Connecticut based Chantal Thomas’s work with ackee is nothing short of amazing! One half of Jamaica’s national dish, the savoury fruit ackee is normally mixed with salted cod and seasonings, curried or stuffed into vegetarian patties. Chantal takes it even further with ackee experimentations and gorgeous recipes found on her ‘Amazing Ackee’ website. For foreigners, even some Jamaicans, ackee can be an intimidating ingredient. Chantal is passionate about ackee education and dispelling myths. Ackee is grown in other tropical countries, but Jamaicans are the only ones who have made this unique ingredient their own. Chantal makes her dishes approachable and fun. I have been following her in admiration on Instagram for ages and when we first communicated back in 2018, she was busy on set as a contestant on the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship and toying with the idea of penning a book. Since then, she has seriously delved into food production. Chantal’s ackee patties are a hit with customers at farmers markets in her state. She has kindly shared some delicious recipes with Nyam & Trod.
Where in Jamaica are you from?
I was actually born in Trinidad but moved to Jamaica with my mom when I was 3. We first lived in St. Elizabeth, then moved to St. Catherine, then Clarendon, then back to St Catherine, then to St. Andrew (foothills of the Blue Mountains) then finally Kingston.
You have inspired many of us to look at ackee in a new light with your beautiful creations, what motivated you to focus on ackee?
I was on an extended vacation in Jamaica before migrating to the States. My mom now lives in Mandeville so that’s where I was. As you know when you live in ‘country’ food is practically free! If there isn’t a fruit tree or some kind of vegetable in your yard then you know someone in the community who has and everyone is always sharing. This was the case for me. It was ackee season and every way we turned we were getting more ackee.
By the third time of making ackee and saltfish, I said no, there must be something else we can do; so I started experimenting like that. The first recipe I made was “Mac n Kees” a vegan substitute for Mac and cheese using just the ackee and some spices. It was a hit and so I went on to an ackee and fever grass creme brûlée; then a few other pasta dishes, pizzas, stuffed breads and salad dressings. I started keeping notes of all the things I’d made and wrote down all other ideas as they came to me. It was my intention to write a book. I moved to the States and continued to scribble down my ideas as they came. Bursting with excitement to keep all these ideas a secret and at the same time thinking of blogging as a creative outlet. So then it came to me, marry the two! No need to burst with excitement trying to keep all the recipes secret till I can put the book together. Instead, blog about it so other people can get as excited as I did. And that’s how Amazing Ackee was born. I simply shared each of the recipes on the blog once they were tested and refined.
For someone who is intimidated by ackee, can you please share a few pointers about handling the fruit?
In this journey so far, I’ve found that the primary hesitation or intimidation as it concerns ackee is due to misinformation or rather promotion of just one aspect of ackee. In fact, one of my other motivations for pursuing this project was the feeling that much like coconut oil, ackee was being vilified. My first advice, therefore, would be to know the basics. I have pretty detailed post on this which can be found here: https://amazingackee.com/ackee/
After that I’d just say be open minded and don’t limit yourself or your creativity.
Many of us were rooting for you a couple years ago, what have you been up to since?
Oh, man! 2018 was truly an amazing year for me. Naturally, the thing that tends to stand out the most is my competing in the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship and making it to the top 4. It was a transformative experience. I’m not super competitive, I mean I always challenge myself to do better than I did previously but when it comes to baking and the food industry, in general, I really enjoy collaboration. Obviously taking home the money would have been epic but “good friend betta than pocket money”. My aim is to continue to pour into the friendships that I established with my co-competitors. The casting team did a fantastic job and I’m truly blessed to be able to call them all friends and send them a text whenever I have a question or just something funny to share.
Aside from the Holiday Baking Championship that year, I shot CVM TV ‘Nyammings’ in Jamaica on behalf of Linstead Market Jamaica. It was also the year I registered Amazing Ackee as an LLC. Previously it had only existed on the web.
Eventually, we started with just our 100% vegan Jamaican ackee patties and business to business sales. We did our first ever farmers market and that kicked off our journey into retail sales. Our business has gotten so much love! It’s been a wonderful and humbling experience. We’ve added to our line of patties and now also do Jerk Spiced Eggplant, Curried Chickpea & Zucchini, Roasted Pumpkin in Tomato Crust and Coconut Cumin Lentil also in Tomato Crust and more.
