Jennifer Bennett ... Rising above the smoke
Since winning the championship, her culinary passion has been reignited. She plans to establish a new jerk centre and identify avenues to potentially expand her business.
The night before the highly anticipated finals of the Caribbean Broilers Pan Chicken championship, Jennifer Bennett hovered impatiently over her stove and became increasingly nervous about how her sauce would compare with her competitors'. Her once easy-to-prepare, tasty recipe had suddenly become a complete mess with a questionable aftertaste. Following several failed attempts in the scorching heat of her kitchen, she was just about ready to call it quits.
"I give up! Why should I bother when everybody already knows that one of the guys from Portland is going to win anyway?" she muttered under her breath.
Her young daughter, Shaniel, who had given up her critical Saturday leisure time to support her mother's preparations, looked at her in stunned silence. She offered her mom some encouragement. "Mommy, you can't give up, you have to do it; I know that you will do well."
Bennett smiled, realising that she was not only competing for herself. She knew this would be a great opportunity to improve her family's finances and also showcase the importance of hard work and determination to her children. After throwing away yet another substandard batch of sauce, she pressed on with renewed energy and confidence.
Prior to entering last year's islandwide contest to find Jamaica's most talented and creative pan chicken chef, Bennett had endured a series of setbacks. Following the death of her mother and then finding out that she was pregnant, she decided that it was time for a change of scenery and moved from her native Manchester to Clarendon.
To support their family, Bennett and her husband, Donovan, began selling pan chicken at Young's Plaza in May Pen but they soon ran into problems with the local police who restricted their operations to weekends. They later decided to relocate to Denbigh where they set up a jerk centre in 2007. The establishment enjoyed success for a few years until it was looted in 2009. Fearing for their lives and the safety of their family, they made the painful decision to close the popular restaurant.
Unsure of the path to take next, Bennett was encouraged to enter the pan chicken championship by her husband who had previously participated in the event on three occasions.
Taking his advice, she was the first-place winner from Clarendon at the Central regional elimination. She then had her sights set on the grand finals.
Despite the challenges she faced in perfecting her sauce the night before, she turned up at the finals on Ocean Boulevard in downtown Kingston ready to showcase her cooking skills.
Throughout the day, her booth was abuzz with activity as patrons steadily streamed toward her drum, and gave glowing reviews. With all the attention she was receiving, Bennett had a hunch that she would walk away with the big prize.
And indeed she did. Amid the flurry of activity, the large crowd that gathered on the Kingston Waterfront was enthusiastic to learn that Bennett was the 2013 champion.
"It was one of the best days of my life," she recalled. "I felt so great when I was on stage and everyone was cheering for me."
Since winning the championship, Bennett's culinary passion has been reignited. She plans to establish a new jerk centre and identify avenues to potentially expand her business.
She hopes to continue to ride this wave of success, which she has enjoyed since participating in last year's pan chicken competition.
Her championship trophy has caused quite a stir during recent trips to Little Ochi and Grand Market in May Pen, and has helped to boost her food sales.
She is optimistic about her future and is looking forward to delving into the entrepreneurial arena once again so that she is able to provide for her family while enjoying a gratifying career.
"I would especially encourage women to enter the Caribbean Broilers Pan Chicken Championship because I have shown that we can win at the event," she said. "Even though working with the smoke can be difficult, if you truly know how to cook, it can be very fun and rewarding."