MIAMI -- It wasnt all just seminars, breakout sessions, toilet displays at the trade show and buffet lines at breakfast at the recent Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference, sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel Association.

Taste of the Caribbean was the spicy, fun and spirited side of CHIC.

Taste, as its called for short, began as a low-key barbecue get-together among chefs in Jamaica some years ago.

Its evolved now into a regional competition of chefs and bartenders, involving 16 culinary teams from the Caribbean who cook, mix, blend, shake, pour, fry, poach, steam, grill, swirl, twirl and frost in a live-kitchen environment, preparing a three-course meal for 35 people (who pay $50 each to sample the creations), using a mystery basket of Caribbean ingredients.

Over the course of the three-day conference, the 16 teams were pared down to the final four by a team of international judges and then to the top winners.

This years Taste coincided with the World Cup competitions in Germany, making team eliminations in both the kitchen and on the soccer field equally dramatic. (Unlike its soccer team, which lost out before advancing out of the first round, Trinidad and Tobagos culinary team did win an individual honor for best use of U.S. cheese by team for its recipe for roasted cheese and okra choka.)

The annual celebration of contemporary Caribbean cuisine is designed to provide a live showcase of the diverse culinary skills and styles of the region, according to Rick Crossland, chairman of the Taste of the Caribbean governing committee and one of the judges.

This year, teams represented Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda; the Bahamas; Barbados; Bonaire, the British Virgin Islands; Curacao; Grenada; Jamaica; Puerto Rico; St. Maarten/Martin; St. Lucia; St. Vincent and The Grenadines; Suriname; Trinidad and Tobago; and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each team included a culinary coach, three chefs, a pastry chef and a bartender.

Teams contended for the Caribbean Food and Beverage Awards of Excellence.

The awards, which were presented at the final banquet on the closing night of the conference, had all the trappings of an Oscar ceremony -- speeches, music, envelopes, please, a hushed audience, and then the announcement of the winners, followed by tumultuous ovations, especially from the representatives of the winners island.

The Chef of the Year award went to Hans van Triest, chef at the Floris Suite Hotel in Curacao; Paul Peterson of Temptation restaurant in St. Maarten took the Bartender of the Year top honor; and Pastry Chef of the Year was Tracey Sweeting (an appropriate last name, given the award category), from the Radisson Cable Beach & Golf Resort, Nassau.

There were so many awards, in fact, in so many categories, that every team seemed to emerge a winner. For instance, Puerto Ricos Ropa Vieja was named the best use of certified Angus beef, and St. Maarten/Martins Coconut Trilogy dessert earned the most innovative dish spot.

In the bartender competitions, special honors illustrated the creativity of the competition. For example, the White Chocolate Express Martini, created by the U.S.V.I. team of bartenders, was named the most creative vodka drink; the Naked Mango, from Antigua & Barbuda, was rated the most creative non-alcoholic drink. Meanwhile, the creative rum award went to the team from St. Lucia for its Oh La La drink and the most creative overall drink was concocted by Bonaires team and was called the Caribbean Breeze.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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