Chef Castillo … loving what she is making

Pam Griffin
Crystal Castillo is executive chef at Tommy Bahama Sandestin.

When Executive Chef Crystal Castillo was in school, the ratio of women to men in this field was 25-75.

“These days it is much higher,” Castillo, Chef of the Month for January, told The Log. “I think there are plenty of woman in the field. I think that we tend to be more reserved about our positions and stay out of the spotlight more than men. It might be more of a feminine trait. Men tend to be more competitive.”

As the executive chef at Tommy Bahama Sandestin, Castillo said she never really experienced any problems because she was a woman.

As many chefs do, Castillo began cooking with her family as a child when her father was involved with Asian cooking.

“I ate all kinds of strange things for a small child growing up in the middle of Ohio like dried cuttlefish and sushi,” she said. “But my most vivid memory was that of making crepes when I was 12 from my Sunset Cooking Basics Cook Book.”

Originally in school to study interior design and architecture, health issues forced Castillo to change her career course.

“I would get burned out after a year or two and would change jobs, but always found my way back into a restaurant,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a server forever, so I thought about the kitchen.  Since I had a lot of culinary influence in my childhood I was comfortable.” 

She got a job in a small Italian place in Nashville and started out making espresso and scooping gelato. But eventually she was pulled into the kitchen.

“I was yelled at almost everyday and quit or got fired at least once a week, but was always back at 8 a.m. the next day. The owner must have seen something in me to push so hard and influenced me to attend CIA and make that career choice.”

Another important influence in her decision was her step-father, also a chef.

“He was upset that I chose to pursue the culinary field. Of course now, he couldn’t be more proud.”

Studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York was more about working with her classmates … like a big family.

“Some days were great but others you just wish you could have started over again,” she said. “It really helped build the dynamics for people skills and working with people from every walk of life.” 

Castillo was a pastry chef for three and a half years at Café 30A and people remember her for the work she did there.

“It seems like the things that I throw together last minute are the ones I get the most raves about,” she said. “The ones I seem to really concentrate on seem to be the ones overlooked. I guess doing what comes naturally will always shine.”

Cooking anything ethnic is a joy for Castillo, who finds other cultures to be intriguing.

“There are so many spices and flavors,” she said. “The ideology behind certain cultures culinary practices are so interesting from religion to folklore. I like the stories behind the food. I attended some Indian cooking classes in Texas that were worth their weight in gold.”

Her favorite foods are anything with great texture … crunchy stuff. The more simple the dishes the better they tend to be.

But there are foods Castillo stays away from … like lima beans.

“I sat many a night with a plate of lima beans in front of me with the deal being I could not get up from the table until they were finished,” she said. “Cold lima beans are far worse than hot ones. That was the lesson I learned from that experience.” 

Q: What is the most necessary ingredient for the majority of recipes?

A: Passion. I know that may sound kind of silly, but If you are not loving what you are making, chances are it won’t turn out very good.  I swear you can taste the love that goes into food.  For a real food ingredient, I would say salt. It is needed for balance and to bring out natural flavors.

 Q: What is the hardest part of cooking for a beginner?

A: Oddly enough, finding their niche in the kitchen. Man or woman, you have to prove yourself in a kitchen. Be on time, work hard, be a team player and be able to roll with the punches. Working in a kitchen is not all the glamour it is on TV. It’s hot, long hours, stressful and hard on your body — although I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Q: Best piece of advice you would give a home cook?

A: If you are going to take the time to take on a project, make it grand! Get everyone involved in cooking at home … even the dog. Invite the neighbors. I think in our busy lives we have made less time to appreciate the food that we eat and eat more just to feed ourselves. Food should be a great gathering of friends and family. A few bottles of wine, great food, great friends … there is nothing better.

Jerk Spice Rib Back

6 full racks of baby back ribs, peeled

8 oz. Rib Dry Rub

1 qt. Rib Smoke Mixture

BBQ sauce of your choice to taste

Rib Dry Rub

8 oz. light brown sugar

3/4 oz. blackening spice

3.5 oz. dry jerk spice rub

1 1/2 oz. salt

Mix all ingredients together.

Rib Smoke Mixture

12 fl. oz. cola

2 fl. oz. liquid smoke

1/2 fl. oz. Worcestershire sauce

8 fl. oz. water

Mix all ingredients together.

Coat each side of the ribs lightly with the Rib Dry Rub.

Place a baking rack in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Arrange the ribs bone-to-bone on top of the baking rack.

Pour the Rib Smoke Mixture over the ribs.

Cover the roasting pan with plastic wrap. Then cover it with aluminum foil.

Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 3 1/2 hours or until a bone can be cleanly removed.

Remove from oven and peel off the foil and plastic wrap. Let the ribs cool for approximately 30 minutes, leaving in the pan with the Rib Smoke Mixture.

After ribs have cooled, place curved-side-up on a grill preheated on medium setting.

Grill both sides of ribs, 5 minutes apiece.

Leaving on the grill, brush both sides of the ribs with your choice of BBQ sauce. Grill each side again for another 5 minutes apiece or until the sauce begins to bubble. Serve immediately. Serves 6.