CHEF RHEA GILKES talking about the Slowfood Barbados movement and the importance of supporting local farmers. (Picture by Reco Moore.)
"THIS IS my domain,” says chef Rhea Gilkes as she enters the kitchen. And the smile of excitement and contentment written on her face tells just how she feels about her job.
Standing in the expansive kitchen at Jamoon, a villa at Salters Road, Sandy Lane, St James, Gilkes, who has spent the past nine years as personal chef to owners Luciano and Anna Maria Quaradeghini, beams with pride as she points out kitchen equipment.
“I have everything here,” she said while noting that when the owners are not in the island she cooks for guests who stay in the spacious villa, which can accommodate up to 15.
Part-time student, part-time chef, the former Harrison College student said she always knew she wanted to cook and even unsuccessfully begged her parents to let her finish secondary school a year early so she could pursue a career in the area of her passion.
“I was a year ahead of my class so when I was in fifth form I was 15 so my parents made me stay. I had no intentions of doing CAPE or anything of the sort. I had already chosen my subjects with the intention of being a chef, so I chose French because you need to know kitchen French,” she said.
Since Harrison College does not offer home economics, Gilkes opted for chemistry and biology and subjects that would be relevant.
So determined was she to not follow the traditional path of university education that Gilkes left HC and took a six-month stint at The Cliff in “estage” or “for free” so she could learn the ropes. Later, while working in her sister’s canteen to finance herself she joined the kitchen at Sandy Lane, where she was mentored by chef Michael Hinds.
Even though she did not attend the Barbados Community College to learn the theory, Gilkes said she learned lots during the two years of mentorship.
“It was great. Formal training is funny. I did not go to PomMarine but I did full training between the Cliff and Sandy Lane.
“I was formally trained but not in the way people expect. Everybody does not go to school – that is actually a more recent thing. The traditional way is to become an apprentice and work closely with an established chef,” Rhea said while noting she benefited more from having the hands-on training from the outset.
Rhea has worked extensively in Canada and Barbados over her 15-year career. She admitted that though it was a lot, there was always more to learn.
“What I know is the tip of the iceberg,” said the chef, who is trained in classic French cuisine, but has worked in Italian and Asian fusion and ran the line at several signature restaurants.
She has also developed a passion for organic cooking and the Slow Food Barbados movement. She gleefully said the kitchen has all the equipment and machinery for her to make most of her food from scratch: pasta, breads, ketchup, mayonnaise and, on occasion, butter.
Slow Food means it is organic, clean, not overprocessed or boxed. It also means farming with seeds that are not genetically modified, Gilkes explained.
As Slow Food Barbados’ chef liaison, Gilkes helped to organise “pop-ups” – which are farm-to-table dinners – where they challenge chefs at restaurants to design menus using what produce the farmers have available at that time.
She has developed recipes and is currently working on forming the Chef Alliance, which involves chefs ordering a certain amount of the food used in the kitchen from local farmers while the menu has a certain percentage of locally sourced foods. She also works with local manufacturer Carmeta’s Foods developing recipes using their range of sweet potato, cassava and breadfruit flours.
“I think one of the problems chefs have had over the years is that in our minds we separate local products from the formal training we have. A starch is a starch and a yam or cassava can be used in pretty much the same way as an English potato,” Gilkes said.
She has also been dabbling with molecular gastronomy techniques, but noted that she likes to see people eating food, and those techniques are used to garnish food, so she did not want them to distract her “serious cooking”.
Though she has cooked for many celebrities, including a Saudi Arabian princess, basketballers, actors and also entertainers, she has not been fazed by it. She said having the children who at times stay at Jamoon join her in the kitchen is the best part of the job. To see children who are picky eaters “eat the house down”, when she cooks, Gilkes said she often has to write down recipes for parents to take back to their homeland.
Rhea, who is completing her master’s degree in political science at the University of the West Indies, said even though she tried to evade it, she got back into the books. On winnng the Prime Minister’s scholarship at NIFCA, she received $10 000 and signed up to do hotel management, which she did not like so she switched to the social sciences and did economics, politics and psychology. Funny enough, Rhea said she really enjoyed her time at UWI, becoming involved in many activities, including the guild.
“I do both. All the time I am at school, I have a job cooking. My academic interest is politics so I get to do them both,” a smiling Rhea said.