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TURKS AND CAICOS - There’s no secret behind Guanahani’s reputation as the best restaurant on Grand Turk. Enter Chef Jorika Mhende, a stately and attractive dynamo with short honey-coloured hair, twinkling blue eyes, an impish smile—and a passion for cooking.
At four-years-old Jorika baked her first cake and she hasn’t stopped since! Home from boarding school on weekends, she would bake up a storm of biscuits and cakes and carry them back to school on Monday morning. Monday evening her friends would flocked to her room and devour her goodies at their ritual midnight feast.
Jorika recalls criticizing her mother’s salads because they didn’t look pretty enough. “Salads should look dainty,” she says. “Food has to look appealing, especially salads, because we eat with our eyes.” Her mother’s response to Jorika was do the salads herself, so Jorika did. Guanahani offers Greek, Caesar, Conch and Jerk Chicken salads. They are indeed beautiful to behold with their mountains of fresh greens and daintily arranged tasty tomato wedges, red onion rings, green pepper slices or mandarins, topped with generous sprinklings of feta or blue cheese and bacon.
“My wonderful mother,” Jorika continues, smiling, “always let me do what I wanted in the kitchen. She never said something was too difficult or too dangerous. People went ballistic when they saw me at seven years old, on my own little wooden chair that allowed me to reach the stovetop, standing in front of a pot of boiling oil making fritters. Mummy told people to leave me alone.”
At sixteen or seventeen, Jorika’s mother joined a book club that offered two free books with a paid subscription. One freebie was Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a bible for Victorian housewives and a major influence on Jorika’s career.
At eighteen, Jorika continued her studies in Food Service Management at Pretoria Technikon which was neither a technical college nor a university, but a school ranked just below a university. During her three years at Pretoria Technikon, Jorika learned the three different systems for feeding institutions like hospitals, schools, prisons and airlines, all requiring 1,000-30,000 meals/day served in an hour. She also learned about regional cooking since certain airlines require specialty foods like French pâté or Zimbabwean steak.
Drawing on her training, Jorika spent the next four years working at Ga-Rankuwa Hospital in Pretoria. She later worked for a year as a production manager for a food factory in Johannesburg. Then she opened her own business, a conventional fast food establishment, in Burgersford. After a year and a half she met her husband, and they moved to Zimbabwe where she spent two years as catering manager at Country Club (the club’s actual name). By word-of-mouth she gradually developed her own outside catering business which she operated for—she counts the years aloud in Afrikaans—sixteen years.
In Zimbabwe, Jorika catered mainly for corporations and embassies. She broadened her repertoire cooking for embassies’ national days and independence days which required specific cuisines. She learned to make national dishes like French country and chicken liver pâtés and rillettes (a boiled, shredded and spiced pork pâté); German sauerkraut and sausages; Indonesian satays and banana citrus cake; Angolan fish and oxtail; Tanzanian pilau and roasted meats or a whole lamb on the spit; and South African sosaties (skewered mixed meats like pork, lamb or mutton with dried apricots between). And somehow during this busy period, she found time to have two sons.
That Jorika was born and bred on a farm in Lydenburg in northwestern South Africa, sixty kilometers from the Mozambican border, was a geographic happenstance that also influenced her cuisine. Peri-peri Chicken Livers, a South African dish from Portugal via Mozambique, is a popular starter on Guanahani’s menu. She especially likes working with meat, influenced she supposes by her having grown up on a farm surrounded by cattle.
Jorika learned about the position at Guanahani indirectly. She had helped Canadian friend Paul Whitney set up his business in Zimbabwe, and Paul’s sister did business with Seamus Day who managed the Turks Head Mansion on Grand Turk. She told Paul that Seamus needed a cook for six months while a company was making a movie there. So Paul visited Turks and Caicos, and after speaking with Seamus, said he knew the perfect person for the job.
Jorika didn’t even know Turks and Caicos existed. When Paul told her about the job, she didn’t think he was serious and thought the offer was a joke. Then two weeks later she received an e-mail from Seamus saying he had decided to open the Turk’s Head Mansion as a hotel again, and would she like to be executive chef at the Turks Head Mansion restaurant. She e-mailed back: Is it Christmas in July?
