“The biggest difference between Jamaica and Newfoundland?”
The head chef at Newfoundland’s only Jamaican fusion restaurant, Kirk Myers, a soft-spoken native of the Caribbean island, contemplates the question for a brief moment.
In 2015 Myers, 32, co-founded Taste of Jamaica – located in a 20,000-person city called Corner Brook in Newfoundland, the massive Canadian island jutting into the icy Atlantic at North America’s easternmost location. Though it’s the largest city on the west coast of the island, remote Corner Brook is a seven-hour drive from the provincial capital. Myers first arrived here just shy of a year ago, certainly the first person to leave a cruise-ship job to go on to serve Jamaican food in eastern Canada. He notes that the two islands, set approximately 2,500 miles apart, have more in common than many might assume.
“We’re used to a vast number of hills and different terrains,” Myers, tall and wide smiling, says of Jamaicans. Nicknamed “The Rock,” it’s often hard to escape in Newfoundland, where winter snowfall totals top sixteen feet, but that doesn’t faze Myers. The island’s hilly landscape is actually quite similar to Jamaica’s despite the very different climates. Both landmasses are heavily forested, ringed by bays and myriad smaller islands. Their respective capital cities lay adjacent to natural harbors, and Myers says the islanders share a similar friendly nature and relaxed lifestyle, along with a strong sense of native culture.
“There are a lot of traditional practices [in Newfoundland] that are similar to what we do in the Caribbean,” Myers observes. For example, come Christmas, Jamaicans enjoy masquerade parades they call jonkonnu, while their northern counterparts go door-to-door “mummering” – playing upbeat traditional music on fiddle and percussion while in costumes that disguise their identities. Myers has capitalized on the fact that the two island cultures celebrate food similarly as well.
Myers says of Jamaicans and Newfoundlanders, “how we celebrate food, how we eat, how we appreciate it,” is virtually identical. Two humble foods in particular — salted cod and molasses — were key to the economic development of both islands, and are still beloved in traditional dishes of both places.
Newfoundland’s first European settlers were drawn to the rich cod stocks off its shores, and the trading of that cod – after it had been salted – sent a happy piece of the island around the world, including to Jamaica and the rest of the West Indies in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In return, Jamaica shipped its valued rum, which Newfoundlanders not only appreciated but also integrated into their own culture. Screech, a rum distilled in Jamaica and bottled in Newfoundland, is a key part of the “screeching in” ceremony here. After a first-time Newfoundland visitor has kissed a codfish, pledged their allegiance to the island in verse, and downed a shot of the strong dark liquor, they’re declared an honorary Newfoundlander.
Meanwhile, the national dish of Jamaica is ackee fruit and salt fish, traditionally served with tomatoes and onions. Of course it is one of Chef Myers’ specialties, and a diner favorite at Taste of Jamaica.
The restaurant’s owner, Raymond Thomas, who’s from Jamaica as well, moved to the island a few years ago to teach at the Corner Brook campus of Memorial University, the only post-secondary school in Newfoundland. Thomas is an associate professor of plant science there, but his interest in food is longstanding – he published a paper on the health benefits of barbecue sauce during his postgraduate work. Thomas first heard of Newfoundland’s long trading history with the West Indies from a cab driver on his way to his job interview in Corner Brook. That piqued his interest, Thomas says, and when he got the job and moved to Newfoundland he realized the lack of diverse local food options presented an opportunity for the community.
“I thought given the long trade history between Newfoundland and Jamaica and the realization that many Newfoundlanders do travel to Jamaica for vacation, opening a Jamaican fusion restaurant could be a good idea,” Thomas says.
Thomas recruited Myers – on the strength of his fusion approach to the national cuisine – to develop the restaurant’s menu. Myers, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, left a job as executive chef on a cruise ship to move to Newfoundland for Taste of Jamaica’s launch, which was held off until his work visa cleared. Today, the restaurant’s menu offers a mix of traditional Jamaican items like curried goat, as well as fusion items including jerk chicken poutine with the french fries, gravy, and cheese curds traditional to the Quebecois dish.
Upon their arrival, Thomas and Myers became part of Newfoundland’s very small but growing population of newcomers. Only about 850 people immigrated to the island from outside countries between 2014 and 2015, and in the region’s 2001 census only 0.1 percent of the province’s population identified as Caribbean. At the same time, Newfoundland’s existing population has declined due to hefty outmigration, while the populace has grown older than the Canadian national average.
The cod fishery that once brought Jamaican rum and sugar to the island has largely disappeared – the result of a federal moratorium put into place in 1992. The discovery and development of offshore oil reserves brought the province new fortunes after a rough post-cod decade. But that promise has since diminished again as global crude prices have dropped, and the current provincial government introduced significant austerity measures.
“It was a new challenge for us to get our cuisine out there on a large-scale basis,” Myers says. “It was [also] an opportunity to become the pioneer for something great.”
Immigration is still a tiny proportion of the province’s population but it has increased in recent years, and newcomers are slowly changing the culinary landscape of an island that is largely anglo, Christian, and white. Major chain grocers now sell once-rare items like coconut milk and halal meat. Smaller retailers offering specialty items like Indian curry powders and Chinese snack foods have begun to pop up. One recently opened restaurant, which doubles as a market, offers dishes and ingredients familiar to the province’s Syrian population, which swelled considerably as the Canadian government worked in recent months to bring in refugees. And newer Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, and Filipino restaurants have helped expand the province’s culinary offerings beyond the traditional fish, moose, and root vegetables.
Newfoundlanders themselves increasingly have an appetite for a wider variety of foods, but Myers has to work to counter assumptions customers may have about Jamaican food. “A lot of them have traveled to the Caribbean and Jamaica, but a lot of them aren’t familiar with the cuisine,” he says of Newfoundlanders. “You do have some people who have a mythical idea that all Jamaican food is spicy. The truth of it is, it’s not really like that.”
Shared ingredients like cod, rum, raisins, and greens help bridge the gap between Newfoundland and Jamaican dishes. One popular item at Taste of Jamaica is a rum raisin bread pudding served with local berries.
“A lot of the items are very similar as it relates to ingredients,” Myers says. “It’s just in the technique we use.”
Still, there are inherent difficulties in serving Jamaican food on a Canadian island in the north Atlantic. “Some of the items we do have to take in from Toronto. And being an island, shipping is very expensive, so that poses challenges,” Myers says, adding that they’re working to educate restaurant visitors about the respective cuisines, hoping that will equate to greater proliferation of both.
“We don’t just want to be another restaurant,” Myers says. “Our main aim and focus is that we are contributing to Newfoundland, and contributing to the restaurant scene. We would love to help to be pioneers in opening doors for other restaurants from different cuisines, and contribute to this beautiful place.”