She’s Southern sweet, but brings the Caribbean Heat! Chi@Glance next interview feature heads back to the kitchen with Celebrity Chef Jamika Pessoa. Chef Jamika is a Southern Belle born and raised in Alabama with Caribbean roots. Her dad is from Jamaica and her mom hails from Trinidad. Chef Jamika is known for combining both cuisines and adding delicious twists for an out of this world flavor experience.
Jamika considers herself the life of the party and she wants you to join in! After running her own successful catering business for 12 years Jamika decided to step in front of the camera. You’ve seen her on several TV shows starting off as a contestant on Food Network Star back in 2009 to eventually being a host for the Food Network show, “Let’s Eat.” Currently Jamika co-hosts a show with Dr. Oz called “The Dish on Oz” that will be a reoccurring day time talk show starting in 2021. If you’re attending the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago this year you’ll have the chance to see Chef Jamika work her culinary magic on stage as one of the presenting celebrity chefs.
Jamika and I had a wonderful in-depth conversation that covered everything to how she got entrenched in the culinary field, to overcoming diversity, and of course we discussed what’s next for the upwardly rising Chef. Jamika is definitely an example of determination and persistence we need to recognize this Women’s History Month. Check out our one on one below!
Tavi J. and Chef Jamika One on One Interview
Eating must have been divine in your house growing up with two parents from Caribbean backgrounds and being raised in the South. What was your childhood like and did you have culinary aspirations since the beginning?
I was lucky to have two great eating cultures combined. Needless to say I grew up a very curvy kid and I ate good! My greatest influence at the time was my Grandmother and I remember how she never wrote down a recipe. I regret that now because she made some amazing things! Instead of being outside playing I would be in the kitchen with my grandmother cooking. I remember baking bread with her and it was amazing how she could change the dynamic of everybody’s day with dinner. It didn’t matter what was going on….once the food came out everyone was happy.
Like most of us I know you got into your chosen field today by making a career change. Tell us a little bit about your culinary journey?
My parents went to Howard University when they came to the states. They were in the mind frame you go to college and you get into a good business field. I had never thought about cooking as a career, but it was just something I enjoyed doing. I ended up going to a university in New Orleans and received my degree in marketing with a concentration in business administration. At the time I had wanted to be a business executive. After graduating college I moved to Atlanta and it didn’t take me long to realize I hated my job. I went in to the office each day trying to convince myself it’ll get better, but each day it got worse. I felt like I was suffocating in that office and I was tethered to my desk. I kept asking myself “What is the purpose in all of this and can I do this the rest of my life?”
Long story short the company I was working for started laying people off after 9/11. I was told I could either stay onboard and take a demotion or get laid off. I said “Let me go.” It was in that moment I had an out of body experience. I realized I had student loans to pay, rent to pay, and the job market wasn’t looking too good. My spirit knew before my physical body knew that this was my opportunity to get out. I tell people when you get laid off or fired from a job it might seem like the end of the world in that moment, but it could be your greatest opportunity. I don’t know if I would have left had I not been forced to leave.
I actually took a legal pad when I got home and started writing down the things that I loved to do, things that I’m good at, and things I’m great at. Every arrow kept drawing back to entertaining, cooking, and feeding people. I enrolled at the Art Institute of Atlanta for culinary school. Money started coming to me through scholarships I wasn’t even aware I was eligible for. That’s when you know you’re moving in the right direction, when everything just comes together. The first day of culinary school I LOVED it! I was learning so many different things and meeting so many different people. Every day I got to travel to a new place with my food pallet and that was exciting for me!
Where was your first culinary job?
I had never worked at a restaurant before and I did my internship at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. My interview story is sort of funny. I prepared my marketing skills and had on my clean whites when I interviewed with the executive Chef at the Ritz. I’m telling him I’m such a team player, I’m so excited and committed and I’m this that and the other. He looks at me and says “That’s the biggest load of bullshit I ever heard, but I like your smile. Show up to work on Monday.” And that’s how I got my first job. 🙂
He saw through the bullshit, but he still gave me a chance. That’s my example of faking it till you make it. I purposely chose the Ritz Carlton because that was the cream of the crop. If I’m going to go out for a job I’m going to start at the very top so at least if I get told no I could say well that was the very top and I’ll go down a little lower. If you get told no by the bottom of the list then your confidence is defeated. You always got to shoot your shot and it will land somewhere. I worked at the Ritz Carlton for two years in the various kitchens. It gave me the opportunity to realize what I liked doing.
