From Ross Kenneth Urken, expert travel writer for ASTA
With an array of new farm-to-table restaurants, celebrity chefs, and a freshly formed Jamaican Gastronomy Network, the island has become a foodie’s delight. Are travelers ready to dig in?
Serving up a curried mushroom pâté and yellow yam- and pineapple-stuffed croquettes breaded with coconut on a 15-acre organic farm overlooking the quiet community of Free Hill, Jamaica, Chris and Lisa Binns are reimagining Jamaican cuisine with vegetarian creations at Stush in the Bush, their farm-to-table restaurant. Chris, a Rasta who grew up on this farm embracing the vegetable-heavy Ital diet, met Lisa, Barbadian by birth and New York-raised, at the Fi Wi Sinting Festival in Portland, Jamaica some 10 years ago, and their love led to their inventive culinary collaboration. With her cooking and epicurean tendencies, Lisa fulfills the role of “stush” (meaning prim and proper in Jamaican slang), and Chris grows and harvests the fresh produce from “the bush,” their farm, in order to serve up new riffs on traditional Jamaican ingredients like ackee-stuffed doughy ravioli, Red Stripe beer bread, and cho cho apple pie using chayote (a green mirliton squash).
The Binns are among the protagonists ushering in the rebirth of Jamaican food culture that has occurred within the last five years and that rose to organized prominence in September 2016 with the formation of the Jamaican Gastronomy Network. It’s a branch of the Tourism Linkages Network that Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism created under Minister Edmund Bartlett to use particular passion points as pull-factors to lure visitors to the island. The Gastronomy Network consists of a consortium of chefs, local members of the media, business executives, and academics who are charged with boosting the profile of Jamaican cuisine domestically and abroad.
Of course, flavorful Jamaican food is typically seen as jerk chicken, sweet potato pudding, beef patties, and snapper topped with spicy Scotch bonnets, and there can be a sensibility that this isn’t quite fine dining. But at a time where veganism and all natural are on-trend, Jamaica has leaned into its Rasta roots that promote clean eating and embraced the country’s natural mélange of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, and British food influences. That range within the country’s culinary offerings based on its history creates a built-in fusion those in the food and tourism industry have identified as a strength they should emphasize. And the results can manifest as fancy haute cuisine. Nicola Madden-Greig, chair of the Jamaican Gastronomy Network and director of marketing and sales for hotels like The Courtleigh Hotel & Suites, sees a growing cohesive momentum across the island to highlight Jamaica’s f flavorful cuisine.
“There is definitely a major Jamaican gastronomy movement happening,” she said. “We are seeing more farm-to-table experiences, new themed restaurants, an explosion of local talent making cuisine their career, the formation of culinary trails, an increased number of food festivals, and a deepening of the offerings.”
The Gastronomy Network has also created a consumer-facing brand called Taste Jamaica that includes a website and sleek app to chronicle various available gastronomic experiences on the island and help people make dining and tourism decisions. Pop-Up Gourmet is another important resource to stay on top of what’s hot in the Jamaican culinary world.
High-profile chefs have also put Jamaica on the map as a food destination. Chef Andre Fowles is the proud two-time winner of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” the first Jamaican-born chef and the youngest chef to win this award. Formerly of New York’s Miss Lilly’s, owned by blue-chip nightlife and hospitality figures Serge Becker and Paul Salmon, among others, he is opening the restaurant for Skylark in Negril, the sister restaurant to Salmon’s Rockhouse Hotel.
The Culinary Federation of Jamaica is another major player and partner in promoting Jamaica’s culinary boom. The executive committee consists of many of the country’s top chefs, including Dennis McIntosh, president of the Culinary Federation, and Mark Cole, executive chef of The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in Kingston. As a further vote of confidence for the country’s rising culinary profile, this past fall the James Beard Foundation invited Jamaican all-star food figures Colin Hylton, Gariel Ferguson, and Robin Lim Lumsden to cook a special “Savoring Jamaica” dinner at the Beard House in New York City.
In addition to promoting some of the long-existing tours, like the Appleton Rum Tour and Craighton Coffee Plantation Tour, Jamaica is doubling down on its food offerings with organized festivals.
Among the most popular events that showcase the island’s wealth of culinary options are The Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee Festival (March), Jamaica Rum Festival (March), the Little Ochie Seafood Festival (July), the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival (October), and Restaurant Week (November).
