One Food Love

My name is Collette Ruben and I’ve just graduated as a Cordon Bleu professional chef.

I’m a Santa Cruz girl. Not so far from where Brian Lara grew up. He and my mum are actually related, though I’m not sure exactly how. They say everybody in Santa Cruz is related but

it’s more like everybody in Trinidad [is].

My sister, Cherisse, and I have a two-year gap, so we were close. And we had two cousins, Leslie and Lindsay, so it was always the four of us girls.

Santa Cruz is a very quiet place. I grew up loving to read. And write, a little bit. Cherisse and I went through a “gory story” phase. A lot of blood and maggots and stuff. Mummy would be, like, “Oh, my God! Stop writing about those things!” I don’t read crime fiction, though. I prefer the Toni Morrison kinda stuff. Elizabeth Nunez is one of my favourites. Oonya Kempadoo, too.

I work with my dad in his fine dining restaurant. My mum works there, too. My sister Cherisse will eventually come on as our marketing person. So it’ll be a real family restaurant. Except for my brother, Joshua. He’s more into music.

I think my dad, Moses, and I make a good team. He NEVER pulls rank on me, never gets on like Gordon Ramsay onHell’s Kitchen. He’s very nurturing, my dad, a real teacher. We watch Gordon Ramsay’s shows and laugh but, for my dad, it’s about passing on knowledge. And even still learning. He will listen to ideas I have. It’s a real nice environment to work in.

I don’t understand chefs who smoke, like Gordon Ramsay. It messes with your palate. I don’t know WHAT he’s tasting when he samples a dish on TV.

My dad’s restaurant is ten years old, so I grew up in it. I was always drawn to it but, initially, I wanted to do food-writing. When I first went to SUNY Plattsburgh, upstate New York, I entered as a journalism major. But, coming back for summer, helping out at the restaurant, the more involved I got, the more it was, “Wow!” To see my dad produce nice stuff that tasted so good, my interest really started to pique.

I’m working on our lunch menu now. I’d like to give my dad a little time to take a break during the day. We’re at the restaurant from early every day. You have to realise that you can burn out; ‘cause then you can’t produce good food.

You need to have your business sense about you, of course, you need to make a profit. But, above all that, you cook with love. My dad really believes that. You know your diners must love the food, because you know how you prepared it.

Plattsburgh is really cold. So cold you-don’t-know-your-nose-is-running-cold. I had four years of that. And then London is cold, too, but I was only there for about ten months.

I used to get carded at bars in the US all the time: people look at me and think, “Why would she even embarrass herself asking for gin? They think I’m 17 or sometimes even 14 but I’m actually 26. I guess I’ll be looking fabulous when I’m 40.

I was raised Catholic and try to go to church on Sundays with mummy and daddy when I’m at home. I’m a firm believer but I struggle a little bit with our path, whether we really have freewill, that kinda thing.

I’m not one of those post-everyday-on-Facebook people. It seems more sense to go talk to someone on the street.

Five, six years ago, you didn’t have traffic on the Avenue [Ariapita] on a morning! Even coming out of Santa Cruz now, you have to leave home before 6am.

It might sound silly but I feel like I’m old. I want a family down the line but have no boyfriend now. And I feel these things should be in the works! But I’m a patient person and firm believer in, “Nothing before its time”. It’s better to have your first child at 40, when you’re ready, than three before you’re 30 and you’re frustrated all the time.

Sometimes I think I have to find a chef-boyfriend. Someone who understands the industry: the late nights; the early mornings; the “I saw you for two hours today”.

I did the Cordon Bleu “grande diplome”: not just cuisine, but also pastry. It was intensive. You had to fit in all this knowledge of both in nine months. Cuisine alone or pastry alone in nine months would have been difficult. So it was rough. I was working or studying all the time.

You have a three-hour demo, maybe a little break, then straight into your practical. We could have a cuisine demo/cuisine practical, then straight into pastry demo/pastry practical. And we had to do portfolios at the end, too. It was a little bit of food-writing, but mainly recipes, personal reflection, developing our own recipe.

For our pastry final, I did a crispy base of praline and hazelnut chocolate, around that an almond sponge and, inside that, a white chocolate mousse. And, inside the mousse, coffee crème brulee. It’s not on the Melange menu yet, but I want it to be!

The best thing – and the worst thing – about doing the grande diplome was the challenge of doing both pastry and cuisine: it really was a mental thing. A lot of people felt burnt out. But endure it, enjoy it, learn as much as you can and it was wonderful.

Trinis have a real sense of optimism. Even when it’s rough, people will say, “Nah, doh study it!” For me, that gives a lot of hope.

Trinidad & Tobago is home to me. I could have tried to stay in Plattsburgh or London but I projected a few years down the road and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else but here.