Chef Profiles of Three of the Virgin Islands’ Top Chef
As a region which cherishes its unique cuisine, it’s no small wonder that the Virgin Islands is home to a more than a few world-class chefs who help spread the word about Island cooking through their phenomenal cuisine. We’ve interviewed a few of our favorites, some of the brightest culinary stars of the Virgin Islands.
Chef Ralph Motta, Culinary Ambassador for the US Virgin Islands
Chef Ralph Motta is as Crucian as they come. Warm, with a kind, welcoming smile Chef Ralph is an inspiring figure in the culinary world, one who is helping put the Virgin Islands on the foodie map. And people are taking notice; Black Enterprise Magazine named him BE Modern Man of 2015. A self-taught chef who has risen through the ranks after starting off studying art at New York City’s Pratt Institute, Chef brings an artist’s touch to every dish he creates.
“At the moment my style can be described as a ‘Modern Crucian Fusion.’ Blending our traditional recipes with techniques and flavors from abroad,” says Motta.
“My culinary skills are mostly self-taught. However, I credit my parents with teaching me the basics of Crucian cuisine starting from when I was a young age. After transferring to New York, I found myself needing to perfect my meager culinary skills. This came as a necessity to survive my remaining college years. By the time I graduated from art school, my constant practice in the kitchen was paying off.” He’s certainly right about that – Chef Motta launched his own business in 2014, Motta Cuisine, where he serves as Executive Chef and was recently named the Culinary Ambassador for the US Virgin Islands.
But how did he arrive at such a prestigious position? Chef tells us. “After graduation, I got a job at a catering company in Manhattan and began honing my culinary talents. The following year, with the help of my roommates, I launched Motta Cuisine, a boutique catering company that was located in Spanish Harlem at the time. I would have to credit my parents and my old roommates for giving me the courage to launch myself as a chef.”
As someone who has come so far in such a short amount of time, Chef Ralph has plenty of advice for young people interested in following his path. “If you are thinking about joining the culinary field do your research and figure out what solution works best for you. In my case, I always say myself as the entrepreneurial type that enjoyed being self-employed. The idea of working my way up in a kitchen over the years from dish washing to Executive Chef just didn’t work for me. So I took the fast route. I started my own business and never looked back.” – Chef Ralph Motta. For more information, check out his website at: www.mottacuisine.com.
Chef LeAnna Bennerson, Owner & Chef de Cuisine at Ultimate Chef Services USVI
Ultimate Chefs is the brainchild of Chef LeAnna Bennerson who is all about highlighting the unique flavors of the Virgin Islands and helping people experience them in new ways all while using super fresh local ingredients. People rave about her private chef service and if you head over to her Instagram, it’s easy to see why. Plate after plate of gorgeously presented delectable dishes that food lovers are dying to try! A superb talent in a world that is often dominated by men, Chef LeAnna is as hard working and dedicated as she is friendly and gracious.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking from a very young age. I paid very close attention to my mother Jennifer Crawford and grandmothers Vivian Bennerson and Valentine Smith as they worked wonders in the kitchen. They are the people who motivated me to take this route, along with my late father Gregory A. Bennerson,” says Chef LeAnna when talking about what influenced her to embark on a career in the culinary world. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Food Service Management with a minor in Culinary Arts and Cruise Operations at Johnson & Wales University, she traveled across the mainland, “which had a great impact on my kitchen experience. My experience working in the culinary field expands over 15 years so I’ve had the opportunity to cook for many different restaurants and people.” This experience has helped her define her cooking style which Chef describes as “French-Caribbean. I love using French cooking techniques and flavors while staying true to my Caribbean background using fresh local ingredients and spices.” Dedicated to her craft, after working in restaurants for nearly two decades, Chef LeAnna opened her own catering company which provides private chef services to USVI visitors. Knowing the importance of early exposure to food, Chef has big plans for the future. “I hope to one day be able to broaden the culinary world for our students by having an organization that will provide meals for them in school that are both healthy and adventurous which can possibly spark an interest in this field. But most importantly, it will help them make better choices with food. The culinary world is such a broad spectrum and there is a place for everyone who loves cooking or baking.” – Chef LeAnna Bennerson, Ultimate Chef Services, http://www.ultimatechefservices.com/
Chef Julius Jackson, Manager at MBW Cafe & Bakery, Partner Shelly’s Cakes and Catering
Chef Julius Jackson doesn’t just don his chef’s hat. He’s a professional boxer who qualified for the 2008 Olympics as well as an incredibly talented chef who has appeared on the Food Network and is known for his charity work. His imposing physique is softened by his easy-going nature and ready smile. With a real passion for his work, he knows how to knock people out both in the ring and with his delicious dishes.
“At first, I got into the culinary field because I like to eat, but then I fell in love with the art and science of making food look and taste good,” Chef Julius tells us. After graduating with an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts from Florida Culinary Institute, Chef Julius went on to work at
Marriott Frenchman’s Reef, West Palm Beach Marriott, and Fat Turtle, and eventually moved on to his current projects, a partnership with Shelly’s Cakes and Catering, and MBW Cafe & Bakery.
“When I cook, I think about making meals for the family. One main influence on my cooking is thinking about meals that cater to home cooking. My style is a mixture of homestyle cooking, Caribbean flavor, classical cuisine and a dash of healthy cooking.” And the inspiration for his signature style isn’t far from home. There was one driving force who helped motivate his decision to enter the culinary world. “I credit my mom for two reasons. First, she took a long time to prepare meals plus would always give me the first taste testers (since I was standing there waiting for food) and it convinced me that I wanted to be able to make my own food. Secondly, she made me promise that I would further my education.” In between managing MBW Cafe and Bakery and partnering with Shelly’s Cakes and Catering, Chef Jackson is a busy man. A new father who just signed a deal to write his first cookbook, he is active with various charities on the islands and is still active in the boxing world.
“Hard work always pays off. So, read a lot. I would recommend culinary school. When you do go to work, find a chef or lead cook that will act as your mentor. Use your spare time wisely. Always try new things.” – Julius Jackson. Connect with Chef Julius over on his Twitter: @Juliusthechef1