The recently launched Blue Mountain Culinary Trail emphasizes Jamaica’s organic food offerings in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. It includes visits to Holywell Recreational Park within the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park, Old Tavern Coffee Estate, Blue Ridge Restaurant and Cottages, and Mavis Bank Coffee Factory.
One participating attraction is Lumsden’s Belcour Lodge, a coffee estate from the 1800s nestled in the foothills of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains where she runs Belcour Preserves, a company that uses the orange groves, pineapples, and guavas on property to make marmalades and jams. Her small apiary also allows her to make her signature Blue Mountain Honey. Chris Blackwell’s Strawberry Hill and the Serendipity Holistic Resort and Spa, both in Irish Town, offer savory offerings from right off the land.
In addition, since 2017 the Gastronomy Network has built out Devon House in Kingston as the country’s first Gastronomy Centre.
A top-notch food experience can add nuance and texture to a traveler’s experience on an island like Jamaica by helping the visitor move beyond the canned, generic tourism and experience something deeper.
“Sun, sand, and sea will always be a draw – that is the nature of the Caribbean – but you still have to eat,” said Lisa Binns of Stush in the Bush. “Having a great meal outside of the all-inclusive, participating in a local food festival, attending a cooking class, or going a bit further afield and experiencing farm-to-table dining all provide options to engage in a more authentic way.”
Whether taking an organized tour or visiting hot new restaurants on their own, visitors to Jamaica can find an added dose of that authenticity by opening their minds and broadening their palates.
“Tourists who come to the islands – not just Jamaica, but any island – need to step outside of the resorts and go into the local communities to see how people dine, because by discovering how people eat, you discover a lot more about the place.” said Michelle Rousseau, who with her sister, Suzanne, runs Summerhouse at Kingston’s stately Liguanea Club in addition to hosting the popular web series “Island Potluck” and writing cookbooks like the recently released Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking.
Experiencing a culture through taste allows a visitor to develop a better understanding of the place he or she is visiting, Rousseau added.
“We also bring a unique contribution by incorporating heritage, culture, history and art and everything that we do for us dining is a lifestyle, and this is more about the Caribbean lifestyle and the experience of growing up living in and coming from the islands,” she said. “We always approach our food from the perspective of what you eat where you eat and how you eat, because this informs the essence of how you get to the core of a culture.”
And the options for visitors to tap into the essence of Jamaican culture are vast, with chefs paying homage to the roots of Jamaican cuisine while offering contemporary reinterpretations.
Some other notable figures are bolstering the Jamaican food scene in a major way. Christina Simonitsch, for instance, heads Simo’s Bread and Catering across the island and Simo’s Pop-Up in Montego Bay. Oji Jaja, a chef who honed his craft at the Ritz Carlton that used to be in Montego Bay and even cooked for First Lady Michelle Obama at Eatonville in Washington, D.C., established Ashebre, a catering service he has used to change Jamaica’s culinary landscape while still relying on Jamaican staples like gunga peas and mannish water. In Ocho Rios, Anna-Kaye Tomlinson runs Miss T’s Kitchen, a brightly painted eatery with staples like oxtail stew but also famous “nyammings” (snacks) like “Jah Know,” curried ackee on bammy, a starchy cassava, topped with a refreshing fruit chutney.
Pink Apron, launched in 2014 as the brain child of Chef Charissa Henry-Skyers, offers pop-up farm-to-table experiences. Damion Stewart’s Broken Plate in Kingston offers experimental takes on Jamaican cuisine such as a soft shell crab tika masala with potato hash and beetroot. Also in Kingston, Alexa Von Strolley runs Tooksie Kay, where she’s been experimenting with Jamaican cuisine since 2014.
“Our culture is diverse, and so is our food and the influences on traditional cuisine as well as new trends continued to be impactful,” said Madden-Greig of the Jamaican Gastronomical Network. “Jamaica also offers some of the best vegetarian food, from the Ital offerings from the Rastafari faith to a wealth of local cafes, restaurants and caterers offering a wide range of traditional, fusion and newly created Jamaican dishes. While jerk cuisine may have propelled Jamaican cuisine into the spotlight, there is so much more to savor - beyond jerk.”