Pan cakes

Caribbean Cookup (May/June 2001)

  • Jenny Lee in the Central Market, Port of Spain. Photograph by Dimitri Tolstoi
  • Photograph by Dimitri Tolstoi
  • Choosing her fruits with care. Photograph by Dimitri Tolstoi

Elton John couldn’t resist her salt-fish accras. Queen Latifah went wild over the coo-coo and red beans. As for Ray Charles, he just surrendered himself into her hands, murmuring contentedly, “Whatever you give me, I will be so happy with.” Meet Jenny Lee, steelpan fanatic and foodmeister to the stars.

Lee, 50, is an expatriate Trinidadian who lives in France. Last October, she was back home for the World Steelband Festival, acting as frontman-cum-housemother for close to 200 young pannists from four European countries.

For Jenny Lee, steelband comes first. Eight or nine months of the year she devotes to Pan European, a project which she masterminded in 1998 with Parisian pannist Barthélémy Fougea, which has grown to include committee members from nine European countries. Pan European is dedicated to the development and promotion of the steelpan. In May 2000, the committee organised the First European Steelpan Festival in Paris, drawing an audience of 20,000 over two days. “When I moved to France in 1992, there were two or three steelbands,” muses Lee, “now there are 17.”

For Lee, Pan European (she was recently re-elected president until 2003) is a labour of love: the organisation is non-profit, and she spends a lot of her time chasing after government funding and corporate sponsorships. Which is where the cooking comes in: as a money-spinner to pay her bills. Lee periodically takes her talent on the road, catering for high-profile visiting musicians and their entire production crews – anywhere from 15 to 150 people.

Besides Ray and Elton, she’s done Blondie, the Fugees, Natalie Cole. She’s even sub-contracted for Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls. She cooked for the cast of the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera when it played in Geneva; and three times for the Hell’s Angels annual Free Wheels festival in Auvergne, catering for the artists.

So how did Jenny Lee come to this? Growing up in a middle-class household in the suburb of Diego Martin, Trinidad, Jenny Lee was strongly attracted to Home Economics in high school. She subsequently had the opportunity to study nutrition in England – and turned it down. Instead, she chose to pursue music at the University of Toronto. After three years at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Lee had had enough. She switched to business, then law, ending up finally as a law clerk with a major in entertainment law. All the while she was playing pan for pleasure. Somehow, she still found time for cooking, and signed up for courses and workshops at the Bonnie Stern Cooking School. In 1986, Lee was hired as general manager of the Bamboo Club, on Toronto’s trendy Queen St. West. “I wasn’t cooking, but I guess I was fine-tuning my technique in preparing meals for large numbers of people,” she says laughingly. She discussed menus with the chef, made decisions on meals, house style, music, ambiance.

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Lee met her husband-to-be Eric Deforges in 1987, ironically, on the “track” at Trinidad’s annual Panorama steelband competition. He was a French schoolteacher who had taken a year off to sail around the world. They lived together in Toronto for the next five years, then it was on to Annecy, France, in the Hautes Alpes. Not the kind of place where you’d expect to run into a lot of West Indians – but if they are in town, Jenny Lee’s home is probably where you’ll find them.

In 1996, her friend Laurence called to say she was starting a catering business, and could Jenny help out, “and I said, that would be fun.” So I did! The first well-known artist they cooked for was rap singer Queen Latifah. “I gave them coo-coo (a Caribbean-style corn-meal dish) and red beans and they lapped it up,” Lee recalls. As for Elton John, when he tasted his first hot, crisp accra, “he just looked at me, and piled a few more on his plate.”

Lee’s catering gigs may find her spending a week in one place, or touring around the countryside if a band is on the move. Wherever she goes, her entire kitchen and dining room service must go with her, packed in the back of a truck. She travels with a staff of five to eight sous-chefs, helpers, servers, etc., a consistent group that works together like a family. The catering company is called Chaud Time, a clever play on words, since the French chaud (hot) is pronounced exactly like the English show.

In cooking for the stars, Lee likes to slide into the unconventional – to serve a combination of European and Caribbean cuisine. Beignets de sardine, a typically French dish, might find itself sharing a plate with a lentil loaf “taken straight from the Naparima Girls High School Cookbook” – a cherished repository of down-home Trini recipes. “I find that with Caribbean cuisine, it’s possible to be inventive with vegetables,” Lee says, having catered for a number of vegan performers, including Jamaica’s legendary Wailers.

While her job keeps her too busy to do much socialising with the famous names whose stomachs she pampers, Lee nevertheless makes time to mingle, chat, have a glass of wine with her high-profile clients and their hard-working crews. It’s all part of the warm human contact that makes her service special.

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One of my special favourites. Living in the land of chocolate on the French/Swiss border does have its advantages 

Orange Lemon Cream Cake with Chocolate Topping (Gâteau fourré à l’orange et au citron)

For 8-10 persons

Cooking time: 30 minutes

  • 125 g flour
  • 4 eggs
  • 160 g sugar
  • 60 g melted and cooled butter


  • 2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
  • 80 ml lemon juice
  • 80 ml orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 90 g sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 20 g butter


  • 200 g white chocolate, broken in pieces
  • 125 ml full liquid cream
  • 60 g butter

Preheat the oven to 180°C.  Butter two round  20 cm deep cake pans and line with grease proof paper. Sift the flour three times. Beat the eggs and sugar together until you obtain a thick mixture, it should double in volume. With a metal spoon incorporate the flour in two turns, mixing rapidly and lightly. Add the melted butter to the second half of the flour, at the same time eliminating the white deposits of the butter. Fill the prepared cake pans and bake for 20 minutes until lightly golden on the top.  Let it rest for two minutes before turning out.

For the filling, mix the arrowroot in 1 tablespoon of water. In a saucepan, put three tablespoons of water, the juices, zests and sugar mixing over a moderate flame until the sugar is melted, without boiling the mixture. Mixing always, add the arrowroot and heat slowly until it is thick. Remove from the heat and add the egg yolks and the butter. Mix well. Transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic film and let cool.

For the topping, melt the chocolate, the cream and the butter in a bain-marie. Let it cool, cover with a film. Do not put in the refrigerator. Beat until it becomes light.

With a bread knife, cut the cakes horizontally in two.  Place one half on your serving dish and spread with a layer of the filling.  Continue with layers of cake and filling, finishing with a circle of cake. Spread the white chocolate over the top and sides. Decorate with white chocolate rolls and candied fruit (for example guava cheese) in various shapes.

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Bacalao Croquettes (a.k.a accras)

  • 400 g (13 oz) dried salt fish
  • 300 g (10 oz) unpeeled potatoes
  • 1 small onion, grated
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • Scotch bonnet pepper, to taste
  • oil, for deep frying
  • Makes 24

Total cooking time 55 mins

Remove the excess salt from the cod by soaking it overnight. Put the cod in a pan covered with water, bring to boil, reduce and simmer for 15 mins. Cool and drain on paper towels. When cool, flake the cod with your fingers.  Boil the potatoes. Mash the potatoes with the cod, onion, parsley, egg and pepper. Mix well to a thick mixture. Fill a deep frying pan one third full with oil and heat to 180°C. Drop tablespoons of mixture into oil and cook for 2-3 minutes or until well browned.