Tell it on the blue mountain: Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau

They’re celebrity chefs at home in Jamaica, thanks to their restaurant, their catering business, and their popular online TV series. Now the Rousseau sisters, Michelle and Suzanne, plan to take the international culinary world by storm with a new recipe book. Nazma Muller finds out more

Courtesy Two Sisters and a MealThe Rousseau sisters, Michelle and Suzanne. Photographs courtesy Two Sisters and a Meal

It’s got to be their Jamaican swag. In a galaxy of celebrity chefs, Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau shine bright like diamonds. The hosts of the web series and blog Two Sisters and a Meal recently released their first book, Caribbean Potluck: Modern Recipes from Our Family Kitchen, and foodies across the globe are going to “nyam” it up, as they say in Jamdown.

The siblings have a fascinating yet typically Caribbean heritage — they are a “mix-up and blenda” of African, French, German, Indian, Scottish, Haitian, Cuban, and British ancestors — which they tap into as they “flex” out on dishes that can only be defined as gourmet Jamaican fusion.

The big picture for the official culinary hostesses of the Jamaica Tourist Board — and thus caterers to the many celebrities who descend on Jamaica regularly, including actor Ewan McGregor, the Prince of Wales, and the prime minister of Costa Rica — is simple: it’s all about Jamaica, land they love, and its bounty. Hence one of the first images in Caribbean Potluck is of a tiny blue wooden cottage nestled among trees in the Blue Mountains. It is the rich soil of Jamaica, the land — which produces powerful herbs, seasonings, fruits, veggies, and that elixir of sprint stars, the yam — combined with its rich culture, and the love of family and home, that the Rousseau women pay homage to in utterly divine dishes such as Mummy’s Roast Pork with Cracklin’ and Rum Gravy.

Michelle, forty-two and Suzanne, forty-four, were born to be chefs, you could say. Their mother was a very good cook, “so we both cooked from very young.” And their father, always a big foodie and traveller, was an hotelier, with investments in three restaurant locations in the country: the famous Blue Mountain Inn, the Terra Nova Hotel, and Shakey’s Pizza Parlour. He also ran Ciboney Hotel in Ocho Rios, and was the president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism Association, as well as the Caribbean Tourism Organisation.

“We grew up in the food business,” explains Michelle. And even as teenagers they would host dinner parties for friends. Graduates of the private Hillel Academy in Kingston, they both attended university in Canada, where Michelle studied Spanish and Suzanne did a degree in English.

“We were always very art-loving,” Suzanne says, in an interview in Trinidad during their annual pilgrimage to Carnival, which they have been doing religiously for years. The two spent four years of their childhood on the southern Caribbean island, returning to Jamaica in 1981. Trinidad’s carnivalesque flavours and “party-hearty” influence can be seen throughout their book, most pointedly in the section titled “Fetin’ time: Light Soups and Snacks”.

Out of university they started a business which they called Ciao Bella, in honour of their love of Italian food. Armed with the franchise for La Perla lingerie and swimsuits, they opened two boutiques, one in Kingston, the other in Ocho Rios. The Kingston branch was next door to Decorative Corner, where their mother sold furniture, fabric, and crystal china. “Mom had the idea of doing a café on the spot, and the relative she had in mind to do it didn’t think they could handle it,” recalls Michelle. “So she said, ‘Why don’t you guys do it instead?’”

Given that they had been in the business of food, culture, and travel (throughout the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and North America), it was a natural fit. So it was in 1996 they opened their first restaurant, an outdoor café attached to the boutique that served up gourmet sandwiches and salads. “Nobody else was doing anything like that in Jamaica,” Suzanne says. “This was food like in New York or Paris — light, easy food.” The café evolved into a fine-dining restaurant, also called Ciao Bella.

Realising that the food business was where they wanted to be, the sisters took continuing education courses at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where they learned how to produce food for the public and for large numbers. As word spread of their incredible dishes (recipes like Jerked Chicken and Cashew Spring Rolls with Peanut Coconut Dipping Sauce), the business gradually evolved into a large-scale catering company, including events for as many as two thousand guests. The duo also ran the very popular Deli Works in Sovereign Plaza in Liguanea, Kingston, and they designed the menu for Usain Bolt’s sports bar and restaurant, Tracks and Records.

Not surprisingly, they felt they were in a place where “things could happen.” And they did: from working with a Los Angeles events planner who hired them to do the food for actresses Drew Barrymore’s and Reese Witherspoon’s weddings to dinner for Prince Charles.

“Once we had conceptualised our desires and married that to education around food, culture and the arts, things really came together,” says Michelle.

They had been sitting on the concept of a book for ten years, because local publishers would only accept a completed manuscript. “We had served enough of both types of people — locals and visitors — to know that what we were doing had appeal and a subtlety that was different, even though the profile was familiar.” Then they met a book agent through a friend who felt the book was ready for production — and the world was ready for the Rousseau sisters and their magic recipes. Through that process they came up with the idea of soliciting support from the Jamaica Tourist Board. They had already filmed a five-minute pilot for a show called Island Potluck, and when JTB saw it, they immediately commissioned twelve episodes, which can be found on YouTube and on the sisters’ very Jamaican website, www.2sistersandameal.com. Local television station TVJ has already bought the rights to Two Sisters and a Meal, a thirty-minute cooking show, which is currently in production.

Caribbean Potluck is the sisters’ way of sharing the excitement and passion of preparing the region’s signature ingredients — from ackee and chadon beni to scotch bonnet pepper and gungu peas — in recipes that are easy and accessible, yet stylish and fun. In addition to the stunning photography, what makes Caribbean Potluck a real collector’s item, though, is the “braata” (extra helping): a history and description of the staples and produce that define Caribbean cuisine, as well as helpful tips about where to source and how to prep ingredients like ackee, saltfish, yam, and coconut milk.

With Caribbean Potluck and the Rousseau sisters, anyone can whip up some Penne with Ackee and Coconut Cream Sauce, Blue Mountain Beef Stew with Stout, or Red Stripe BBQ Pan Chicken like a true Yardie. So even if you don’t know your cho cho from your callaloo, everything cook and curry (that’s patwa for don’t fret). No problem, mon.

  • inubiyamarsha

    The Caribbean is an ecletic mix of the best food ever!

    • sonia

      I am so so proud of my Jamaican ladies ,is book in store I would love to own a copy