For 2020, there were lots of things in the works including pop-ups here in CT. We were also working out the details of doing an event in Jamaica but with the current pandemic situation, we are adapting to the reality. We have been selling from our commercial kitchen here in Manchester and send out pre-ordered deliveries. We also sell frozen products at the markets which have reopened in our area such as the Ellington and Windsor markets. It is an evolving situation but we adapt as best as we can.
Outside of ackee, what are your favourite vegan meals to prepare?
There’s so much tasty food that just also happens to be vegan. It’s tough to choose! I love a good black bean burger; curried channa (chickpeas) with oil roti. Any roasted vegetable in a wrap is life to me! Also, I make this sweet, spicy, sticky, tangy kung pao broccoli with peanuts that’s delicious.
Describe life as a ‘bakery owner’, the highs and the lows.
The bakery owner who is and isn’t a bakery owner at the same time? How does that work?
We’re at an interesting space in business and entrepreneurship, where careers and business models are being redefined. Old models are dying with new and improved versions of the old taking their place. I’m operating somewhere in these blurred lines myself. And though some of this has been ‘accidental’ I’m very intentional in how I choose to grow my business.
We have a few retailers that sell our patties, we do farmers markets in Connecticut and we sell online.
Having had the opportunity to work in and observe a few areas of the food and hotel industry, I’ve paid attention to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve asked myself, which aspects of my job did I really enjoy versus what I could have done without? Other questions such as how much time do I want to be able to spend with my family? My friends? Travel? And how will I set aside time for self care? All informed the decisions I make about business.
Initially, I thought I wanted to have a bakery; fresh muffins, croissants, cakes, pastries, the full spread with a distinctly modern Caribbean twist. But I realized that with the life I also wanted in terms of travel and free time, that the traditional bakery wake up at 3 am lifestyle was not going to fly for me. While coming to this realization and figuring out what I would like to do instead I focused on my blog, Amazing Ackee.
Through my blog and social media the question constantly was, do you have a location, food truck etc. And whereas I did consider going the food truck route, it also came with considerable start-up costs. My business mentors all advised me to go for a less risky approach. This is where the third party commercial kitchen space came in. It’s like a co-working or incubator space for the culinary world. My business is registered, licensed (as a bakery) and insured. I pay taxes and run my business out of that space which I rent on an hourly basis when needed.
It means that sometimes I’m in the kitchen at midnight getting prepped for an order or event. But most importantly, I have the flexibility to create my own schedule.
What advice would you give to a budding food entrepreneur?
Just start. It’s been said a million times before. There will never be a point where every single thing is perfect, so just get your feet wet. The sooner you start the sooner you will learn what works and what doesn’t and can make readjustments as necessary.
I look also at an additional criterion, which is: what’s going to get me to the money (return) fastest? This is in the case where I have several competing ideas and I’m not sure which one to begin with. The decision rests with which one will have the lowest costs to begin, getting itself paid off in the shortest amount of time so that I can move on to the next idea that may take a little longer to start earning. But at least the one that was the fastest way to make money is laying a foundation for the other ideas to rest on.
What food personalities do you dream of working with?
I feel like I’m not much of a fangirl, lol. But ever since seeing her on Bravo’s Top Chef, I’ve loved Carla Hall. She has such a magnetic energy about her. I think she would be great fun in the kitchen. In Jamaica, there are lots of people who I also follow on Instagram and think a huge cook together type party would be fun, messy! Insane, but fun!
When you visit the island, where are your favourite spots to relax?
As a country pickney at heart, I enjoy being able to quietly connect. Not that I don’t enjoy the bustle of Half Way Tree or the madness of Mas Camp. But when it’s time to hit that reset button, I love Little Ochi in St. Elizabeth, Holywell in the hills of St. Andrew, or anywhere near the sea in Portland.
Ackees are sometimes called cheese fruit due to their cheesy flavour. When dehydrated that flavour intensifies.
- 2 cups parboiled Ackee, pureed
If you have a dehydrator, follow the instructions for dehydrating purees. Ackee is naturally high in fat so it will be necessary to blot the puree once it begins to dry. The recommended temperature for dehydrating is 135°F and most ovens don’t go this low. Nevertheless, you can use your oven to dehydrate the ackee.
First, line two rimmed 13×18″ pans with parchment paper. Spread the puree evenly between both pans in as thin and even layers as you can manage.
