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Pass the Chowder, and the Curry: Jamaican Chefs Add to Cape Cod’s Culinary Delights


At the Jerk Cafe, a storefront tucked right into a strip mall within the Cape Cod village of South Yarmouth, Mass., sweet-smelling smoke greets guests as soon as they open the front door. So does the cafe’s proprietor, Glenroy Burke, who bounces across the wide-open kitchen stirring pots, tending the grill and plating dishes. “I don’t wish to be hidden within the kitchen,” Mr. Burke said, who’s also often known as “Chef Shrimpy.”

For greater than three a long time, Jamaican cooks and chefs have been coming to Cape Cod through the H-2B visa program, which provides foreign employees with a pathway toward temporary nonagricultural jobs. A modest variety of seasonal employees have develop into everlasting residents or residents. This summer, as international travel resumes and the domestic labor market stays strong, Jamaicans are again staffing kitchens of traditional Cape seafood restaurants, nice dining destinations, resorts and inns.

And with their ingredients and cooking techniques, Jamaicans are making a mark on the region’s culinary identity, opening their very own restaurants and enlivening the menus of established eateries from Hyannis to Provincetown. The taste of Cape Cod, long defined by Yankee seafood favorites, now includes flaky, golden patties, vibrant jerk rubbed-meats and turmeric-rich curries, humming with allspice.

“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who’s working as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. “Other people get to grasp us — how we talk, how we laugh, how we now have conversations through food.”

The variety of Jamaicans working in america on the H-2B program increased by 84 percent up to now 10 years, to eight,950 in 2021 from 4,874 in 2011, in line with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. Looking further back and locally, one Cape Cod-based immigration lawyer, Matthew Lee at Tocci & Lee, estimates — using data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — that by the summer of 2000, 500 Jamaicans were working on the Cape, and that number increased to a high of 1,000 before the pandemic.

Mr. Burke first got here to the Cape in 1997 after connecting with an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He had grown up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, watching his mother cook, and he eventually worked in cruise ship kitchens and at resorts. After one yr as a seasonal employee, Mr. Burke received a green card and worked as a cook and marine technician within the Cape towns of Harwich and Chatham. The economic opportunity he found on the Cape motivated him to remain and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.

Three years after gaining U.S. citizenship, Mr. Burke opened the Jerk Cafe in 2008. The restaurant quickly became popular for its jerk; as for sides, Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are beloved. Used almost like a garnish, one fritter crowns each order and tastes like evenly fried morsels of sweet banana bread.

During his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mother occasionally prepared these on Sundays. “When poor moms and dads didn’t have sugar, they may crush banana and put slightly flour in it in order that they may create something sweet for us,” he said. “I wish that she made them each day.”

Bananas form the backbone of an older, shared history between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, following a probability landing in Port Antonio, a ship captain-turned-entrepreneur from Wellfleet named Lorenzo Dow Baker introduced the fruit to america. The wealth he accrued from this contemporary banana trade led him to determine hotels in each Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he employed Jamaican employees seasonally.

At Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet, a majority-Jamaican kitchen staff makes jerk pork and a Caribbean seafood bowl alongside fried codfish sandwiches and clam chowder.

“Collaboration within the kitchen results in more diverse and well-rounded food, so I’ve all the time encouraged that,” said Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the ten Mac’s Seafood restaurants and seafood markets that dot the Cape.

The Jamaican-inspired dishes began appearing on the menu because of Neily Bowlin, a former chef on the Pier who now manages two Mac’s Seafood markets. About 10 years ago, Mac’s had a smoker and the restaurant was serving barbecue ribs. Mr. Bowlin suggested doing jerk pork, and Mr. Hay loved the thought.

In the sooner days, Mr. Bowlin and others would bring up kilos of allspice and jerk seasoning of their luggage, to “make the jerk just fly off the menu,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Bowlin is originally from Black River, Jamaica, an area of the country where seafood cookery is a specialty — he was well-suited to work with the ingredients local to the Cape when he arrived for his first summer in 1996.

“Back then, it was a really small, tight community,” he said. “Now, even in winter, you’re seeing so much more Jamaicans, they usually’re not only visiting here. They live here, they’ve families, they’ve houses, they’ve businesses.”

Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds local Jamaicans and the broader Provincetown community ackee and salt fish, curry lobster and jerk chicken at her laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurant owners, faced a difficult time in the course of the pandemic.

“Though Covid hit us really hard for 2 years, the locals we now have in P-Town supported their local businesses,” Ms. Brown said.

In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace founded Amplify POC Cape Cod, a racial equity nonprofit, to support and showcase minority-owned businesses on the Cape. She counts Irie Eats, together with Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham and the Karibbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, amongst cherished Jamaican restaurants on the Cape. “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive,” she said, “but they’ve also struggled tremendously.”

An absence of reasonably priced housing has emerged as a serious consequence of the pandemic, one which disproportionately affects communities of color. Before the coronavirus, the conversion of seasonal rentals and other housing stock into Airbnbs removed many reasonably priced long-term rentals off the market; the mass exodus from urban areas to the Cape in the course of the pandemic exacerbated the problem.

While Ms. Vargas Wallace is buoyed by tourists who support minority-owned businesses — those that “are intentional about their wallet activism,” she said — the shortage of reasonably priced housing risks pricing out the very business owners and employees who cater to visitors.

Because of this, many business owners who take part in the H-2B program acquire motels, multifamily homes or other properties to convert into worker housing. Mr. Hay has several properties; several years ago he bought a motel that now offers 10 rooms to his seasonal staff. “Any business that’s here has some sort of housing to survive,” he said.

One other issue is the annual cap on the variety of seasonal employees, which this yr is 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all countries. Counting on recruiters and private connections to search out employees, Mr. Hay has employed Jamaican employees for 20 years, but due to the cap and that lottery-based system, “even when we now have any person that’s a relative or a friend, we will’t necessarily get them within the country,” Mr. Hay said.

Mr. Crooks, the chef from Westmoreland Parish, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his profession and entered the H-2B visa lottery for more opportunities.

This summer, as one among 4 chefs at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he makes dishes like unctuous oxtail, saturated in a wealthy, auburn gravy and studded with chunks of potato and broad beans. Quality is significant.

“We attempt to make it as authentic as possible,” Mr. Crooks said. “All of the chefs here principally learned to cook from our grandparents.”

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