Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Cooking with Lisa Gabay

Published:Thursday | August 27, 2020 | 12:00 AMNatalie Outar/Contributor
Lisa Gabay, the head chef at Select Grocers’ Deli.

Food is a human right, and one of the few things that can be considered truly universal among all people. Despite this, precious few of us consider ourselves any good at preparing it. Many people are satisfied with mastery of a very short list of recipes, if they even bother learning to cook at all.

Lisa Gabay is different. Lisa, the head chef at Select Grocers’ Deli, is a true artisan; unsatisfied with the bare necessities, she elevates cooking to something between art and science. For as long as she can remember, she has been surrounded by people who showed her the importance of food as not just a basic need for survival, but a necessary tool for forging deep human connections. Her grandfather, a businessman, used food to bring their community together. This, to her, was the essence of being a chef, and it was around these qualities that she decided to centre her ambitions. Her uncle was also an inspiration to her, working as a professional pastry chef in Portland. One of her fondest (and most formative) memories involving him occurred when she was a mere five years old. He was decorating a wedding cake, and seeing her rapt with interest, gave her a piping bag and told her to decorate the back of a cake pan. Thus began her lifelong interest in food styling and the production of baked goods.

At the St Andrew High School for Girls, Gabay’s Coursework Assessment (now known as the School Based Assessment or SBA) comprised a study on vegetarianism, which she was the only one in the country to study at that level. Speaking to as many experts as she did, including doctors, dieticians, and Rastafarians, instilled in her a zeal for the subject of vegetarianism, which persists to date. She still orders the vegetarian or vegan options at restaurants, and at Select Grocers she ensures vegetarians and vegans will always be able to eat, and eat well. After graduating, Gabay moved to Canada to begin training in the culinary arts, with a special focus on pastry making.

Study abroad

She is very passionate about the importance of receiving an international education, which helps one broaden their horizons and learn about viewpoints which they may otherwise never have. Pointing out that Jamaica is very near to North America, she encourages students to take advantage of the opportunities this allows.

As she continued her studies, her beliefs surrounding food evolved and matured. “People have to eat food,” she says, “so we have to make it look good.” She spent years honing her skills and gained a reputation for the realistic flowers and intricate designs she would create on her pastries, not to mention her chocolate mousse cake and plantain tarts. It would be wrong to say that she only cares about appearances, however; Lisa understands the nutritional aspect of cooking on a deeply personal level. One of her closest friends suffered from anorexia nervosa as a teenager, so she dedicated every resource at her disposal to making food that would be attractive to her. She threw herself into research, reading study after mind-numbing study to understand the effects of serving sizes, flavour combinations, and food psychology, and the way those concepts intersect with eating disorders. With time, and Lisa’s help, this friend was able to overcome her painful relationship with food, and even moved past the need for a doctor.

Adding nutritional benefits to the list of considerations when cooking and baking has forced Lisa to become even more creative, she says. Her goal has not shifted from ‘how do I make this meal delicious and beautiful?’, per se, but now there is an addendum to that goal, namely, ‘how can this meal also be nourishing and healthy for the person eating it?’ One might think that adding further criteria would be constricting, but on the contrary, it has allowed her to try whole new culinary worlds which she may never have explored otherwise. “When I want I can do Mediterranean cooking, I can do Chinese cooking, I can do Indian cooking. And I do all of them because I love to delve into other cuisines,” she comments.

Gabay is a good boss, too. Her right-hand man, Lishone Ramsden, has been training under her since he was 17 years old, working as a scullion, and it was through her encouragement that he was able to rise through the ranks and earn a certain level and prestige in the cooking world. Working as the head chef for Select Grocers, Lisa is able to experiment with nutrition, taste and design each and every day, while customers can rest assured that their meals are in the hands of a passionate chef cooking with experience, intention, creativity and love.