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By: Claire Sibonney

It’s not just tourists who are embracing this contemporary approach, but also Jamaicans who appreciate new presentations of local ingredients, according to Kingston-born sisters, chefs/cookbook authors and TV personalities Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau. Their restaurants — including their latest, Summerhouse at Harmony Hall in St. Mary, near Ocho Rios — reflect many years of travelling and living in the Caribbean, Europe and even Canada, where they went to Western University.

Jerk chicken. Beef patties. Rice and peas. When people think of Jamaican cuisine, these delicious staples often come to mind, but thanks to the next generation of chefs on the island, traditional ingredients are getting a whole new treatment.

On my travels to Montego Bay and Ocho Rios in June, the mash-ups and creative twists on authentic favourites feel like a revelation. Jerk isn’t just for proteins but for potato au gratin. Fall-off-the-bone oxtail transcends typical stew into a tender and juicy ravioli filling. Roasted breadfruit, usually served plain, is topped with butter and honey, an ode to those perfect sweet and salty bites of literal toast.

 

“The food here was pretty much consumed the same way for hundreds of years in every sector of society,” Suzanne tells my friends and me during an elegant lunch at the restaurant, in the garden gazebo of a pastel 1850s estate house. But that’s evolving now.

Take ackee, for example, a fruit native to tropical West Africa that has become synonymous with Jamaican breakfast. It’s typically boiled and sautéed with Scotch bonnet pepper, bell pepper, thyme, scallion, onion and tomato, and mixed with salt fish to create the island’s national dish.

But at Summerhouse, you’ll find ackee any way but the expected — in soufflés or pastas, or curried and fried in won ton wrappers the way we sample it in the lush garden, washing it down with dark rum cocktails.

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Jamaican-born chefs like the Rousseaus, who are widely credited for defining modern Caribbean food, say it’s only natural that the island would lean into outside influences and not be pigeonholed into what people think island food should be. As Michelle points out, the country’s food heritage is rooted in European colonialism, African slave culture, and the legacy of Chinese and Indian indentured labourers.

In the sisters’ critically acclaimed 2018 cookbook, “Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking,” they make a point of connecting food in the 21st-century West Indies to the food in 17th- to 19th-century British-ruled plantation societies. Back then, Afro-Caribbean slaves subsisted on ingredients they grew and harvested on small plots of land called “provision grounds,” allotted to them by plantation owners.

 

Preparing this food demanded ingenuity — but also practicality. Now, that creativity is evolving to use those same ingredients in more sophisticated, modern presentations.

https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 480w,https://images.thestar.com/9MmCEVpvWNDMjHXRcwdc79NyPxM=/400x569/smart/filters:cb(1656974494735):format(webp)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 400w,https://images.thestar.com/0bnGiubYOnYyMAb_-1lL3yqm_bg=/320x455/smart/filters:cb(1656974494735):format(webp)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 320w" type="image/webp" />https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 480w,https://images.thestar.com/EDjSJZ4182x2jz6TeSXVBnfJI30=/400x569/smart/filters:cb(1656974494735)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 400w,https://images.thestar.com/7dIXyWkdUsuZV_o6RiVhKwav4nw=/320x455/smart/filters:cb(1656974494735)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg 320w" type="image/jpeg" /><a href=https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/miss_t_s_esco_tofu_credit_lauren_tomlinson.jpg" alt="LI-JAMAICA-JULY9 Miss T’s “esco tofu,” a spin on escovitch made with soybean protein instead of fish. Uploaded by: Joe Howell" width="480" height="682" />
 

At Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios, chef and restaurateur Anna-Kay Tomlinson brings inspiration from her travels to classic Jamaican dishes. She serves her famous curried oxtail stew boneless on sundried-tomato penne, alongside fresh salads using organic mesclun greens and arugula from her 95-acre hilltop farm. She tops the salads with traditional proteins like jerk chicken or shrimp, smoked marlin or stuffed crab backs.

But salad in and of itself on the island is kind of revolutionary. “It’s so hot here, we should really be salad people,” Tomlinson tells me. But it’s just not part of a traditional Caribbean diet.

