A conversation with Chef and Steward, Jamaicans living in Dubai

This week we speak to the husband and wife team Lij and Kari Heron, Jamaicans living in Dubai . Lij is a sous chef in a fine-dining restaurant. Kari is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and of course, the head cook & bottle washer in their low-carb home kitchen which they have recently taken online with a new blog called “Chef and Steward”. Her photography work was recently displayed ever festival of Jamaican Art & Culture in the Middle East. Here is our conversation with them.    

What part of Jamaica are you from?
We are from Kingston, but in our hearts, we are country rats!

How did you guys get to Dubai?
Lij came for a job years ago and Kari joined in 2009 when they got married.
Let’s start with you Chef Lij .What made you decide to become a chef? Did you cook growing up?
It all started with fried plantain and the unmistakable influence of my mother.  I hear that I was about 5 or 6 when I was standing on a stool cooking fried plantains under her supervision. When we got older,   she gave us a day each to cook and eventually, I got a job at the Hilton Kingston, where I worked my first day peeling about 1000 bananas.  After 1 year there, I applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America. The rest is history.    

Jamaican food sometimes is a challenge to outsiders to cook.  What would you say to someone who’s totally intimidated cooking Jamaican food?
I don’t think it is a challenge really except for the fact that it may be new. Once you have the right ingredients, a good recipe as a guide and sense of adventure, you are well on your way.  I always stress the importance of tasting as you go along. Jamaicans often cook by taste, and not by recipe.  Many of the best Jamaican cooks will be able to show you how they cooked something or tell you a little bit of this, a lot of that, but we just adjust to our taste, not by precise measurements.     

What would Kari say is your best Jamaican dish..lol?
If you asked Lij, he will tell you Oxtail Stew.  I think I would agree.  He  offten jokes that it is the reason he married me. Though with the frequency that he requests it, I am not certain if it is really a joke.  I have been told that my fried dumplings are pretty good too. I have Kathi Marie Cooke to thank for that!  My rice and peas is a combination of my mother and grandmothers as well as my friend, Claudia Pryce. Somehow, in cooking, I pay homage to the great cooks who have influenced me!     

I find that Chefs who have studied the culinary arts tend to experiment with fusions. Tell us about some of your Jamaican fusion recipes?
I think Jamaican food is not easy to fuse properly with other cuisines. I find it stands out best on its own.  However, I have used Jamaican ingredients in other cuisines, and incorporated a few Jamaican dishes where appropriate.  I have used pimento a lot.  For example I have done a pimento roasted chicken and a pimento foam.  I have also made a red peas falafel with thyme instead of the standard Middle Eastern chick peas, parsley and garlic.   

Tell us some of the qualities that you feel a successful chef should have?
Good taste buds.  A sense of adventure.  Drive. Commitment to stay long and work through the trenches.  People skills.  Leadership skills.  Unending quest for knowledge.  Willingness to taste everything at least once… regardless of the ingredients (yes, it may not all be pretty).    

Being a Jamaican chef do you have any amusing stories to share with us when people discover you are Jamaican?
During the Olympics, I went outside to speak to an Italian guest at the restaurant (in Dubai) and she actually recognized my accent and told me “Congrats with all the success of Usain Bolt.” Thank heavens she loved the food because Usain is a hard act to follow!

Are you doing a lot of catering for the growing Jamaican community in Dubai?
We are not currently catering. Lij has a very demanding job and the blog is doing very well.   You never knew know what the future holds though. We are always open to a world of possibilities.    

What is the weird food request you have every gotten?
(Laughs). Medium Steak, no blood.  That’s the first thing that comes to mind, but the list is long!

Is there any similarities to the food in the Middle East and the Caribbean food?
Plenty! The grilling, heavy use of spices, lots of emphasis on cooking at home. 

How do you organize your recipes? Are you using a smart phone, iPad, computer, recipe cards, scraps of paper, a note book etc?
Is that a trick question?  Seriously, I walk around collecting papers of recipes and menus daily behind Lij. He is a walking paper machine.  He also has lots of small notepads.  I jot down on the fridge,  in notebooks, but mostly in my head as I am mostly an intuitive cook.  Baking is different, for that I will follow recipes which are filed on the computer.

