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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Norman’s Know-How

Caribbean Kitchen

  • Executive chef Norman Thompson in his kitchen. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Photograph by Eric Young

If I’ve learned anything about chefs in my years of interviewing them, it’s this: the best ones are the most creative and approachable. Often a bit unconventional, but ever-amiable.

Norman Thompson, Fort Young Hotel’s executive chef in Dominica, is a perfect example. During breaks from the kitchen, he stands like a sentry at the lobby entrance, chatting with guests as they come and go. His beaming smile and rambunctious laugh captivate everyone he meets.

Born in Jamaica, Norman gladly went where most chefs would never think of going. “It suits my passion for adventure. I’m able to work around nature and share my knowledge. Most chefs would say of Dominica, ‘Where the hell is that?’ But they’re late.

You gotta let it happen, and wherever you are, make the best of what you have. That’s what makes you a good chef.”

Norman is cut from a different cloth. Literally — just look at his wildly-coloured imported silk designer chef pants. “I don’t dress like regular chefs,” he laughs. “I have this funky kink in my mind.”

His work ethic is different, too. “What I came to do is impart some of my knowledge here. If you don’t give it away, you can’t keep it. So I want to give away what I know to people that don’t know. It’s a fulfillment to me and to them.” He adds sternly: “Any chef who thinks he’s going to keep it all and that he knows it all, is wrong. You gotta give it away, interact, network and share your know-how. That’s the only way you can grow.”

Norman could have been born with a saucepan in his hand. He’s been cooking since he was a kid, graduating from family meals to parties to a family-run restaurant. “We had people queuing up. So I decided to go to the French Culinary Institute in Soho, New York. The better chefs from France teach there, so it was like going to France.”

After culinary school, Norman worked with the Miami Doral Country Club for three years before returning home in 1995 to Jamaica’s Pegasus Hotel. In 1997, he went back to the US to earn certificates at the New York Culinary Institute of America in professional catering, supervisory management, sanitation and garde manger. While away, he garnered another certificate in Basic Ice Carving at Ice Culture of Canada. He’s now studying for his Master Chef qualification.
“I think its time we understand culinary arts is a profession. I don’t like that word ‘cook’ in my kitchen. My staff are commis chefs and chefs de partie, because serving the palates of people is a prestigious job. It’s an art.”

Norman has spent nearly 15 years in the Caribbean culinary arena now. “In this region you have to be creative, innovative and cost-effective, as well as manage the indigenous and seasonal products at hand. We have to be Nouveau Caribbean to please the palates of the Caribbean people and visitors.”

Naturally, he has his own preferences. “I’m more into Caribbean and Latin foods and I often amalgamate the principles of French cooking with those cuisines. I am very particular with presentation, but I believe in keeping it simple.” You can see that from the photographs of Norman’s creations that run along the kitchen wall. “They show how I want my dishes to go out.”
Most of all, he likes experimentation. “I love creating new, innovative recipes, especially with local produce. It’s a passion I have. And in this region there’s so many fresh ingredients that are not available elsewhere in the world. Like passion fruit, for instance. It’s not just a juice, there are purées, soufflés and sauces. We take seagrapes for granted, too, but they make a lovely lamb sauce.”

He also knows how easy it is to take imports for granted. “My biggest fiasco happened when I came home after culinary school and Jamaica had banned all imported items. It was a serious wake-up call. I expected to get my pork loins from the butcher, and my olives, and I’m asking, ‘where’s the sour cream?’” Norman bellows with laughter. “I had to prepare everything from scratch for 350 people for a 50th wedding anniversary.”

From which he learned that, no matter where you go or what you learn, you have adapt to the situation at hand. “There are ways to fix things, like a broken sauce, too much salt in the pot, burning the rice,” he laughs, “tricks in trade they don’t teach you in school.”

As for his gruelling schedule, Norman looks up from his sautéing and remarks, “I’m so glad I have a wife that understands this profession. It’s like I have two wives, Susan and the culinary arts. And I love them both with a passion.”

Norman has a word of advice for aspiring culinary artists. “After culinary school, you have to come back to the real world. That means being committed to 14-hour days or more. So if you are not into food, don’t do it as a job, because there’s one thing that’s not sold on the shelf and that’s passion. No grocery store sells that.”
His deep laugh echoes through the stainless steel kitchen.

NORMAN’S PASSION FRUIT SAUCE

Serves 4

2/3 cup (160ml) passion fruit pulp (about eight passion fruit)
1/4 cup (55g) castor sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) water
2 teaspoons cornflour
1 tablespoon water, extra

Combine unstrained passion fruit pulp, sugar and water in a small pan. Stir over heat until sugar is dissolved. Stir in blended cornflour and extra water. Stir over heat until mixture boils and thickens slightly. Strain sauce; return 3 teaspoons of seeds to sauce. Discard remaining seeds. Serve cold. Suitable for ice cream, cakes, mousses and topping fresh fruit.
Can be made a day in advance. Store covered in refrigerator or freeze.

NORMAN’S PASSION FRUIT SOUP WITH YOGURT AND VANILLA

Serves 4

20 fresh passion fruit
4 ounces (100g) sugar
4 inch (10cm) piece of vanilla pod, split lengthwise
8 fl. ounces (225ml) water
2 teaspoons gelatin
4 fl. ounces  (100ml) plain yogurt, whisked well
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish (optional)

Place a coarse sieve over a medium, non-reactive saucepan. Working over the sieve, cut each passion fruit in half and scoop out the pulp with a teaspoon. Push the pulp and juice through the sieve and discard the seeds. Add the sugar, vanilla pod and water to the saucepan and bring to a simmer over a low heat, stirring. Remove from the heat and sprinkle the gelatin evenly over the mixture. Set aside, undisturbed, to let the gelatin thicken for about three minutes. Then whisk the mixture well  to incorporate the gelatin. Set a fine sieve over a medium, non-reactive bowl and strain the mixture. Leave to cool at room temperature, then place the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice and water. Chill the mixture over the ice, stirring frequently. (The recipe can be prepared to this point and refrigerated overnight, covered.) To serve, ladle the chilled soup into four shallow soup dishes. Top each serving with 2 tbsp. of yogurt and top with mint leaves if  desired.

NORMAN’S TRADITIONAL DOMINICAN CREOLE SAUCE

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup Spanish onion, medium diced
1/4 cup celery, medium diced
1/4 cup bell pepper, medium diced
Seasoning peppers (optional, to taste)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig of parsley
1 sprig thyme, finely chopped
3 cups fresh garden tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (canned tomatoes in tomato juice can be substituted)
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1-2 teaspoons lime juice
Salt, pepper to taste

Sweat the vegetables and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, lime juice and bay leaf, and a little salt and pepper. Simmer for 30 minutes. Pour on favourite meat or other dishes. (NB The Creole cooking styles of the Louisiana Delta are a unique blend of the French, Spanish, African, Caribbean and native North American Indian cultures.)