When did you realize it was time for you to venture out on your own and start your catering business “Life of the Party?”
Lots of celebrities would come to the Ritz Carlton like Mick Jagger and Patty Labelle and I would fulfill their riders. They would leave the most amazing notes…”Like everything tasted great and the Ritz Carlton is so wonderful!” I was like… wait a minute I’m the one personally doing this and their leaving thank you notes for the Ritz, so why am I not doing this as my own business? I wanted people to write me these notes and have the checks coming directly to me. I decided I wanted to start my own business and become a personal chef. I chose personal chef because I’m an instant gratification type of person. I want to see you take that first bite. You can’t really get that in a restaurant because the food goes out and you never really know what happened.
I started my plan in motion and saved $10,000 before I quit my job. I was doing catering on the side when I was at the Ritz Carlton. Until I could start my own business I worked my butt off. I was literally working 18 hours a day, six days a week, overtime upon overtime. On May 26, 2006 I quit my job at the Ritz. I still remember that date and I celebrate it every year. I became an entrepreneur and I’ve been working for myself ever since.
Here’s the thing, I was able to write my own schedule. At a restaurant you work around the clock and you work even more around holidays. Working for myself if I didn’t want to work a holiday I wouldn’t. I appreciated being in charge of my own schedule. Moreover I was able to create a full experience for people. I’m a good listener and I’m a very detailed person. I would meet with clients and create signature moments for them just based upon our conversation. I think that’s what set me apart from other people. I created mini moments and big moments and it wasn’t just the food, but creating energy. I cannot stand a boring party! I would be cooking at parties and people would say “You’re so funny you should be on TV!” I had never thought about TV before hand. I called my business “Life of the Party” because for me the food is always the life of the party, but I bring the life of the party as well with my personality. I cannot stand a dying party. I will give any dying party mouth to mouth because I believe that every day should be celebrated. I would bring that spirit to every single party I was a part of.
What’s your most memorable culinary experience?
The number one experience that comes to mind because of all the work involved was when I cooked at the BET Hip Hop awards. My friend was doing promotions for the show. She told me they had this lounge and they wanted to feed everyone coming off the stage. My friend was trying to throw me a bone and asked me if I wanted to set up something. I was told to do a few finger foods and nothing major. Originally the request was to feed about 200 people, but two days before the event they were like can you cook for 600?!? I knew I couldn’t tell the BET executives no, but was thinking how in the hell am I supposed to pull this off. I literally went into ultimate chef mode because I knew if I could do this I could do anything. I literally cooked 24 hours straight the night before and mind you I was a one woman band. I didn’t have help or a sous chef. It was just me. Every major rapper at that time tasted my food. We’re talking Yin Yang Twins, TI, Flo-rida, YoYo Ma, Snoop Dog… and people were loving it!
It was so funny because I had come out the day before the festival and they kept looking for the Chef and I was like I’m the Chef. This one executive woman said “Honey you a little baby what you gonna cook?” At that moment I was like I’m going to blow this ladies socks off. She had said she expected some tall white man to be the chef. It’s laughable now, but it put so many things into perspective. People don’t perceive that not only can a chef be female, but a young black female. After the event was over that same executive came up to me and said I apologize I underestimated what you were capable of and you killed it. It was such an accomplishment I could impress so many people and do something I never thought about doing. That was definitely my slam dunk, drop the mic moment and from then on it set the precedent. If I could do that, I could be on TV in front of 10 million people.
How did you get started in the television world?
First I was making appearances on the local news in Atlanta and that’s when I decided I loved being in front of the camera. I love the energy of making someone laugh and enjoying the food next to me.
