At the Jerk Cafe, a storefront tucked away in a strip mall in the Cape Cod Village of South Yarmouth, Mass., fragrant smoke greets customers as soon as they open the front door. So does cafe owner Glenroy Burke, who roams the wide-open kitchen stirring pots, tending to the grill, and arranging dishes. “I don’t like being hidden in the kitchen,” said Mr Burke, also known as “Chef Shrimpy”.
For more than three decades, Jamaican cooks and chefs have come to Cape Cod through the H-2B visa program, which offers foreign workers a pathway to temporary non-agricultural jobs. A small number of seasonal workers have become permanent residents or citizens. This summer, as international travel picks up and the domestic job market remains strong, Jamaicans are once again staffing the kitchens of Cape Town’s traditional seafood restaurants, gourmet destinations, resorts and inns.
And with their ingredients and cooking techniques, Jamaicans are shaping the culinary identity of the region, opening their own restaurants and enlivening the menus of established restaurants from Hyannis to Provincetown. The taste of Cape Cod, long defined by favorite Yankee seafood dishes, now includes golden flaky patties, vibrant jerk-rubbed meats and turmeric-rich curries, buzzing with allspice.
“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who is working as a chef at the Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. “Other people come to understand us – how we talk, how we laugh, how we have conversations through food.”
A common history of bananas
The number of Jamaicans working in the United States under the H-2B program has increased by 84% over the past 10 years, from 4,874 in 2011 to 8,950 in 2021, according to the American agency Citizenship and Immigration Services. . Looking further afield and locally, a Cape Cod-based immigration attorney, Matthew Lee of Tocci & Lee, estimates – using data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce – that in the summer of 2000 , 500 Jamaicans worked in Cape Town, and that number peaked at 1,000 before the pandemic.
Mr Burke first arrived in Cape Town in 1997 after meeting 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 resorts. After a year as a seasonal worker, Mr Burke received a green card and worked as a cook and marine technician in the Cape Towns of Harwich and Chatham. The economic opportunity he found in Cape Town motivated him to stay and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.
Three years after obtaining US 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 a hit. Used almost as a topping, a donut tops off every order and tastes like lightly fried pieces of sweet banana bread.
During his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mother occasionally made them on Sundays. “When poor mothers and fathers had no sugar, they could mash the banana and put some flour in it to create something sweet for us,” he said. “I wish she did them every day.”
Bananas form the backbone of an older, shared history between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, after a chance landing in Port Antonio, a ship captain turned Wellfleet entrepreneur named Lorenzo Dow Baker introduced the fruit to the United States. The wealth he derived from this modern banana trade led him to establish hotels in both Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he employed Jamaican workers on a seasonal basis.
Spices in overhead
At Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet, a mostly Jamaican kitchen staff prepares jerk pork and a bowl of Caribbean seafood alongside fried cod sandwiches and clam chowder.
“Collaboration in the kitchen leads to more diverse and balanced food, so I’ve always encouraged that,” said Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the ten Mac’s Seafood restaurants and seafood markets that dot Cape Town.
Jamaican-inspired dishes started appearing on the menu thanks to Neily Bowlin, a former Pier chef who now runs two Mac’s Seafood Markets. About 10 years ago Mac’s had a smoker and the restaurant served BBQ ribs. Mr. Bowlin suggested making jerk pork, and Mr. Hay loved the idea.
In the early days, Mr. Bowlin and others would bring pounds of allspice and jerk seasoning in their luggage, to “blast the jerk off the menu”, he said with a laugh.
Mr. Bowlin hails from Black River, Jamaica, an area of the country where seafood cuisine is a specialty. He was well placed to work with local Cape Town ingredients when he arrived for his first summer in 1996.
“At the time, it was a very small and tight community,” he said. “Now even in the winter you see a lot more Jamaicans, and they don’t just come here. They live here, they have families, they have homes, they have businesses.
Motel rooms for workers
On Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds local Jamaicans and the wider Provincetown community ackee and saltfish, curried lobster and jerk chicken at her casual restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurateurs, has faced a tough time during the pandemic.
“Even though Covid has hit us really hard for two years, the people we have in P-Town have supported their local businesses,” Ms Brown said.
In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace founded Amplify POC Cape Cod, a non-profit based on racial equity, to support and showcase minority-owned businesses in Cape Town. She counts Irie Eats, as well as Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham and the Karibbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, among Cape Town’s favorite Jamaican restaurants. “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive,” she said, “but it’s also struggled tremendously.”
A lack of affordable housing has emerged as a serious consequence of the pandemic, one that disproportionately affects communities of color. Prior to the coronavirus, the conversion of vacation rentals and other accommodations to Airbnbs took many affordable long-term rentals off the market; the mass exodus from urban areas to Cape Town during the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
While Ms Vargas Wallace is buoyed by tourists who support minority-owned businesses – those who “are intentional about their wallet activism”, she said – the shortage of affordable housing is likely to make pay business owners and workers who look after visitors.
As a result, many business owners who participate in the H-2B program acquire motels, multifamily homes, or other properties to convert into employee housing. Mr. Hay has several properties; a few years ago, he bought a motel that now offers 10 rooms to his seasonal staff. “Any business that’s here has some type of accommodation to survive in,” he said.
Another issue is the annual ceiling for the number of seasonal workers, which this year is 33,000 at the national level for recipients from all countries. Relying on recruiters and personal connections to find employees, Mr. Hay employed Jamaican workers for two decades, but because of the cap and this lottery-based system, “even though we have someone who is a relative or a friend, we cannot necessarily bring them into the country,” Mr. Hay said.
Mr. Crooks, the Westmoreland Parish Chief, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his career and entered the H-2B visa lottery for more opportunities.
This summer, as one of four chefs at the Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he’s whipping up dishes like creamy oxtail, saturated with a rich auburn sauce and sprinkled with chunks of potatoes and beans. Quality is vital.
“We try to make it as authentic as possible,” Mr. Crooks said. “All the chefs here basically learned to cook from our grandparents.”