While Jamaica is a paradise for vegan food, a staple of Rastafarian eating, Tomlinson and the Rousseaus say it’s only recently that restaurants like theirs have started leaning into fresher, plant-based menus.

https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 605w,https://images.thestar.com/VS7UvZZXsACb_rBvinsgIUCZ4xk=/480x640/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778):format(webp)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 480w,https://images.thestar.com/4O1uvb3iw7f1ryOvKemf4nL73Q4=/400x533/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778):format(webp)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 400w,https://images.thestar.com/eRYIGvaQY2l_bsM9Cdg9kTwVwYw=/320x427/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778):format(webp)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 320w" type="image/webp" />https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 605w,https://images.thestar.com/XgvCQyiFiwW744LulnLFEK2uvaE=/480x640/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 480w,https://images.thestar.com/nz0wwXoY0-UyJ1_4BUtd6WYm7CE=/400x533/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 400w,https://images.thestar.com/I6nKRbdK8YI5whITYQG6DVDCTQc=/320x427/smart/filters:cb(1656974494778)/https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg 320w" type="image/jpeg" /><a href=https://www.thespec.com/content/dam/thestar/life/travel/2022/07/08/a-taste-of-modern-jamaica-on-the-island-traditional-local-ingredients-are-being-reimagined-by-the-next-generation-of-chefs/suzanne_rousseau_preparing_salad_credit_claire_sibonney.jpg" alt="Suzanne Rousseau prepares a salad of kale, quinoa, mango, feta and almonds." width="605" height="807" />
 

On the colourfully painted patio of Miss T’s chill garden spot, you can try inventive dishes such as “crabby cakes” made with jackfruit and heart of palm, or “esco tofu,” a spin on spicy and tangy escovitch made with soybean protein instead of fish. (They pair perfectly with a sorrel-flavoured Red Stripe beer.)

I find a push for innovation at the fine-dining level, too, including at the Sugar Mill inside Montego Bay’s luxe Half Moon resort. Open to outside guests, the restaurant, which sits on a former sugar plantation, wants its menu to tell both old and new stories about Jamaican food, from the countryside to the seaside.

Chef de cuisine Christopher Golding and his team concoct the aforementioned oxtail ravioli and jerk potatoes au gratin, an Italian and French mingling I fully endorse. I also love the refreshing crunch of the jerk chicken rolls with chocho (chayote) and papaya slaw, and the satisfying, starchy goodness of breadfruit gnocchi stuffed with seafood in a classic Jamaican coconut-based rundown sauce.

These dishes aren’t at all what I expected, and yet everything I’d crave on a Caribbean epicurean adventure. Back at the Summerhouse with the Rousseaus, dining on vintage blue and white china reminiscent of the fine tableware they grew up with, I’m reminded of the stereotypes that seem to define Jamaican food abroad, and the problematic way Caribbean cuisine is regarded as ubiquitously rustic and “unrefined.”

Even casual country food is oversimplified. Take jerk, for example: People associate it with the blend of herbs and spices (of which there are too many to list here). But jerk cooking is as much about the method and legacy of the Maroons, slaves who fled the plantations to the surrounding mountainous regions.

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The Maroons sustained themselves in part by transforming tough cuts of wild meat into a delectable meal by preserving it in spices and smoking it in holes they dug deep in the ground to prevent the smoke from revealing their location.

When the Rousseau sisters were approached by IFC World Bank to help a group of Jamaican companies develop a line of sauces for the U.S. market, they recommended staying away from jerk. It was too cliché and misrepresentative of the authentic process, says Michelle. “Jerk isn’t something you can buy in a bottle.”

 

More to the point, modern Jamaican restaurants like theirs are offering something more authentic than jerk in a bottle: accessible and relevant new interpretations that combine a powerful culinary past with the richness and diversity of food today.

Writer Claire Sibonney travelled as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board, which did not review or approve this article.

If you go

How to get there: Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing operate non-stop flights from Toronto to Montego Bay (about four hours).

Where to stay: With three distinct accommodation areas and sprawling villas, and more than three kilometres of coastline, Montego Bay’s Half Moon resort feels more like a luxurious village than a hotel. In the stunning beach town of Ocho Rios, head to the timeless 1950s-era Jamaica Inn, a small, family-owned property where all 52 suites and cottages offer ocean views from expansive verandas. While you’re here, sip on the fancy cocktails that inspired British author Ian Fleming to stipulate martinis “shaken not stirred” for James Bond.

What else to do: Learn about artisanal chocolate from Pure Chocolate Company, one of the fastest-growing chocolatiers in Jamaica. At the Ocho Rios location, husband-and-wife pastry chef duo Rennae Johnson and Wouter Tjeertes host workshops, where you can make bars and bonbons with your choice of toppings and flavours, from cinnamon to jerk spice.

 

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