Born in Jamaica, New York-based Chef Nigel Spence has in a short time become one of the leading Caribbean chefs in the United States. From defeating celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the latter’s show, “Throwdown,” to helming a successful restaurant, “Ripe Kitchen and Bar,” which he opened in 2003 in Mount Vernon, New York, Spence has brought Jamaican food, and jerk in particular, into the limelight. Caribbean Journal talked to Spence about his beginnings working a jerk shack in New York City, the growing influence of Caribbean cuisine and his victory over Bobby Flay (something he’s actually done twice on television).
What influence did your childhood in Jamaica on your career?
I didn’t always want to be a chef, really. Growing up, my grandfather did a lot of the cooking, and kids were always very interested in that. I picked up a lot of things from my grandfather, because we had a garden that had a lot of herbs and spices that he would use – my brothers and I were always around him, and stealing a taste from the pot, and wanting to put in our own ingredients in there, and see how it would turn out. That probably had a great influence on me.
What was your route to becoming a chef?
When I left Jamaica, I came to New York. I was kind of strapped for cash, and started a jerk shack. At that time, jerk was very much unknown, in the very early 1990s. And I got a lot of great feedback – it was just kind of spreading through the street; people would gather around a quiet spot where there weren’t too many houses around, in a more industrial neighbourhood, and we would bring some chicken out, and before you knew it, it would turn into this humongous street party, maybe three or four hundred people. And I think that the recognition that I got from that made me want to push to open a restaurant, and want to do it after being trained professionally. So I decided to visit the Culinary Institute of America, and after going there, I was quite impressed with the programme they had, so I decided to attend, and the rest is history.
Your restaurant, Ripe Kitchen & Bar has received very positive reviews. How has the experience been?
The restaurant has been going well. It was a very difficult beginning. I really started on a shoestring budget, with basically a couple of tables. I got great training from CIA as far as how to manage and cook in a large place, but the business aspect of it was not a really strong point. So I was still very green about running a business, whether it’s a restaurant or something else. That was quite difficult, and it was a big change for the first couple of years.
You defeated Bobby Flay on his show, “Throwdown.” What was that experience like?
It was awesome. I used to work at the Food Network, and used to work on Bobby Flay’s shows – one of the first shows he ever did [on the network], so when I worked with him he was green himself to the whole Food Network thing! So after many years of not working at the Food Network, and not having any real attachment with the show, for Bobby Flay to show up at the restaurant was quite awesome. It created a huge buzz in the neighbourhood, with so many people, Jamaicans in particular, who came by to support me, just for the fact that I beat Bobby Flay at his own game, and because I was a Jamaican and did it.
How much has the awareness of Caribbean cuisine around the world changed?
It has changed so much. Since the time that I got into the industry, it was almost nonexistent. A lot of Jamaicans themselves didn’t know much about jerk, because jerk was from one particular side of the island, in Boston Beach, Portland. So there were many Jamaicans even at that time who came to the US, who didn’t know much about jerk. So it blows my mind to see how much it has spread, not only across the US, but into Europe. I just came back from Europe, from London, and I was amazed to see how many restaurants had jerk on their menus, at places that weren’t considered Caribbean restaurants.
How much do you think it will continue to grow?
It will, with the Food Network, and so many food channels popping up, and everyone searching for the next new ingredients. People are really interested in food, much more than anybody thought, and with them seeing all these different ingredients, and styles of cooking, it’s making them a lot more curious when they go into restaurants. So for that reason, jerk has played a major role. I find that there’s a much larger cross-section of people who are coming to restaurants and being a lot more experimental with some of the things that I offer, that are not necessarily mainstream Jamaican food.
What kinds of variations are you working on?
One thing is what I’ve been doing with my chicken. Normally, jerk chicken is on a grill, with jerk seasoning. But I’ve gotten a big smoker in my backyard at the restaurant, so I’ve been smoking the chicken now, and doing it a little bit differently. So it’s not exactly jerk per se – but that’s actually the way jerk was supposed to be done. But in the US, it was not possible to get it done that way. So now, I’m using pimento wood chips and other kinds of wood chips to create a new flavour dimension, which chicken, portk and jerk steak, which is one of our big sellers. So I’m really having fun experimenting.
What do you think about Caribbean cuisine, and the way it is developing within the region?
It’s a great thing. I just came back from Jamaica, and what I’ve seen in some of the restaurants there is, apart from our stands and run-of-the-mill, traditional-style jerk or other Caribbean foods, is that Jamaicans are watching these food channels, and restaurant consumers are becoming more demanding. The restaurants and chefs are becoming a little more experimental – you’re seeing slightly different things, or kind of veering off of the traditional stuff and being more experimental. So you do see a little bit of a fusion of different things being introduced. Spanish influences from Cuba and other Spanish speaking Caribbean islands are being seen more often on Jamaican menus, including paella, which Jamaicans rarely used to see on a menu. So I think in general, it’s a wonderful thing, because it’s not only making the US more aware of Jamaican food or Caribbean food in general, but also making Caribbean chefs more accepting of trying new things, and not staying with the traditional way of doing things.