Introducing Chef Jo Anne

Born and raised in Trinidad, Chef Jo Anne brings the flare and upbeat tempo of her homeland to everything she does in life, and that definitely holds true for her cooking. When first entering her Brooklyn home I was greeted with a big smile, great smells, and a good vibe courtesy of Caribbean music. She made me feel right at home and immediately made sure I was well fed and comfortable. Through Chef Jo Anne’s hospitality and warm spirit, I was reminded of many maternal role models, including my own mother.

She cared for me like family instantaneously. That is a large part of the Umi gift that she gave me. Much of our conversation included the importance of our own mothers in our lives and how food and cooking have shaped those relationships.

I had a wonderful time getting to know Chef Jo Anne better and I can’t wait to visit her again soon. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @foodforcrews.

Umi Chef Jo Anne, born and raised in Trindad.

What is your first home-cooking memory?

I think my very first home-cooking memory is having to kill a chicken in order to make stew. That’s the way things were. If you wanted chicken you needed to take matters into your own hands, literally. However, that may be a little harsh so why don’t I share a different memory.

Making coconut milk is one of the earliest things I can remember doing. It is such a strenuous time-consuming process, but at the end of the day it is all worth it. You start by banging the coconut on the concrete to loosen the hard outer brown skin. Next, you take a knife and start peeling it away — being very careful not to cut yourself. Once you remove this outer layer you must continue hacking away to get to the center of the coconut for a superior yield. Me and my siblings would gather around and squeeze the coconut chunks in cheesecloth over and over again until we had the best damn coconut milk you’ve ever tasted. It tasted even better because there was so much time, effort, and care involved to make this product. Now, we could use it in rice dishes, in beans, or in meat.

What has influenced your style of cuisine?

I cook the rainbow; you can quote me on that. This definitely comes from my mother and my home. Many meals were associated with different days of the week and celebrations. So, I like to cook in a celebratory way when possible and enjoy every meal that I eat. I get this from my mother.

Chef Jo Anne shared many pictures of her mother’s cooking and it looked incredible. The plating of a simple lunch was far better than most meals I had seen in recent memory.

When I went to culinary school I realized that all of the traditional skills my mother had taught me were very similar to the classic French training that I received. So, I really enjoy mixing the old and the new. In Trinidad, just about every dish starts with onion and garlic so you will see that in a lot of the cooking I do for Umi and myself.

What is your favorite meal/dish to cook?

Meal? I would have to say breakfast. I learned the importance of starting your day with carbs and energy from living in the Caribbean. I don’t understand people that say they just aren’t ‘breakfast people.’ How could you waste such a delicious and important meal?

My favorite dish to make has to be anything on the menu of a Sunday lunch. In Trinidad this is a very important meal during the week for families. One of these specialty dishes is callaloo. Somewhat like creamed spinach, this dish uses a leaf vegetable (often from taro) and is accompanied by rice and crabs. This will go with bubbling soups and stews made from fish, chicken, oxtail, or whatever we could get our hands on. I loved making a chicken stew because it is all about the process. There is a list of steps from A to Z and if you complete them correctly you end up with the product you expected and it is perfection. And what would Sunday lunch be if there wasn’t macaroni pie to stuff you.

Who’s your Umi? (that person who first nourished you and inspired you to want to nourish others)?

100% my mother. She is the original kitchen gangster. I have a vivid memory of her coming home from work, handbag on her shoulder and matching high heels still on, and beginning to make dinner. No fuss. She would stand there and cook for my father, my two younger sisters, my brother, and me. Throughout the process the handbag would eventually make it to a chair and it was not until she finished the meal that she would change and put on more sensible footwear. I appreciated and admired her ability to deal with the stress of work and immediately come home to feed a family of six.

In fact, this is how I really started to cook. At the age of 12 my mother decided that I was old enough to cook and it became one of my chores. She taught me just about everything she knew and bestowed a very special responsibility on me. Now at the young age of 82 my mom still does this, but just for her and my dad. The student has become the teacher as I often receive calls from her asking me how I made a certain dish or what I suggest she add to something. We learn a lot from each other these days.

What is something you want the Umi community to know about you?

I truly put my heart and soul into everything I cook. This stems from how I was raised and learned to cook at home. I simply can’t help it; it is in my DNA. A tremendous amount of care, effort, and pride goes into my food and I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to share it. I am happiest and at ease when I am in a kitchen and people’s positive reactions to my food makes me even happier. So, a grand cycle is born of happiness being shared and spread.

Chef Jo Anne certainly shared lots of love and happiness during our time together and I can’t thank her enough for inviting me into her home. After being teased by the making of her famous vegetable lasagna and plenty of food photos, she served me a delectable fish taco for dinner and brought out a big bowl of rice, beans, and jalapeños. I may have to move in after all the goodness I was served!

Editor’s Note: special thanks to Umi correspondent , Ben Ynocencio. You can follow him on Instagram @benjaminhasinstagram.

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