Not many chefs have taken on former Iron Chef and global sensation Chef Bobby Flay and won. Cue Saint Lucian-born and current Brooklyn, New York resident, Chef Shorne Benjamin, who tried to beat the celebrity chef on a recent battle on the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay. After securing his place in round two by out cooking his fellow competitor, Chef Benjamin challenged the iconic culinary master to his signature dish: pumpkin curry (or curry pongkin as we say on the islands). Yuh done know how fellow West Indians behaved eh. Naturally, those of us who watched collectively shouted, “Yea, man! Dais de ting self!”
Of course, we in the Caribbean understand the power of curried pumpkin, or any Caribbean curry really, and we watched in anticipation for Chef Benjamin’s guaranteed win. Alas, when one challenges a master, one has to be prepared to concede. While Chef Flay retained his unbeatable title, the 39-year-old isn’t letting that stop on as he moves on to The Taste of BVI in Tortola in November, an announcement he made mere weeks after his episode aired. Clearly, Chef Benjamin is a man who hasn’t let challenges defeat him in any fashion.
More importantly to note is Chef Benjamin’s willingness to share his experiences with his family and friends, no matter the outcome. At a viewing party which he hosted a few nights after the initial episode aired, Chef Benjamin recalled his main reason for wanting to put himself out there in the first place. “I auditioned for Beat Bobby Flay because I have seen Chef Flay master a variety of complex flavours. I’m also impressed by him as he is also an iron chef. I wanted to challenge my talents against him, especially since we both had the same foundation of culinary training from the French Culinary Institute.”
Somewhat reserved when not chopping and sautéing, Chef Benjamin’s professional energy is in stark contrast to his unassuming demeanour when out of the heat of the kitchen. His choice to feature ‘home food’ was not just a smart, calculated move either, but one that spoke from his heart. “I chose pumpkin curry since it was a dish from my childhood. My grandma made it for me as a child. It was my favourite. “My grandmother was also Carib Indian (an indigenous tribe) and this was my chance to pay homage to her. Being on the show proved I made the right choice in pursuing my culinary dream of becoming a chef. That night I felt like Cinderella (in a blue apron instead of a ball gown) at the ball. It was a great feeling!”
Stemming off his desire to highlight West Indian fare, Chef Benjamin continued, “The result of the show gave me motivation to keep showcasing Caribbean cuisine as much more than jerk chicken and rice and peas.” As it was recently evidenced in the UK, Chef Jamie Oliver’s culinary foray into the Caribbean did not go over well. In fact, the backlash was heated as it wasn’t seen as remotely authentic and seemingly pandered to the regional cuisine. The sentiments further cement Chef Benjamin’s belief that Caribbean cuisine is a complex system of myriad cultures with the potential to be seen as fine dining and not just casual regional cuisine. One delicious example is the other dish Chef Benjamin is known for and as he recalls, whispers of ‘who made this?!’ abound when he cooks up a dish only a true West Indian could come up with: curried goat pasta. This gastronomic mash-up of Italian and Indo-Caribbean flavours offers the casual diner a way to sample more exotic dishes while still maintaining a level of familiarity of good ole pasta.
Before Chef Benjamin even stepped foot in the French Culinary Institute classroom he was a stock broker at the Bank of New York. It could only take the love of cooking to draw a man to the kitchen, and as Chef Benjamin explains, “My curiosity and exposure to food at a tender gave me a love for the complex flavour of food. When I moved to New York, I saw the food culture and dined at some awesome places that gave me the inspiration to pursue this dream of a becoming the chef to take Caribbean cuisine to another level.
Among his successes, Chef Benjamin’s lengthy career highlights include cooking for the illustrious James Beard Foundation and he was also a regular participant at the Food Network’s Annual Wine and Food Festival in New York and South Beach, at Citi’s Taste of Tennis events across the world, and at the Annual Rum & Rhythm Benefit Gala. Other television appearances include a TV guest spot on NBC’s 6 In the Mix cooking segment. In 2017, he added winner of the Grace® Jamaican Jerk Festival Celebrity Chef Throw Down to his impressive repertoire in addition to gaining international acclaim as a featured chef at the Taste of the Caribbean festival in Montreal. Chef Benjamin was also a semi-finalist in the eleventh International Iron Chef Competition in Toronto, as well as the inaugural chef for the 2016 Celebrity Guest Chef Series at the award-winning Cliff Restaurant located at the Five Star Cap Maison Hotel & Spa in St. Lucia.
While Chef Benjamin’s grocery list of accolades and big ups are extensive, he has a unique sense of the spiritual about him. When asked about his culinary and life philosophy, he surprisingly shifted gears, “My life philosophy is opportunity only dances with you only if you are already on the dance floor.” Whoa. Amazingly astute, Chef Benjamin continues along his path with the singular goal of elevating Caribbean cuisine, one amazing dish at a time. “My journey as a chef was a leap of faith to pursue my dreams and I made a commitment to myself to succeed. It has been a deep learning process understanding this restaurant business. The long, hot hours, working in a multi-person team, being organised and handling the stress of a busy restaurant service is not easy. I get out of bed every morning to be true to my craft and culture as a West Indian chef and with the motivation to learn something new and create an opportunity to boast my Caribbean culture through food.”
When Chef Benjamin isn’t making himself a big pot of stewed chicken and ground provision, his favourite go-to meal, he’s busy with life and his loves. Citing too his appreciation for those who inspire and support him, Chef Benjamin says his other culinary inspirations are his work colleagues Clayton Campbell, Richard Baugh, Digby Stridiron, Andre Fowles and Nina Compton. If he isn’t aware by now, Chef Benjamin might also be an inspiration for other ambitious West Indian chefs or aspiring culinary masters who want to put Caribbean cuisine in the centre of the industry landscape. As Chef Benjamin said as the interview wrapped up, “You have to make yourself available to take chances because everyone’s destiny is different. I push through no matter what because tell myself I am destined for greatness.” We’re apt to agree.