground near his station. It had been cooking for five hours.
“I wanted to bridge the gap between the Pacific and the Caribbean with my preparation of the pork,” he said.
The pig had been marinated in sorrel and herbs and spices and wrapped in noni leaves and banana leaves. Robinson dug a pit and layered it with stones, rum barrel pieces and dried coconuts. A bed of coals came next. Once the coals were glowing orange, he laid a grate over it and lowered the wrapped meat into the ground and covered it with earth.
“Some folks do not eat pork,” said Robinson. “Local pig is a whole different world. The food a local pig eats makes all the difference. So, you are what you eat, eats.”
The three-day event opened on Friday with a full day of food demonstrations, and culminated Sunday evening with a Farm to Table Dinner, all at Sejah Farm.
Virgin Islands Department of Human Services, V.I. Department of Health, V.I. Department of Agriculture, V.I. Department of Tourism, V.I. Good Food Coalition, Plaza Extra West, Plaza Extra East, Diageo, and Reliable Rental sponsored this event.