Ernestine McConnell International Chef, Masseuse and Restaurateur-An Exemplary Wellness Entrepreneur-Nassau, Bahamas

Posted By: Eric Smith In: Gastronomy On: Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Ernestine talks about how her passion for food and family set her on a course of international exploration in love, learning and feeding the soul.

Where are you now-is that the Kitchen?

Yes, as always.

Is that one of your favorite rooms?

Oh yes, that’s my favorite.  If I had it my way I would make me whole house a kitchen.

I happened to find you featured on National Geographic’s World of Flavor with Big Moe Cason in the Bahamas.  I understand you are a professional Chef with international reach having lived and studied in Austria.  How did this evolve for you being from the Bahamas?

How it started, I got married to a chef and my mother was a chef.  My mother was a chef for Club Med for over twenty years.  I was inspired by her because our home was our kitchen. So my mother always cooked.  I also had uncles who were chefs on ships.  And so I started cooking when I was nine.  It began with me on the stool and being the oldest with a lot of siblings to cook for-so I had to learn.  That was my job.

You were nine when you started-at that age you were quite young.

Yup, at nine you had to learn to make the grits, you had to learn to make the sauces and you had to learn to make the Johnny Cakes.  So I started off early.

Johnny Cakes…is that like cornbread?

It’s like cornbread but more like Scones.  It’s not too sweet and eaten with our traditional sauces which we can make out of chicken, turkey and even these days they make hot dog sauce.  The sauce is actually based of lime, lots of onions and hot peppers and you eat it served on the Johnny Cakes.

So I had to learn this stuff early.  I found myself before going to school, in the kitchen.  When returning from school while my mother was at work, I was in the kitchen and I started to really love cooking.

We have a lot of traditional food heres in Nassau, in the Bahamas.  There are a lot traditional foods people don’t keep up with-to this day and this is one of them.

How did Europe come into the picture?

I moved to Europe when I was 18, got married and while there-learned the culinary arts in school.  I learned service, not really cooking and ended up opening a small restaurant of about 8 tables.  Really at the beginning, it was like I just wanted a small restaurant to cater to the Bahamians who were visiting through the United Nations in Vienna, Austria.

So I opened my tiny little restaurant which catered to mostly the U.N. and the international clientele who came there for business or tourism.  I had an exclusive restaurant with a menu for the high class where I offered Gleanies(Guineas), caviar, Russian champagne-dishes like that which were really exquisite.  And for two days during the week, the focus was the Caribean and I would feature down-home food dishes like ribs, peas and rice, and then added fufu to the menu-doing my best to source all the necessary ingredients. After adding fufu, this is when a lot of Africans started to come, many from the Afro-Asiatisches Institut and when we met I would continue to learn from them.   So all those people supported me for the restaurant and it took off.

I had this thing going for about three years.   And after a while, I said I want to go back home to the Bahamas because that’s where I wanted to be.  Even when I go back today, people still clamor…where’s the restaurant where’s the restaurant?

I also did study massage therapy, while I was in Europe.  I did that along with the culinary service.

And I said myself, you know, when I decided to go back home I’m going to do the massage and ended up doing this on the island of Eleuthera at the Cotton Bay Club-where I opened up the Mystic Massage salon.  I also did some cooking on the side and put up a small restaurant there in Eleuthera with a friend of mine.

After this, I came back to Nassau and opened up Crazy Johnny’s and Bubba's Kitchen.  Bubba's Kitchen was well known for it’s fish wraps, baked hamburgers and stuffed hamburgers with egg and blue cheese.  Actually, I created my own stuff.  I made my own recipes for everything.  

Generally speaking, in the States people would only think of baking a hamburger if it is was for health reasons.

Baking a hamburger...let me tell you the good thing about baking a hamburger.  You can stuff it with anything.  You can put blue cheese in it, you can put some arugula, add an egg and you have to use real pure ground beef.  You shape it, you fill it and you bake it!

It has to be a very hot oven at about 450 degrees.  But it’s delicious.

What are some other original dishes from your area?

We have traditional dishes like pea soup and dough, which was featured on the National Geographic Special.  That’s a hearty meal.  Most people don’t prepare this like it was originally made-with dried conch, a lot of ham and ham skin.  A lot of people don’t make these traditional dishes like the original.  When you eat that, you’re good for the day.

We have potato bread.  It’s made from native sweet potatoes.  We have coconut ginny which was not made that much at all-I just brought that out again.  This is made of grated coconut which is sautéed until it’s brown.  It’s put into this soft dough and steamed.  It’s like Chinese dumplings but not so refined and you serve it with a coconut sweet cream sauce.

A lot of people will try to make these things, but not original, that is my fight.  I want to keep the original going.  I’m into feeding the soul.

Would you say these dishes can only be made there in the Bahamas?

They can be made anywhere as long as you have the ingredients.  But the key to making these is the sautéing time, what ingredients go in first in the pot-this comes by nature.  It’s not something you can read in a book and say I’m going to get it right.  It’s something that’s in you, either you have it or you don’t.  It’s the love you put into it.  

Is this traditional cooking something the locals are trying to do to this day?

We are trying to keep it like that way.  For a lot of the youth of today, it’s a lot of work to stand in the kitchen.  When I go into the kitchen I can cook a pot for half an hour, but then I’m also cooking seven other things at the same time.

Because when you have a Bahamian tabletop with everything, you have everything.  It’s never without the salads, the conch, the cole slaw, the potato salad, the baked macaroni, and everything is steamed and smothered.  It all comes with peas and rice or okra and rice or ham cabbage.  There’s a lot of little stuff that makes for a great meal like this.  

You also have bacon cabbage, pulled pork and salt beef.  It is traditionally tasty stuff.  If you eat Bahamian, it can be heavy let’s put it that way, but it’s good.

Big meals prepared like this happen every Sunday here in the Bahamas.  I mean sometimes I even do it during the week when I have people over from away coming to visit.  You put a spread down.

And meals like this keep family together.  Growing up you didn’t have much, but when you had the meals you were together with the joking and the talking.  That’s what I cherish the most about it.  Because no matter what, my mother would work all week, and when you see Sunday come we all went to church and after church, there was a spread.  My mother would bring everyone from the church over-she fed the world.  Over the years, if it were a thousand, ten thousand people-she fed them.  My mother always had a pot on the stove, always.  She did this even until her old age-no matter what.  And that's my inspiration to this day.