Chef Rhea Gilkes is proud to wave the Bajan Flag high. (Picture by Reco Moore.)
Rhea Gilkes describes herself as eccentric. Sporting blue hair for the How To Cook Like A Bajan series, an initiative of the Nation Publishing Company she told EASY magazine that she has been sporting different colour since she was 14 and on holiday from school.
The self-taught chef is the youngest of three – older brother and sister in Raquel Gilkes and Windell Osbourne. While she grew up in Clinketts Gardens, St Lucy, the family with dad and mum Michael and Cleopatra Gilkes now lives in St Peter.
Rhea loves cooking. Love is an understatement, based on how passionately she spoke about her work.
“I was always fascinated with food. I started cooking around age four or five. Several factors piqued my interest in cooking. First, my parents are both talented cooks and I tended to mimic whatever they were doing – if my dad was kneading sweet bread, he would have to make a small pile just like his for me to knead as well. Secondly, I was a picky eater and I learned to cook partially just so I could eat exactly what I want, exactly how I want it.”
The former student of Harrison College wasn’t pleased that home economics wasn’t on the school’s curriculum.
“I did the arts, science, languages, and geography. I was involved in hockey, football, swimming and track. But cooking was pulling me and at age 15 I told my parents I was leaving school to be a chef. They laughed and point blank said no. So I stayed an extra year and added some more CXCs to my résumé and when I turned 16 I said I can make my own decisions now.”
She had another talk with mum and dad and worked out a compromise: She would be allowed two years to go and learn to be a chef. If she didn’t like it at the end she would go to Barbados Community College and do a degree. A bargain was struck and she began her training on the job.
“It was at The Cliff restaurant where I did estage for six months, I was then hired by Sandy Lane Hotel. I was finding my footing and so I told my executive chef Michael Hinds I wanted to do some formal training. He said school wasn’t where I needed to be but to continue on the job training. So I went to Canada for further training at the Wildfire (a restaurant at Taboo Resort).”
When Rhea returned to Sandy Lane (she stayed there for four years altogether) she was pushed further by Hinds, who also trained her to compete in culinary competitions.
“The first time I entered NIFCA (National Independence Festival Of Creative Arts) I didn’t get a medal. I returned the second year and got a silver medal medal in the NIFCA Culinary Art Mystery Basket Cook-off (Professional) in 2003 and also won the Prime Minister’s scholarship, worth $10 000.
What to do with this scholarship?
Rhea was now 21 and she still wanted to get her certification in culinary arts. So she took the scholarship to pursue hotel management at the University of the West Indies (UWI). One year into the degree she changed her mind.
“I didn’t like the programme. A tutor told me about a new one being instituted and I could choose the subjects I wanted to do so I switched to social sciences and did economics, politics and psychology.
“I was on the debate team at UWI. I had always loved politics. I spoke on my first political platform at age 13. I love public speaking. I graduated with a BSc in Social Sciences (Hons).
Rhea is now the executive chef at Fusion restaurant, a job she loves going to each day.
“I was there when it was just starting. I was sous chef, then promoted to executive chef when that chef left. So I am seeing it grow as I am growing. As executive chef the purchaser will check with me to go over the list of things the kitchen ordered overnight, then I check with the prep shift concerning what they need to do for the day. I may have meetings with either staff or suppliers.
“We work with an organic farmer Caneview Organics, for example, to get fresh local produce so we would discuss what she’s planting and her harvest schedules and so on. When the second shift comes in for service we go over mise en place and specials for the day. We may have a briefing to make announcements about upcoming events etcetera . . . . Then the first order comes in and it is into service, at the end of the night we generate prep and order lists and do it all over again.
Rhea, who did traditional dishes for the How To Cook Like A Bajan series such as conkies and ham and macaroni pie, said her signature dish is tuna tartare “which I dress with salsa ingredients like coriander, lime juice and peppers. These are unusual flavours for tartare and reflect my classic French training and Caribbean flavours.”
Speaking of flavours, Rhea’s go-to ingredient is butter.
“That really depends on what I’m doing but I really prefer real butter when I am cooking or baking. It is the tastiest fat, it moistens, it adds flavour and sometimes crunch to a dish. I am in no way encouraging excessive consumption of butter, but I would prefer to use butter in moderation than copious amounts of anything else.”
If Rhea looks familiar to you, minus the blue hair, it is because she is actively involved in Slow Food Barbados.
“In 2014 I entered the Slow Food Barbados Iron Chef Competition. At that point I had never heard of the organisation but I love competing. The challenge in that competition was to use only local organic produce and I was thoroughly impressed with what they had to offer. After I won the competition I joined the Slow Food Movement. This has changed my goals as a chef, I don’t just want to be the best chef or become a master chef. I also want to cook in a way the supports local food production, is sustainable, healthy and elevates Barbadian/Caribbean cuisine to international recognition.”
EASY asked Rhea, “If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?”
“I would be a political scientist/philosopher. I love political science. My sister introduced me to philosophy when I was a teenager and I am currently pursuing my MPhil in political science. I believe that we don’t only need to consider national development but we must also redefine what that means in our own terms in order to push Barbados forward.
“I am a Renaissance woman. I didn’t want to choose between my degree and being a chef. Why should I chose? I couldn’t pick either, so I did both.” (NS)