When Brigitte Desvaux left Jamestown, Rhode Island back in the Fall of 2011 for Kalu Yala, she expected to gain school credit towards her degree in Sustainable Design at Boston Architectural College. But she never returned home. Instead, she discovered a passion for growing and cooking her own food.
Though she has no formal training as a cook, Desvaux has been Kalu Yala’s head chef for the past two years. She transformed a tiny jungle kitchen into a major farm-to-table hospitality operation, serving hundreds of guests and students at any given time and experimenting with innovative tropical recipes.
We recently caught up with Desvaux to hear about her favorite ingredients and the secrets to cooking creatively for a crowd.
Kalu Yala: If you had to bring one food on a deserted island, what would it be?
Desvaux: The classic coconut, because it’s fucking awesome.
Let’s say the island already has coconuts.
Alright. If they already have coconuts, then chickens. You’ve got eggs and meat. Coconut chicken every day — you can’t go wrong with that.
What’s the most surprising flavor combo you’ve come across?
Pineapple & peanut butter. It actually tastes great.
The ingredient you get most excited to cook with?
Breadfruit is my latest. It’s a new one that I’m really discovering a lot of possibilities with.
Most overlooked ingredient?
Bananas. People are so used to eating them as a sweet fruit, but green banana is a whole new culinary world people just haven’t discovered.
What’s your favorite fruit alone?
Oh my gosh, there’s such a large number of them. But I’ll say the tamarind. Just because I’ll eat them until my mouth is raw.
Favorite fruit to cook with?
Pineapple. I’m not really much of a sweet and savory combination person, but pineapple is one of those things I can add to meals without it being overwhelming. It pairs really well to almost everything.
Favorite green alone?
Katuk, straight up.
Favorite green to cook with?
Katuk, straight up.
Top three Kalu Yala recipes?
Plasagna [plantain lasagna] is definitely a group favorite. Enyoki, which is like gnocchi but made from yucca or squash. And yucca ravioli because it uses so many ingredients from the farm.
Favorite snack to eat while you cook?
Cheese, for life. Wine, for life. A liter a day keeps the doctor away.
Most adventurous food you’ve eaten at Kalu Yala?
Neque. It’s a little rodent.
And what is that comparable to?
It was a little gamey, but tasted a bit like rabbit. When I had it, it was smoked and fried, so mostly just tasted like smoked meat.
What is the key to cooking for a crowd?
Cooking enough food and portioning. Making sure people are getting enough calories, but also keeping it well balanced.
What’s your most essential kitchen utensil?
The hibachi is just a killer.
One thing you wish you had in your kitchen?
Energy for appliances. Fresh chopped pesto is so much more authentic [than using a blender] but takes five times as long. Expediting that process would allow us to do more every day.
One pro tip in the kitchen most people wouldn’t know?
You don’t need to wash the bottom of your pasta pans. And ants are an additional protein. Yeah, ants equal protein.
Most creative use of leftovers you’ve discovered?
That’s actually my specialty — creating leftover meals. I’d say probably taking the eggplant chili and turning that into burgers. And when we make beef stroganoff and have leftovers, we crack a bunch of eggs on top of that in the morning. That’s pretty bomb.
What is the biggest misconception of the food industry?
That food is unlimited and that it’s okay to just not finish your plate. The amount of food that we waste is unacceptable. We need to find ways to use every bit of food waste, both in the preparation process and the eating process.
One sandwich. Three ingredients. Go. And pick your bread.
Mozzarella cheese, tomato, and pesto on a french baguette.
You have to eat one thing from a fast food joint. Where are you going? What are you getting?
Olive Garden. I’m getting Tuscan Italian soup over and over again.
I don’t think Olive Garden constitutes as fast food.
It does. It’s all pre-made.
But it’s a sit-down restaurant.
Alright. Dunkin Donuts. Sausage egg and cheese, three doughnuts, and an iced coffee. A giant iced coffee. Give me three pounds of sugar in that thing.