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For chef and cookbook author Irma Gottshalk, Jamaican cuisine is more than just creating a delicious meal. The Kingston, Jamaica native uses her culinary arts skills to feed the body and, likewise, the soul. And along the way, she’s introducing individuals to her love for Jamaican food culture.
Chef Gottshalk’s introduction to cooking came early in life. “As a girl child growing up in Jamaica, I had to cook,” she shares about the responsibility bestowed upon her. With parents immigrating to the United States and leaving her and her siblings to live with their grandparents on the island, Gottshalk practiced her cooking skills often. Curry chicken, stewed peas and rice were just some of the Jamaican staples she served up.
A Love For Jamaican Flavors
Once the family was reunited in Houston, 14-year-old Gottshalk continued to help prepare the family meals and was often tasked with going to the grocery store to shop for the ingredients.
But living in the heart of Tex-Mex and barbecue territory didn’t really influence the budding chef or her siblings when it came to food. “We weren’t familiar with the cuisine around us,” she admits, saying they preferred to enjoy the traditional Jamaican cuisine found at home.
After high school, Gottshalk joined the Army and was deployed to Operation Desert Storm and Shield and Iraqi Freedom. Throughout her military career, her craving and lifelong love for Jamaican cuisine never faltered.
“Sometimes I would cook my Jamaican food in the barracks. We weren’t allowed to cook in there, but I had my hot plate, and I’d hide it away when it was time for inspection,” Gottshalk recalls about the lengths she took to satisfy her craving for Jamaican cuisine.
Learning To “Fancy Up” Jamaican Food
After 22 years of service, she retired from the United States Army and began to consider her next move. After praying over it, the answer came to her: go to culinary school.
“I went [to culinary school]not necessarily because I wanted them to teach me how to cook, but because I wanted to ‘fancy up’ my Jamaican food. I wanted to ‘romanticize’ it, to be able to plate it like how I saw it in a magazine,” she explains about enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Austin, Texas.
“I wanted my food to look good. And that’s why I went to culinary school: to enhance my Jamaican [cooking] culinary skills.”
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The First Jamaican Restaurant In Temple
After graduating from culinary school in 2014, Gottshalk opened the first Jamaican restaurant in Temple, Texas, dubbed iGott Island Cuisine, LLC. “I was there for three years…I was able to pay the bills and it was profitable,” says the chef/restauranteur about her business, which became a popular dining spot for the community.
So much so that when the chef decided to close the restaurant, her customers clamored for her to start a catering business, which she did and appropriately named IGot Flava Catering.
But then life dealt her a cruel blow. “My number one reason to close the restaurant was my 9-year-old daughter, Xoana, was very sick and she was having difficulties in school. I did not recognize how sick she was,” she relates. “And it wasn’t after I closed the restaurant, almost a year after, that she died.”
Working Through Grief
Overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her daughter to a rare childhood cancer, Gottshalk found solace in her cooking. An opportunity came via a former restaurant customer named Dorree Collins, the director of the nonprofit Unincluded Club, who asked the chef to teach a cooking class for children.
“It felt good…And they wanted to do a cookbook because they were growing microgreens; they wanted people to know how to use the greens,” says the chef. With students ranging in age from two years to teenagers (with the older students in class helping supervise the younger ones), Gottshalk taught a new generation to work with and appreciate food. Along the way, she began to work through her sorrow. “Doing that really helped me with my healing process because I totally submerged myself into doing these cooking classes,” says the veteran.
A Love Letter to Jamaican Cuisine
After three years, the chef felt it was time to focus on writing her cookbook. Published in October of last year, “Bless Up! Respect and Manners: Cook and Eat Jamaican Cuisine Weekly” is chef Gottshalk’s love letter to Jamaican food.
It also serves as a way of honoring her late daughter, who enjoyed cooking. “It [the cookbook] is dedicated to Xoana. She loved to eat plantains, so the recipe [for her] is a colorful plantain tart,” points out the chef. “The rest of the recipes are popular with the American community [like] jerk chicken, oxtails. And, I’ve included the national Jamaican dish, ackee and saltfish with breadfruit, that may not be as popular, but people can go into the grocery store and find the ingredient to make it.”
Recipes made with vegetables, fish and seasonings make Jamaican cooking a healthy choice for the table, says Gottshalk, who includes a number of vegetable-rich recipes in her cookbook. “I also have a section on different teas, which I call ‘bush teas,’ like mint and soursop. Growing up in Jamaica, elders stressed drinking tea in the morning…For every ailment under the sun, they had a tea for it.”
Introducing Her Take on Jamaican Food to the World
Gottshalk hopes to entice readers of her cookbook to give Jamaican cuisine a try. “Sometimes in the American community, the Black cuisine is looked on as not good enough, not healthy. I want folks to know all over the world that Jamaican cuisine is a good option, it’s a viable option. It’s delicious, it’s seasoned.” she affirms.
With its tempting flavors, rich traditions and cultural significance, Chef Gottshalk’s cookbook makes a convincing case to reserve a place for Jamaican cuisine on our tables.