Option 1: If your oven has a light in it, simply leave the trays overnight with the light on and that should create sufficient warmth to dry the ackees out. You will notice that there is quite a bit of oil on the tray once the ackees start to dry out. Simply blot this away with paper towels.
Option 2: Place the trays in the oven and turn it as low as it will go. Let the ackees dry with the oven on low for about 3 hours then turn it off and leave it to continue to dry out. If the oven becomes cold before the ackee has dried out completely, turn it on low again for a few hours then switch off and leave as before. You will notice that there is quite a bit of oil on the tray once the ackees start to dry out. Simply blot this away with paper towels.
If not using right away store in an airtight container in the freezer.
Cheesy Chili Popcorn
Dehydrated ackee give this popcorn a cheesy flavour and the chili and lemon juice give a spicy kick.
- 2 tbsps Oil, divided
- ¼ cup Popcorn kernels
- Dehydrated ackee, yield from 1 cup puree
- Juice from half a lemon
- Salt, as needed
For Chili Spice Blend:
- 2 tsp Ancho chili powder
- 1 tsp Smoked Paprika
- 1 tsp Cumin powder
- 1 tsp Garlic Powder
- ½ tsp Cayenne Pepper
- ¼ tsp Sea Salt
- Pulse the dehydrated ackee in a spice grinder to make a powder. Set aside.
- Mix together the chili spice blend ingredients and set aside.
- Pop the popcorn using 1 tbsp of the oil in a pot with a loose lid that is larger than you think you need.
- While the popcorn is cooking, mix together the dehydrated ackee with a tablespoon of the chili mix. When the popcorn is done and still warm, drizzle over the remaining tablespoon of oil and sprinkle over the ackee chili mix followed by the lemon juice. Cover with pot and shake vigorously to coat. If necessary use a spoon or spatula to mix and coat all the kernels well. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired, add more chili spice blend if you like more of a kick.
Spicy Roasted Carrot & Ackee Soup
This velvety smooth and rich soup brings the heat thanks to berbere . Using the full tablespoon makes a fiery dish,it’s best to start with less and add a bit more while the soup is simmering.
- 1lb Carrots, scrubbed and roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp Peanut Oil
- 2 small Shallots, peeled
- 7 cloves Garlic
- 1 tbsp Berbere spice blend (reduce to 1 1/2 tsp if you want it less spicy)
- 2 tbsps Tomato Paste
- 1 can Parboiled Ackee
- 4 cups Vegetable Broth, warm
- 1 tbsp grated fresh Ginger
- Salt, to taste
- 2 tsps Cumin seeds
- 2 tsps Coriander seeds
- ¼ tsp Sea Salt
- Palm oil, optional, as needed
- Dry roast cumin and coriander seeds in a skillet over medium heat till fragrant.
- Remove from heat and let cool briefly. Roughly crush using a mortar and pestle or by giving it a few buzzes in a spice/coffee grinder.
- Add salt and set aside till ready to serve soup
- Preheat oven to 375F. Spray or grease a rimmed cookie sheet and set aside.
- Combine carrots, oil, shallots, garlic, berbere and tomato paste in a large bowl. Mix together well with your hands so the oil, tomato paste and spices coat the carrots, shallots and garlic well.
- Pour out onto the prepared tray. Add the ackees to the tray then bake till the carrots become very soft (20 to 30 minutes).
- When done put the roasted veggies along with the ginger into the blender and pour in the warm broth. Blend till smooth then strain into a heavy bottomed dutch pot.
- Heat soup over medium heat until it comes to a boil then turn down and let simmer. If it’s too thick add up to 2 cups of water or more vegetable stock. Season to taste.
- Serve drizzled with palm oil if using and a sprinkle of the crushed spices.
Makes 4 servings
Carrot Top & Ackee Pesto
Carrot greens have a spicy bite to them, the ackees mellow that out and add to the creaminess of this pesto. Aside from a banging crudite dip it’s awesome spread on bread to accompany the spicy roasted carrot soup.
- Roughly chopped greens from 1lb of Carrots, about 2 cups
- 3 cloves Garlic
- ¹/₃ cup Sunflower seeds
- 1 cup Parboiled Ackee
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Blend all ingredients together in food processor till smooth. Add a bit more lemon juice or a bit of water if a thinner consistency is desired.
- Spread into serving or storing container and store with plastic pressed against the surface of the pesto until ready to use.
Tip: You can substitute any seed or nut you like. You could also use white beans instead