From that point I auditioned for Food Network Star in 2009. It’s a weekly elimination food competition show. The winner gets their own cooking show on the Food Network. I have the funniest non-audition story. After I was on the show people kept asking me for audition advice and I didn’t have any to give because I didn’t say not three words at my audition. At that time it was like American Idol stand in line and wait your turn type of audition. I was number three in line. I graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta, so at that time they were running National alumni commercials. When I walked into the room on the giant TV screen my commercial comes on as soon as I sit down in the chair. I was like “oh my commercial is on!” The judges were were like, “That’s you? Oh you come back tomorrow.” I did not say three words. I always say God knew I was going to screw that interview up because I didn’t even get 3 words out.
I didn’t know what to expect from reality television, but I knew I wanted to see someone who looked like me and do my thing at my age cooking. I didn’t realize that millions of people were watching that show. I came in 4th out of 10. I always say that it’s the best competition that I ever lost because I didn’t need to win. All I needed was the exposure and from then I never stopped being on television.
Later on I still retained a relationship with Food Network and hosted a show with them called “Let’s Eat.” With consistency and determination I cracked the TV thing.
What’s currently on your roster?
As far as TV I still do appearances and judging on the Food Network for competitions shows like Guy’s Grocery Games. I also co-host “The Dish on Oz” with Dr. Oz every week. That definitely takes a lot of my traveling and time since its shot in New York and I live in Atlanta. We’re looking to turn the show into a full day time show for 2021. It’s a great opportunity! I get exposure, I get to work with Dr. Oz, and I get to be in the kitchen with amazing women. Outside of that I’m finally working on my cook book that everyone keeps asking for.
You’re a classically trained Chef known for combining Southern and Caribbean cuisines. What are the differences and similarities between the two cuisines?
Southern food is more than likely deep fried and Caribbean is going to be something really hot and generally takes a long time to marinade. If you break it down though the ingredients are very similar in composition, but just grown in two different parts of the world. It was a seamless fusion for me. In the South things are sweet and then I would play with the Caribbean heat. I try to do a lot of short cuts because I don’t want to be in the kitchen forever and I don’t want to do recipes that take a long time. I may take short cuts in the preparation, but it’s never a short cut in the flavor. I take things that people are familiar with and add a twist. For instance I have this amazing Southern Jerk Fried Chicken recipe. You take the spice and flavor from the Jamaican Jerk Marinade and you bring it together with the deep fried chicken. It’s this explosion of heat, and sweet, and crunch and flavor. It’s Jerk Chicken 2.0! I also do candied yams everyone loves. I make candied yams from the South mixed with mango and a coconut rum sauce. That’s what I mean by taking things your familiar with and adding a twist. I love melding the South and the Caribbean together.
The blog is called “Conversations, Cocktails, and Confetti.” You kinda know what’s going on based on the name. We’re going to talk, celebrate, and we might get a little tipsy in between! Every blog post I gives tips on topics inside and outside the kitchen. I’m trying to break the stereotype of what a Chef does not only in the kitchen, but also what they do outside the kitchen. I have my own style and flair that I bring to things. I might post spring fashion tips or relationship tips. I’m working on a post now how to bring some spring back in your relationship. My blog is informational and I pair a cocktail with each post. It’s almost like we’re having a conversation and going back and forth. I want us to celebrate life! I find that we’re always looking for big things to celebrate, but everyday there’s something to celebrate. Like I had a good hair day, so let’s celebrate!
I can’t wait for you to come to Chicago for the National Restaurant Association Show in May! What type of celebration can we be expecting at the show?
This is a double whammy of excitement for me! It’ll be my first time attending and presenting at the show. I’ve heard about it, but have not had a chance to attend until now.
I’m going to be doing a culinary demo on Saturday from noon to 12:45. It’s going to be FUN! I call myself a party in a dress and that’s exactly what I’m bringing. We’re going to have a grand time! Be ready to laugh and eat! I’m going to be showing easy party appetizers you can make. From catering I’ve learned just about how to put anything you can imagine on a skewer. You’re going to leave with some great summer party tips.
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