A new online-only series featuring favorites from our editorial staff: this week introduces Nicole White, the new Senior Web Editor at MyNorth.com who, in another life, thought she may never leave the southern hemisphere and sometimes still dreams in Spanish.
There is something about a Jamaican accent that just makes me smile. I’m in the expansive kitchen at Aerie Restaurant in the Grand Traverse Resort as deep, rich laughter bounces off the stainless steel sheet pans and large slotted spoons. Three Jamaican chefs whisk, chop and peel, their quick hands making short work of tasks so familiar a cursory glance down is all that’s needed. I’m here to learn about a brand new “Seasoned to the Bone” 4-course Jamaican tribute dinner Aerie and these three chefs are putting on to celebrate authentic island cuisine and culture and their place here in Northern Michigan. It’s hard to focus though, when all I can think about is jerk chicken.
Kim Peddie, Lisa Lawrence and Rose Henry had never left the island of Jamaica before coming up to northern Michigan four years ago. Now, this culinary team is just three of the 80 H2B Visa workers at Grand Traverse Resort, most of whom come for the 6-month high season before returning to the island and starting the process all over again. And its not just Aerie. Jamaicans are finding increasing opportunities from northern employers like the Great Wolf Lodge, the Homestead and Mackinac Island, to name a few. Grand Traverse Resort has employed Jamaican staff through these work visa programs for 25 years, but it’s the first time they’ve put their Jamaican employees’ contribution in the spotlight in such a way.
Cumulatively, Aerie’s Kim, Rose and Lisa have decades of experience in high-end restaurant kitchens all over the island and, like Rose, are using this culinary exchange experience as invaluable training toward long term goals of becoming executive chefs or restaurant owners themselves. They hail from Montego Bay to Kingston and exclaim in unison how exciting it was to get the call from the Jamaican magistrate’s recruitment program that they would receive a much-coveted work visa. (The US only grants 66,000 of these work visas each year.) It didn’t seem to bother any of them that the process involved island-wide interviews, staying in lines with hundreds of people to finally answer just two simple questions, or not learning where they would actually be going until the morning of departure.
The Saturday, October 29 “Seasoned to the Bone” Dinner showcases the Jamaican chefs’ favorites from home: dishes like Rose’s curried goat or Lisa’s salt fish fritter, whose ingredients were perhaps the hardest to source. Kim is a girl after my own heart, focusing on the jerk pork, though she admits, giggling, that pasta is actually her favorite of all. As they describe it, fresh seasoning and bold flavors are what make Jamaican food among the most delicious in the world, and they won’t be holding back for this dinner. Typical Jamaican meat is marinated for at least a week, until literally, even the bone is brimming with flavor. Executive Chef, Larry Steffes acknowledges that after 10 years of working closely with Jamaican chefs in his Aerie kitchen, he has definitely developed a taste for authentic Jamaican food. According to him? It’s all about the fresh jerk.
Talking dishes is creating a warm burn in the bottom of my belly. “You know, food really is the international language,” Larry comments. “We want to give people a taste of Jamaica, here,” says Lisa; and Kim nods, “We want them to just come and taste and feel happy.” The loud, infectious banter circling the table depicts just the kind of iconic Jamaican happy the team expects.
I feel an affinity toward these vivacious women with their quick laughter and endearing accents. I, too, am a transplant to Northern Michigan. I’ve lived abroad multiple times as well as all over the U.S. with my active-duty husband. I know the bittersweet longing for family across the globe coupled with the high of an immersion adventure. The team here and the celebration dinner speak to me as a wanderer and a lover of the personal cross-cultural experience. (I mean, who doesn’t want to go meet Rose’s pet goat whom she brings treats to and dresses up, but can’t quite guarantee won’t end up “curried?”) So, believe me, as much as the idea of hopping a plane to explore the haunts of Bob Marley and sip some authentically-spiked Island drink appeals to me, it is really the shy twinkle in Kim’s eye, the huge easy smile from Lisa and the steady ambition radiating from Rose that convince me, yet again, it’s not the destination alone that makes a place great, it’s the people … and ok, yes, the food too. And to that end, I have to smile appreciatively that my new home offers such a rich Jamaican experience with no red-eye necessary. Fresh jerk with a 16th-floor view of The Bay? Yes, please.
Join Lisa, Kim, Rose and the rest of the Aerie Restaurant staff October 29 for a special celebration of authentic Jamaican cuisine and culture. Click here for tickets and more information.
Lisa, Kim and Rose’s “Seasoned To The Bone”
Jamaican Dinner Menu:
Salt Fish Fritter
Salt Cured Cod with Green Pepper, Onion, Scallion, Sauteed Sweet Corn, Thyme
Jerk Chicken Spring Roll
Cabbage Leaf Stuffed with Pack Chow, Onion, Pepper, Carrot, and Served with Papaya Chutney
Soup or Salad
Red Pea Soup with Beef
Handmade Dumpling Noodles, Carrots, Potatoes, Yams and Red Pea Soup Seasoned with Thyme, Garlic
Slow Cooked Squash, Onions and Fresh Herbs with Housemade Stock
Diced Potatoes Lightly Cooked and Tossed with Fresh Blended Mayonnaise, Onions
Green Cabbage, Carrot, Green Pepper, Fresh Blended Mayonnaise
Mesclun Mixed Greens, Cucumber, Heirloom Tomatoes, Jamaican Island Vinaigrette
Slowly Stewed Goat Meat with Potatoes, Onions, Carrots, “Hot” Peppers, Garlic with Yellow Curry, Served Over Steamed Short Grain Rice
Pan Fried Red Snapper with a Hot Slaw Made of Julienne Carrots, Tricolor Peppers, Onions, Vinegar, Served with Rice and Peas
Jerk Pork or Chicken
Slow Cooked Pork or Chicken with Fresh Made Jerk Marinade, Roasted Sweet Potato and Guava Jerk Sauce
Festival Three Bean Stew
Creamy Cornmeal Dumpling with a Three Bean Stew of Vegetables and Jamaican Spices
Jamaican Fruit Cake
Apricots, Cherries, Jamaican Rum and Jamaican Red Label Wine
Tia Maria Sponge Cake
with Rum and Vanilla Sauce
Sweet Potato Pudding