You both started the blog Chef and Steward. What was your main goal?
Our aim is to “Bring the love and life back into the kitchen!”  As much as we love that people are eating out more… more money for those of us who work in restaurants, we also wanted to encourage our audience to find joy in making meals at home.  We are also concerned with the rate of diabetes and childhood obesity and the amount of junk food that passes as nutrition. Food is best when produce is sourced well and fresh and cooked fresh and in season.  It’s also healthier that way.  And believe it or not, much cheaper. So many times people are told to change their lifestyles and eat healthier.  We are showing you how. As we say at chefandsteward.com, “Food is medicine, but that doesn’t mean it ought to taste like it.”     

Let me guess (lol) Kari takes care of the site?
Of course! My role as the chef is critical to the site in terms of consultancy and personal involvement in many of the recipes and preparation but as the steward, Kari’s background is in marketing communication and includes writing, photography and fimmaking so where the site is concerned “She run things” as we say in Jamaica. Plus she can cook!

How did you get into Photography?
I grew up in front of my Daddy’s Canon SLR.  He was a pretty good photographer, among other things (maybe that is where I get my many talents from).  I got my first 24mm camera at age 9.   I took a course at the Creative Production and Training Centre (CPTC) at 17. I inherited his camera at 19, which for me was a rite of passage. I moved to TV as presenter and producer and then went into corporate communication and public relations for a decade, putting my photography on hold. I really resumed shooting in 2008 and went professional in 2010.  

What are your favorite subjects to photograph?
With such a strong journalistic background, I find that my style is decidedly photojournalistic and documentary.  I have a strong interest in fine art and now food photography.     

Is it difficult finding subjects to photograph in Dubai?
It depends on what you are looking for and what one considers worthy of shooting. There is beauty in normal, everyday happenings. Art only has to be inspired by life. In many ways, I am still a foreigner and an astute outsider is also a keen observer of what others may overlook  or consider mundane.  If we stop to observe and maybe even to ask a question or share a thought or a smile, we will see ourselves reflected in the eyes of strangers and lands near and far.  Hopefully, my work allows you to do that.    

Kari, please tell us about your upcoming photo exhibit a first for Jamaica in the Middle East?
Sigh. It’s been a long time coming. But yes, my work will be exhibited as part of the first ever Middle Eastern exhibition of Jamaican Art in collaboration with Art Connection, an iconic and well-placed gallery and art consultancy in Dubai.  We are very excited about it.  By “We” I mean two Jamaicans and a Syrian-Christine O’Callaghan, Sueraya Shaheen and myself. It is part of a initiative to showcase how the art forms of Jamaica depict similarities between two cultures no one would place together.   We will be featuring the work of noted Jamaican artists and the response so far has been very encouraging. It is scheduled for the first week of May 2011.
Did your photography lead to your interest in film making or is it the reverse?
In TV,  you learn that everything comes from the still. A moving picture is nothing more than a continuous series of still shots. It all starts with the frame.  Thanks to my father and my studies at CPTC prior to studying Television Production at CARIMAC, University of the West Indies where I studied up to the graduate level, I have a huge respect for cinematography and lighting in the production process.      

What new projects are you working on?
We are committed to making ChefandSteward.com a community that we all can be proud of. We are in discussions with partners of products we endorse and are open to appearances, food and travel writing, reviews, collaborations and consultancies. 

What advice would you both give to anyone who is thinking of moving to Dubai?
Have a plan. Be open to possibilities. Be prepared to have serious culture shock. Things are just different here. Period.  There is a language barrier because so many people from all over the world live here and many speak varying degrees of English.  It is a very transient place and people come and go all the time so neither you or your children are likely to make many lifetime friends.  Be prepared to be far from family and friends. It’s not easy being an expatriate and we have both been expatriates for a while in different countries. It is better to actually do so as a married couple or a family especially since it is a Muslim country. Even so, it is a huge test on a relationship and some don’t make the transition together and end up in divorce. Expatriate life is not easy, especially when home is so far away.  

Thanks for the interview. Any closing thoughts?
Check out our blog atwww.chefandsteward.com

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