A beginner’s guide to the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival

Kingston: a haven for food-lovers. Datebook writer Shelly-Ann Inniss explores the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival

  • Shelly at the media reception
  • Pink Apron
  • DJ
  • Broken Plate's Mustard Chilli Pesto Rubbed Pork Loin with Crispy Bacon Orzo Pilaf topped with Asian Mixed Greens and Arugula Salad
  • Chef Dylan Bennoit's Tuna Tataki
  • Chef Amanda McCreath's Lasagna Roll

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I sensed something. Maybe it was the friendliness of the taxi driver, the excitement on people’s faces, the reggae music blaring in the background. It could very well have been because I was in the birth country of Jamaican legends Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey, Grace Jones, Louise Bennet-Coverley (Miss Lou), Usain Bolt, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. To top it all off, I was in the heart of Kingston for the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival, which ran from 20 to 28 October. I was fortunate to attend four of the seven themed nights of culinary art, talent, and live entertainment.

For three years, I had watched the posts from the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival. My mouth watered at the food porn of specially crafted dishes. I was thrilled yet hesitant to attend. Can I do those eccentric dance moves I always see in Jamaican music videos? Will they laugh if I can’t keep time? Would I need to refresh my closet with larger clothes after the festival? Can I understand the heavy Jamaican patois?

When I landed at the Norman Manley International Airport, I quickly realised I had nothing to worry about. The patois was straightforward most of the time, and everything was “irie”. I wanted to taste, see and try everything, and my hosts at the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival ensured every second of the festival was spent doing just that! With my appetite in check, I was ready to conquer the food festival. Here are some of the highlights.


CHOPSTIX

Zen Lawns at Hope Zoo, Kingston

On the dewy lawn, Dragon Dancers placed their seal of authenticity on the night. Festoon garden lights created a relaxed and inviting atmosphere on the Zen Lawns. Meditation wasn’t on the menu, but I sure closed my eyes and gave praise for the mesmerising Asian cuisine with exciting twists. I felt so at home that I put my knife and fork down and went hardcore. Gingerly, I grasped my food with the chopsticks. It took some time to see the bottom of the plate, which had gourmet portions, but I did it! Over eleven local and international chefs passionately tantalised palates. Among the talent were previous Caterer of the Year winners adjudicated by the Jamaica Food Awards — Lorraine Fung and Débè-Ann Lange-Chen. International foodie celebrities included acclaimed Food Network international Chef Dylan Benoit serving up treats that night. His tuna tataki with Japanese radish salsa and sticky rice wooed me. And with tangy and savoury desserts, Chef Brian Laman’s mango pudding won me over. Chopstix was a cozy lime balanced with the aesthetics and flavour each chef presented. It also allowed my dress to make it through the night without bursting at the seams.

Tuna tataki with Japanese radish salsa and sticky rice by Chef Dylan Bennoit. Photo by Kason Stephenson

CRISP

Festival Market Place, Downtown Kingston

Friends warmed up for a pre-weekend foodie session to notes of lively Caribbean music. In true island style, the chefs for the night shared their fried offerings from wall huts. In the gentle breeze, we washed it down with local and international beers. Previously an architect and now a chef, Amanda McCreath’s fried lasagna roll with peppercorns, cured salmon, roasted garlic and tomato puree went the extra mile and was celebrated as a must-try dish the entire night. Japanese chef Hiromasa ‘Peavey’ Takahashi, who’s always been fascinated with the art of cooking, dominated the dessert stations with fried Häagen-Dazs ice-cream. His crew jammed to soca beats, while coating frozen balls of ice cream in tempura flour. To complete the process they dipped the balls in milk, and then quickly dropped them in a deep fryer for a brief moment before removing, slicing, and serving. Where there’s food, there’s fun, and DJ Smoke and Jamaican singing sensation Sevana kept us dancing throughout the night. The music continued long after the event was officially over.

Chef Amanda McCreath’s lasagna roll. Photo by Kason Stephenson

PICANTE

The Ruins, UWI Mona Visitors’ Lodge, Kingston

Picante was dubbed “not for the faint of tongue”, however, I was confident I could conquer whatever the chefs cooked up. After all, I’d valiantly eaten a raw red scotch bonnet pepper two days prior on a day tour at Walkerswood in Ocho Rios.

Chef Patrick Simpson — Brand Ambassador for Walkerswood — paired with the University of Technology (UTech), prepared a sumptuous grilled peppa shrimp with curried vegetable succotash alongside pulled jerk chicken on bammy round with pickle escallion relish. It was also accompanied by Solomon Gundy crostini topped with roasted corn and tomato. This enticed me to linger by the stall in hopes of grabbing another serving.

I finally decided to continue exploring and visited Chef Oji Jaja’s station. Known for creating daring modern fusions, he presented seared scallops with roasted pepper scotch bonnet sauce and micro-basil. This was low on the spicy scale but thrilled many taste buds. Broken Plate’s Chef Stewart put me in the hot seat with his mustard chili pesto rubbed pork lion with crispy bacon orzo pilaf topped with Asian mixed greens and arugula salad. Arrow’s timeless hit Hot Hot Hot burst through my brain like the bolt of lightning on my tongue. This. Was. Picante. Chefs from other events confided that they’d like to cook at Picante in the future. With all the spice and adventure in the air, patrons put the pepper in their step and danced the night away Jamaican style. I was happy to join in.

Mustard chili pesto rubbed pork lion with crispy bacon orzo pilaf topped with Asian mixed greens and arugula salad by Broken Plate. Photo by Shelly-Ann Inniss

MEET STREET & THE MARKET

Kingston Waterfront

Downtown Kingston was the hub of commercial activity during the day. In the night, it turned into a “meet up and eat up” gathering. Slowly moving vehicle taillights bombarded the major arteries leading to the waterfront. Meet Street lived up to its name, as the entire country seemed to converge there. The event was sold out and people were still queuing to enter. Food trucks; stalls from some of the island’s beloved restaurants; and gourmet artisans catered to the palates of the hungry. Families rolled out choreography I didn’t even know existed for soca music.

Photo by Shelly-Ann Inniss

I expected to see traditional Jamaica-centric cuisine such as jerk chicken, rice and peas, festivals and the like, but a smorgasbord of all types of cuisine was represented. Imagine the lines you’d see when a new technological product is launched. This was the scene at many of the stations, especially for the enthusiastic patrons waiting to try Trini doubles. My mission, though, was to sample these must-try Jamaican street foods: peppered shrimp, patties, pudding, roasted sweet potatoes and breadfruit, and of course jerk or pan chicken with hard dough bread, and so I did. They were all high in quality and low in price.

Salt and pepper pork by Chef Charissa Henry from Pink Apron Jamaica. Photo by Shelly-Ann Inniss

With a heavy heart and a full tummy, alas, my trip came to an end. I met people from all walks of life at each event and now have a renewed appreciation for Jamaican food and culture. Jamaicans are saucy, spirited, and take their food very seriously. As I stood in the departure lounge to purchase souvenirs, I realised a cookbook would be just a start. The perfect present for someone you love is a season pass to the Jamaica Food & Drink Festival. Kingston is the cultural district of Jamaica and a foodie city. I love to sleep and I love to eat, but there’s no rest when attending the festival. I can’t wait to forfeit a few nights’ rest when I return next year.

Special thanks to the Jamaica Food & Drink team for the invitation and hospitality. I’d also like to thank the wonderful staff at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel for providing accommodation and Yello Jamaica for transport services.