by Robin Renee
Pablo Picasso once said, “I never drew like a child. When I was 12, I drew like Raphael.” At 8 years old, the prodigy painted The Picador and by 26 had signed his first masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (see below). Fellow painters Dali, O’keefe, Hopper and Michelangelo also achieved master status in their 20s, with one key common thread: They all started honing their craft as children.
The Artisans of Food
The same can be said about culinary masters. In the U.S., just 200 restaurants have earned a coveted Michelin Star and only 14 of them can boast earning the rarely awarded three stars. Chefs helming these elite eateries typically first developed a passion for cooking – you guessed it – in childhood.
Case in Point: Spanish-American Chef Jose Andres entered culinary school in Barcelona at age 15 and then apprenticed at the then world’s famed #1 restaurant, El Bulli (also a three-Michelin-star establishment). He now owns two-Michelin-Star Bazaar in Beverly Hills and Miami.
Likewise, Chef Thomas Keller, proprietor of two three-Michelin-Star restaurants, New York’s Per Se and San Francisco’s French Laundry, and Chicago’s Chef Grant Achatz, proprietor of three-Michelin-star Alinea, both worked at their parent’s restaurants as kids. Chef Curtis Duffy, one of the youngest American chefs to earn three Michelin Stars for his then Grace in Chicago (the chef-restaurateur recently opened Ever in the Windy City), discovered his love for culinary arts when his home economics teacher encouraged him at 14.
The Aspiring Young Culinary Picasso of Perdido Key
One very promising up-and-coming chef to keep a close eye on is Sous Chef Ryan Jay, who at just 25 has accomplished an impressive culinary career. Eloquence Magazine has named him the Young Culinary Picasso of Perdido Key.
Currently the head Sous Chef at Perdido Beach Resort’s fine-dining flagship Voyagers in Orange Beach on Perdido Key, in the Gulf Shore region of Alabama, Chef Jay has received multiple awards and accolades for his innovative upscale cooking. In 2020 (prior to the pandemic), he took first place at the 49th Annual National Shrimp Festival’s Restaurant Challenge in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which draws up to 300,000 people over four days. His award-winning dish was an artful masterpiece of Coconut Lemongrass Shrimp served with Crab Fat Rice Grits, Tamarind Glaze, Mango Pepper Slaw, and Shrimp Crumble shown below.
“My goal was to showcase a domestic shrimp entree with other-world flavors made with unique, sustainable, locally grown and harvested ingredients,” said Chef Jay. “I visited a high-end Asian market, Bien Dong, in Pensacola and saw they had fresh lemon grass and tamarind. A local crab farmer dropped off a special crab fat – an orange-colored fat that’s full of rich, savory flavor – and I decided to incorporate that profile in the contest dish. A private farm, Delta Cora, had brought in some stone-ground blue rice grits, which were delicious with a unique color and texture. Local shrimp was, of course, the centerpiece of the dish. I char-grilled the shrimp for smokiness and char marks and tweaked the recipe with these exceptional ingredients, layering them until the dish was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palate. I was going for a blend of textures, with a touch of sweetness and heat of the Mango Pepper Slaw to offset the slight bitterness of the umami tamarind glaze and the saltiness of the crab fat. I topped it off with a shrimp crumble made of deep-fried shrimp shells put through a food processor to add some crunch.
“I finished the dish with a drizzle of tamarind glaze, butter and lemon so as not to overcook the delicate shrimp. I believe the combination of flavor profiles and precise cooking techniques to preserve the fresh taste of the ingredients – and the love my team and I put into every serving – is what pleased the judges.”
Greg Alexander, Coastal Alabama Business Chamber President and CEO said, “The Shrimp Festival Restaurant Challenge is such a unique experience for everyone involved. We love seeing our local chefs really think outside the box to create these shrimp-themed dishes. The Perdido Beach Resort crew always proves to be tough competition and we congratulate Chef Ryan Jay on the success he has had in the challenge.”
Later in 2020, Chef Jay was nominated as Best New Culinarian for the State of Alabama for his imaginative culinary skills showcased at Voyagers by the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association’s Annual Stars of the Industry Awards Gala in Montgomery. Voyagers also received top honors of the evening when Perdido Beach Resortwas awarded Restaurateur of the Year.
As you might surmise, Chef Jay’s passion for cooking first flourished in childhood. At age 5, Ryan learned to prepare simple dishes like banana pudding (from scratch), roasted turkey salad with grapes and cashews, and banana split ice cream pie with homemade fudge sauce, with his 80-year-old nanny. By age 10, he was grilling Wagyu steaks and roasted honey brussels sprouts alongside his dad. At 14, Ryan shadowed French-born American Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier, the renowned White House Pastry Chef who served under five presidents, at a Blue Apron cooking demonstration. And on his 15th birthday, Ryan served as sous chef for Chef Richard Ingraham, the private chef of Miami Heat Basketball’s Dwyane Wade, at a private magazine event in Boca Raton. That same year, the young whiz kid took up Japanese and Thai cooking at BluefinSushi Restaurant in Parkland, Florida.
Chef Jay earned his Culinary Arts and Business degree at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami. In his junior year, when performing a practical exam in beef butchering and steak preparation, visiting scouts tapped Ryan to join the opening team at BLT Primeat Trump National Doral Resort & Golf Club during the start of the PGA’s Cadillac Open, where he cooked for Tiger Woods and other celebrity golf professionals. Chef Jay was then recruited to the The Ritz-Carlton Rancho Mirage – Desert Oasis in Palm Springs where he served for 18 months before relocating to Pensacola (when his wife joined the Navy’s Blue Angels) and joined Voyagers as head Sous Chef on nearby Perdido Key.
Meet Chef Ryan Jay At The 2021 National Shrimp Festival
Planning for the 2021 Annual National Shrimp Festival is underway. This will be the 49th edition of the event, which has been held in Gulf Shores, AL since 1971. The event is four days long and is put on by the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber and a Shrimp Festival committee of volunteers.
The three main components of the festival are food, music and art – featuring local and national entertainment acts, food and merchandise vendors, and artists. The 2021 event will be held October 7th through October 10th in Gulf Shores, AL at Gulf Place where Highway 159 meets Beach Blvd. Don’t miss the 14thAnnual Restaurant Challenge and watch for yourself as Chef Jay whips up his next Shrimp dish extraordinaire to compete to retain his title.
And don’t be shy – ask for a selfie with the Young Picasso of Perdido Key (social distance with a panoramic shot if you must). After all, who knows – maybe this clever young chef, who developed his love for cooking in childhood, could also one day be named a Michelin Star Chef!