Making of a champ
Sitrena 'Jo-Ann' Gilling, the newly crowned CB Pan Chicken Champion, has been cooking for as long as she can remember. From the tender age of nine, she was cooking birds her brothers hunted, plucking and preparing them like chickens with a sharpened spoon because her mother had hidden the knives. Living near a coconut and banana walk provided many memorable experiences and meals.
"Growing up in the district, my house used to be the cook yard. People call up there for food. My mother used to use drum pan to make her oven with coal underneath and on top. She all use it bake wedding cake. Me have the cooking ting in me," Sitrena explained. "Where we grow, a just food."
From there, she advanced to cooking on weekdays for the family of 16, to her own family of eight, now catering for hundreds. "When it come to cooking, I don't fail yet," the 53-year-old boasted.
Gilling doesn't consider her five previous attempts at the CB Pan Chicken Championship to have been failures, placing second at the regional eliminations thrice. She says she has never lost and there has always been a bigger picture in mind. "Through the CB Pan Chicken Championship competition I get exposure, meet new people and (got) many opportunities. I get things from CB, people get to know me and I get published in the paper. And it's always so exciting, especially Montego Bay. You see, I have a passion for cooking. Plus I wouldn't mind going further. I'd like to be a celebrity chef so others can learn from me," she said.
A GOOD CHURCH SERVICE
A wife, mother and proud grandmother with a gentle demeanour who laughs easily, Gilling enjoys local food, gospel concerts, plays and "a good Church service". She is admittedly a workaholic who refuses to end a day without completed tasks to show, with a soft spot for churches and schools. "When church or school call me, me just go. I work without pay."
Though she can't recall the year she first entered the competition, Gilling remembers being apprehensive. "The first time I enter it was only two of us from Hanover. I was second. The finals was uptown at the time and I doubt myself because I say dem nah send dem ting deh down here to Hanover. So I just went and sold some chicken," she said.
But last year was different. Gilling said she was determined to step out of the box, as recommended by CB Executive Chef Gairy Bowes at the finalists' prep workshop. The night before the event, she deboned the meat, stuffed it with raisins and soaked it in coconut milk. On championship day she carefully cooked the special pieces to ensure they were perfect, even turning away customers to focus on the million-dollar task. Keeping it natural, she sprinkled minced scallion and thyme over the final product, which was accompanied by grilled bread topped with Grace Jelly and raisins. The plate, she explained, was garnished with a large rose made from tomato, a yellow Scotch bonnet pepper, green sweet pepper and strips of scallion.
"It did look good to me. It looked natural and nice. I wanted to keep it natural, no fandangles," Gilling said.
On November 23, out-cooking 25 contestants Gilling was crowned the 2014 CB Pan Chicken Champion before more than 40,000 attendees at the CB Pan Chicken Championship Grand Finale on the Kingston waterfront. Along with the title, she was awarded $550,000 in cash, including a business development grant from Jamaica National Building Society (JNBS), a Samsung S5 cellular phone from Digicel, one year's supply of CB Chicken, one year's supply of Grace Tomato Ketchup, plus gift packages from National Bakery, Spur Tree Spices, Housekeeper Aluminium Foil, and Pepsi.
"I wasn't looking for it still. I was going for second or third prize because again me say dem nah send that come a Hanover, me too far. Then on the stage, after the third and second place call, I say, 'OK, I want to hear who win and go down'. Then Miss Kitty say who is here from Hanover, and I look at the other guy. And she say the lady from Hanover. I never want to hear my name. I know my name already," Gilling said dramatically, as she got lost in the story. "I feel so excited. And everybody calling me saying they see me on TV or in THE STAR."
Conquering the competition and enjoying her prizes, Gilling is now back to her businesses - catering, supplying anything from one cake to full functions; selling baked products and little drinks at the Noel Holmes Hospital, Lucea, on weekdays; and pan chicken on weekends in her district, First Brissett. Her next goal is to gain formal training in food preparation.