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Where there’s a Will there’s a way

NATANGA SMITH, [email protected]

Where there’s a Will there’s a way

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IN 2007, when Willis Griffith boldly made the statement that he wanted to one day be a member of the Barbados national culinary team, little did he know that would be a reality.

Fast forward to 2014.

Willis is among a group of eager chefs trying to impress judges and the manager of the Barbados team that he has what it takes to create culinary concoctions that are palatable and pleasing to the eye with plating.

He made the cut and in 2015 was chosen again to be part of the team. Last year he came back to compete. He dished to EASY magazine and again made the team. This year, he was again chosen to represent his country, to show he has the skills to contribute to Caribbean cuisine being of international standards.

“My first year on the team we went to Taste Of The Caribbean in Miami and I came back with a bronze and silver. The second year, two silvers and last year a silver. This year I can taste the gold.”

He had first wanted to be an architect, but when circumstances landed him a kitchen job, he realised he had a knack for slicing and dicing, blending and battering.

Willis, the last of six boys, had migrated to New York to be with his mum in 2005 and started a low-income job as a porter. He then was offered a job as a line cook and he didn’t want to leave the kitchen.

He wanted to improve his skills and so applied to the French Culinary Institute in the state. He was accepted in 2007, paid his tuition and spent the next two years mastering the art of fine cuisine, graduating with a diploma in culinary arts.

“At the interview for entry into the school, the interviewer asked me what were my goals . . . . Where do I want to take this? I honestly told her I wanted to make the national culinary team. She was surprised that we had one.”

Willis came out a well-rounded student, having been trained in basic French culinary cooking, pastry, artisanal baking and managing a kitchen.

He went to work at a couple of catering companies, then Norwood Club, an exclusive eating establishment, an internship at Braeburn, then showing off his newfound skills at Blue Smoke and Lé-Cole restaurants. The past student of St Albans Primary, and the Seventh Day Adventist Secondary School has cooked personally for Mick Jagger (of Rolling Stones fame).

He moved back home in 2009: “I really wanted to get my feel of a kitchen in the tourism sector. I wanted to see how they cooked and what ideas they had on the menu.”

Willis, 32, has honed his skills in various kitchens. His first job was at Fairmont Royal Pavilion for two years as a line cook. His next kitchen was at Crystal Cove, then Sandpiper, where he was chef de partie. He has been at Savannah Hotel for the past four months as sous chef.

“My role is more of a managerial one. You more do delegating and running of the kitchen more so than cooking every day. We have three kitchens here, so my days are hectic. But if I am honest I must say I prefer the hands-on.

“I love to cook. I love to create and see the dishes take shape and form. Trying to marry flavours and textures to create dishes that will make the menu more exciting is what I enjoy. Some days I get to do that; some days less so. Some days I don’t move from in front the computer.”

Willis says the sous chef is a stepping-stone as one day he aims to be an executive chef and his eyes lit up when he spoke of creating menus.

“It is also about making sure the hotel’s standards are met. When I create a menu, it is with guests in mind – what do they expect from our kitchens and what will make them keep ordering certain dishes.

Willis has a portfolio of recipes that he tweaks and a phone filled with pictures of platings.

“The recipes also helped to control food costs and to keep a certain standard across the board.”

The culinary team is currently in training. The competition in which they pit their skills against 12 other Caribbean islands is in June.

Willis came to the team while at Sandpiper.

“My executive chef introduced me to Kenneth Whittington, who was the junior sous chef and on the team at the time. Kenneth trained me for competition and told me I could do it.

And he wasn’t wrong.

“I really wanted to make the team. Firstly, to make mum Harriett and dad Anderson proud. Secondly, I wanted to show youngsters that the only life in Barbados doesn’t have to be the streets, and thirdly, because I love cooking.”

Willis, who has won awards in the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts, is especially proud of winning the Hans Schenk Commemorative Award in 2014 and 2015 for Best Use Of Indigenous Products with the national team.

Willis, who loves working with seafood, is allergic to shrimp but “I can do something incredible with it. On the other hand, I prefer not to work with pork,” he says, laughing.

Willis is eager to implement a cooking method called sous vide to his kitchen, a cooking technique which involves using a vacuum-sealed machine to cook a protein or vegetable low and slow under pressure under a control temperature with an immersion circulator.

Willis said he was happy last year to see teammate Damian Leach win Caribbean Chef Of The Year and was miffed that Barbados didn’t win gold or Caribbean Team Of The Year.

“This experience so far has been a blessing. I have learnt so much that I can see myself one day still being part of the process – even if I am not competing to at least help in the training.”

But his ultimate goal: To own a restaurant.