Chef John Jefferson Sr.
In June 2007, John Jefferson Sr.
finally received long overdue, if subdued, recognition of "his
service to the community" when the Queens New Year's Honours were announced: a Certificate and Badge of Honour.On Sunday August 12, "Chef John" Jefferson Sr. celebrates his 80th birthday and I'd like to salute this remarkable man who has devoted his adult life not only to feeding strangers and friends, but also to nurturing their spirits and souls.
Although I can't bestow the M.B.E.I believe Mr. John Jefferson Sr.
truly deserves, I can offer my own "birthday honours" by thanking him publicly for his
many contributions to this country.They could fill a book, which I hope he
writes very soon.I've had the privilege of knowing Chef John for almost 30 years.
I remember well the invaluable role he
played in Cayman's
tourism industry as our first Caymanian "celebrity chef."For many years Chef John was the "star" at weekly travel agent familiarization (FAM) trip beach barbeque dinners at host hotels and condos.A genuinely congenial raconteur, Chef John gave hundreds of travel agents their first taste of warm Caymanian hospitality.He's
done the same for thousands of visitors during the past 38 years with Chef John's BBQ and Catering.His
charismatic personality turned seaside barbecues into indelible island memories: a priceless "souvenir" travel agents and tourists took home and in return, sold Cayman as the friendliest destination in the Caribbean.When "Chef John" Jefferson Sr. "retired" in 1966 after 21 years as Swan's Island's chef and returned home to Cayman, he didn't hang up his apron for long.He joined the Galleon Beach hotel as Grand Cayman's first Caymanian executive chef and in 1969 started his own barbecue and catering business and introduced barbecue as a Caymanian tradition with its own unique side dishes.
Today residents and visitors alike call him the "King of Ribs" and line up for his
popular Friday night barbeque at the Public Beach.But John Jefferson Sr.'s contributions haven't been limited to the culinary field.Along with his
chef's toque, he
has worn other hats while serving his
country in ways many people today have either forgotten or never knew.As Hon. John Jefferson he served two terms as elected Member of the Legislative Assembly for West Bay from 1968- 1976.
As "Brother John" he
has dedicated most of his
adult life to the ministry.Many don't realize that 30 years ago he spearheaded efforts to build the Wesleyan Christian Academy in West Bay and many of its graduates have become community leaders.Today he serves as Pastor of the Wesleyan Holiness Church of Templeton Lakes in George Town, an unpaid position he has held for the past 16 years.He
late wife, Mrs. Norma Marilyn Jefferson (who passed away in September 2002 after 55 years of marriage) founded the George Town ministry in 1990 and organized fundraising efforts, chiefly through their family barbeque business, to build the church on Anthony Drive, which was completed in 2001.
Since this column is dedicated to culinary things Caymanian, so I'll highlight that area of his
cooking career, which began in an unlikely place: Great Swan Island, one of three tiny specks 90 miles off the coast of Honduras which Boston resident Sumner Smith had claimed ownership of in the name of the United States.Mr. Jefferson's father was hired as the assistant to Captain Donald Glidden, caretaker of Great Swan Island and moved his family there in 1933, when John was only 6 years old.
...As a young teenager, John became interested in cooking and he learned the basics from the American chef at the Weather Bureau compound, furthering his knowledge by reading cookbooks.By the age of 18 he was working for the U.S. Government as chef at the installation and held that position for 21 years.
While in charge of the kitchen of the Galleon Beach, and later, Treasure Island and Radisson (now the Marriott Beach) resorts, Mr. Jefferson
trained many Caymanians for jobs in the kitchen and dining room and encouraged others to enter the tourism and hospitality industry.
Years ago when Cayman's Duke of Edinburgh Awards Scheme was struggling, Mr. Jefferson
volunteered to take over the program as Chairman.He
taught cooking lessons, a requirement for candidates, and organized barbecues and other fund-raising events that allowed Cayman's DOE Awards Scheme to survive and eventually thrive.
Mr. Jefferson credits Galleon Beach General Manager, the late Dave Mitchell with giving him the idea of a beach barbeque at the resort, which became a popular Sunday afternoon attraction for many years.That success inspired him to start Chef John's BBQ & Catering in 1969, the fist of its kind in Cayman
and still a family owned business today.Since then, he
has catered hundreds of private corporate events, hotel and condo parties and even large weddings.
It was what made us unique as a tourist destination," Mr. Jefferson
said."We must reach out and make a better effort to recruit our own people and involve them in the tourism industry.When I hear Caymanians say they're not interested in working in the tourism industry, it makes me very sad," Chef John said.Recently Chef John told me that he is "thinking about retiring" ,from his grill, that is, but only if his family will take over the catering and barbecue business and continue the tradition.He
would like to devote more time to evangelical work in the community and teach cookery in local high schools, hoping to encourage more young Caymanians to consider careers in tourism.
There one final story I'd like to share.In 1979 the Governor of the Cayman Islands
, His Excellency, Mr. Thomas Russell, CBE, recognized Mr. Jefferson's
outstanding contributions to the community in an official letter.
...Governor Russell praised Mr. Jefferson as "a Caymanian leader who never did anything for your own personal gain, only for the greater good of your country.
The letter was a source of tremendous pride for Mr. Jefferson
and sadly, it was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan.
I wish I could provide a replacement copy of that treasured letter, but I can only preserve its memory and offer Mr. John Jefferson Sr.
my wishes for a Happy 80th Birthday,and many more.This comes with strings attached: a gentle reminder about sorting his
58 years of recipes for that cookbook we discussed, which I'll tentatively title The Rounded Caymanian Meal: Chef John's Recipes for Body and Spirit.It takes its name from something he
said recently, lamenting what he
sees as "the decline" in traditional Caymanian food.
...Chef John explained.