A month later Jorika arrived in Grand Turk for a two-week reconnaissance mission. She learned about movie making while catering three meals a day for the cast and crew of A Date with Murder. Then on September 6th, devastating Hurricane Ike roared through the Turks and Caicos Islands. The structure of the Turks Head Mansion actually moved causing the place to be closed down.
Kelly and Gerhard, Bohio Dive Resort, offered Jorika a position as executive chef at the resort’s Guanahani Restaurant. Ironically, bohio is the indigenous Taino peoples’ word for home, and two years later, Jorika is still at home at the Bohio on Grand Turk.
“It’s hotter in Africa, but it’s more humid here,” she says. “The Indian ocean has turquoise blues like the waters surrounding Grand Turk, and it is also shallow. You can walk out in the Indian Ocean for a kilometer. So I feel at home in Turks and Caicos, except I miss the mountains!”
Jorika enjoys complete freedom to create whatever she likes at Guanahani. She draws on her embassy dinner-party experiences, where she served from 8-850 people, to guide her in establishing work schedules outlining when to prepare what, taking into account what can be made in advance, always aiming for the freshest product possible. All Jorika’s food is homemade. She doesn’t have a sous chef, but an assistant helps with prep-work and also cooks on her day off. Another influence from those embassy-catering days is what Jorika calls her Foreign Affairs Nights. These weekly dinners, each with a different theme, feature cuisines from around the world. We enjoyed Zanzibar night with its chicken liver pâté, spicy goat pilau, and banana citrus cake topped with Kahlua ice cream. Saturday nights are packed as Jorika fires up the outdoor grill for barbecued chicken, ribs, steaks and fish accompanied by a variety of salads and live entertainment provided by local musicians.
Maintaining her standard is not only hard work six days a week, but it’s downright amazing on an ingredient-challenged island. Everything has to be imported. Jorika can’t shop as she lives, but must plan ahead or wait a week for what she needs. So she decides on her meals in advance and places her weekly orders. Every two weeks the Dominican boat arrives with fresh foods like mangoes, papaya, tamarind, lemons, plantains and cassava. When the Miami barge comes by she gets whatever comes in or misses out until the next week. If the weather is bad and the barge is late, the food often spoils and must be sent back, presenting a particular challenge that week for Jorika’s creativity.
Accessing a variety of fresh ingredients isn’t the only problem Jorika encounters in maintaining Guanahani’s popularity. What the islanders call their “culture” is naturally opposed to the efficiency required to serve numerous diners à point dishes in a reasonable time. Islanders tend to be oblivious to time, so they chat leisurely, unaware of the importance of getting the food out. Even after two years, Jorika remains frustrated in her attempts to inculcate the importance of getting food out on time. Still, she says it’s all part of what it takes to be regarded as the number one restaurant on Grand Turk.
After the long hours Jorika puts in at Guanahani, she enjoys her day off and is immersed in the local community. At the request of the DECR (Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources), she does her part and cooks with lionfish to help develop a demand for the predator endangering Caribbean reefs. “The lionfish has no distinctive taste,” she says. “It’s just natural, neutral, no wow. It’s a clean tasting, good tasting fish, like a freshwater fish.” She was getting ready to send her recipes for lionfish goujons –fancy fish fingers breaded and fried, and lionfish foil parcels—portions seasoned with fresh dill, olive oil/butter, lemon, salt and pepper, to the DECR for its upcoming cookbook.
When we chatted, Jorika had just returned from having a pedicure, and I noted her glistening red toenails. “You have to look sexy sometimes,” she said. “Even if it’s only for the pots and pans!” With this attitude, it’s easy to understand that for Jorika, cooking is not a job. “Cooking was always there, just a feel, a passion,” she says. As I left the Guanahani, I noticed a sign that further testified to how esteemed Jorika’a culinary talents are in Grand Turk: Rotary meets every Wednesday 1:00 p.m.
Guanahani Restaurant: Breakfast $4-$12; Lunch $6-$20; Dinner (3-course) $34-$65.
Full bar and a selection of wines available. Dining available inside or on the deck.