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A Chef’s Life: Jamaican Chantal Thomas Talks Being on Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championships

by Stephanie Koathes Apr 15, 2019

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Swirled Ackee Cheesecake Brownies by Holiday Baking Championships contestant Chantal Thomas

Chantal Thomas is whipping up delicious vegan patties through her micro-bakery Amazing Ackee in Connecticut. This talented baker from Jamaica competed on the Food Network’s popular baking competition show the Holiday Baking Championship in 2018 where she narrowly missed out on the final.

Yello’s resident foodie and baking show enthusiast caught up with Chantal to find out about her Holiday Baking Championship experience and more.

Full name

Chantal Thomas.

Who does the cooking in your house?

98% of the cooking is done by me. My husband can cook and WELL, though he will cook from time to time he likes to counter with “but it tastes better when you make it” lol, hard to argue with that.

Explain your cooking style in three words.

Eclectic, experimental, fun.

Which part of the island are you from and how did you end up where you are now?

I’m a Trini-born Jamaican from St Bess.

My mom moved with me to Jamaica when I was three. We first lived in Peppers, St Elizabeth. My stepfather was a manager for the sugar company, so we moved quite a few times. After St. Elizabeth we moved to Innswood, St. Catherine briefly, then to Monymusk, Clarendon, and then back to Innswood.

After they divorced, we (my mom, myself and my younger brother) moved to Angels, St. Catherine. This was when I met a boy across the street who would later become my husband.

From Angels we moved to below Mavis Bank in St Andrew, then after that to Kingston 6.

I left Jamaica in 2009 to pursue the culinary programme in Trinidad intending to return to Jamaica to officially set up shop.

In 2011, I got a scholarship to finish my final two semesters of culinary school in Canada. During this time that boy from across the street and I had reconnected through Facebook and were in a long-distance relationship. He was in Connecticut having moved there with his family in 2008.

We got married in 2014. I left Canada in 2015 and returned to Jamaica for ackee season then migrated to the States in 2016.

Okay, Im a big fan of baking shows, and I watched you compete on Food Networks Holiday Baking Championships in 2018. What pushed you to try out for the show and please tell me what the experience was like?

I would say the universe conspired to have me apply to be on the show. I have mad respect for people who do these competitions. And it’s not that I don’t think my food is great, because it is!  But, I’d never truly had the desire to compete, being more collaborative in nature.

Over the years, friends would say you should do it and I’d brush them off. One went as far as to send me the direct link to apply, and I told her I would but didn’t. Then within the same week of her following up to ask if I had applied, a casting director sent me a message on Instagram saying she’d love to chat to me about the show. And the rest is history.

The show definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I’m methodical, I take my time, and revise if necessary. And I like testing ideas out a few times, so the one shot and done approach is really challenging! I learned that I function under pressure much better than I give myself credit for.

Overall it was a fantastic experience. I adore all the other competitors and have learned so much from them. We still keep in touch it’s like having a group of experts at your fingertips if ever you have a question.

Whats the most memorable moment from your Food Network experience?

The most memorable moment for me was when judge Duff [Goldman] said my crust was the best he’d seen on the show and that he wanted to make my pie. It was the “Caribbean Banoffee Pie” that I’d made up on the spot. After that judging, as soon as I got off set, I wrote down what I did so I could replicate it.

Your business name is Amazing Ackee, and you do a lot of creative things with ackee. Why do you enjoy working with that ingredient?

I intended to write an ackee cookbook. But because I was bursting with excitement to share the versatility of ackee with everyone Amazing Ackee the blog was born.

People started asking: “Do you have a restaurant, food truck or do pop-ups?” And that’s how Amazing Ackee LLC, the micro-bakery was born.

Amazing Ackee began at the height of the ackee season in Mandeville. I was in Jamaica on an extended vacation, and as soon as I finished cooking one batch of ackee, we would get more. After about the third making ackee and saltfish I said, “what else can I make with this?” I started with an ackee cream for pasta which eventually became “Mac + Kees” a great dairy-free alternative to mac n’ cheese.

I’ve always loved experimenting with ingredients in different ways. It was amazing that all these ideas that I had were turning out better than envisioned.

Aside from vegan patties, what other things do you regularly make?

I cook and bake a lot of different things since I’m always experimenting.

I love bread! From pizza dough to pitas to focaccia, I mix it up. Cake is another medium I’m always exploring flavour combos in.

Inspiration determines what I do for the week.

This week alone there was a lemon loaf, matcha green tea roll cake, caramelised turnips, and tomato dough crisps and I’m contemplating incorporating purple corn flour into roti.

What are your favourite flavours to work with?

What I love most about food is being able to explore the vast landscape of flavours and mixing and matching them to come up with new ones. You could come up with thousands of combinations. For example, cumin and caramel popped into my mind recently, and I thought hmmm, I want to explore that in a cookie, that could be interesting.

I love citrus and any sort of tangy flavours, so that includes things like passionfruit and tamarind. Florals like lavender, rose water, and orange blossom water. Fresh herbs like chadon beni and rosemary. Warming spices like pimento, Vietnamese cinnamon, smoked paprika, cumin, and coriander. I also love caramel, coffee, coconut ,and matcha.

Have you always known you wanted to bake professionally? Are you classically trained?

I studied Statistics at UWI; I was great with numbers. But by the time I started getting around to the more theoretical statistical concepts I was done! Baking was the only thing that kept me sane as I came to the realisation that I didn’t enjoy the course of study I was pursuing. I started a home-based dessert business and used to sell cakes on campus mainly to my co-workers at the MITS (Mona Information Technology Services) Helpdesk.

So I took a step back and reflected on whether food was something I wanted to pursue professionally. I did Associate in Applied Science degree in Culinary Management at the Trinidad and Tobago Hospitality and Tourism Institute (TTHTI).

I’ve not looked back from food since.

If you had to pick a dish to eat every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Oh, this is a mean question! How does one even choose?

Hmmm, I would go with jerk lionfish (cooked by Roger) from Little Ochi, with yam, ripe plantain and callaloo and pumpkin steamed in coconut milk with tomato and okra.

What was the first thing you remember cooking/baking?

The first thing I remember baking were “treasure muffins” they were a basic muffin recipe, the treasure was that they had jam in the centre 🙂 I was probably nine or younger.

Whats your favourite/most impressive thing youve ever made?

Again, hard to choose, but my creation that I’m most impressed with at this moment is my sliceable vegan ackee cheese.

What do you miss most about home?

FOOD!!!!!

Coronation Market has always, and will always, be one of my favourite places on Earth. Just the freshness and the flavour of home food, it’s unmatched. For example, yes I can get yellow yam that’s imported from Jamaica, but it’s just not the same. To be fair, I suppose a measure of it is the interaction that comes in that setting that isn’t replicated going to a grocery store or farmers market here.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Trust the process.

What advice would you give aspiring chefs?

Just start! This is broad advice; it’s suitable for anyone. Whether a chef, businessperson or someone who wants to eat better or run a long distance race. You have to begin; there is no such thing as the perfect time or conditions. Just start, you can adjust, learn, pivot and grow as you go.

Whats your personal motto?

I will go boldly in the direction of my dreams.

Check out Chantal and her incredible creations on her Amazing Ackee blog and on Instagram.