Interview With Jamaican Chef Nigel Spence

This month we interview Jamaican Chef Nigel Spence owner of the critically acclaimed New York restaurant Ripe Kitchen and Bar. Most recently, Chef Spence appeared on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in a jerk cook off against the Food Network star as well as on WCBS when he made a special appearance on Tony’s Table. Ripe Kitchen and Bar has also received positive reviews and been featured in The New York Times, The Journal News, Jamaican Eats, Jamaican Magazine, The Westchester Magazine and Caribbean Life.

Q: Since you appearance to the “Throwdown with Bobby Flay “on Food Network do you get recognized when you go out?
My presence in certain circles, especially those pertaining to food, has definitely commanded increased attention, but I don’t exactly need to keep a pen handy for autographs just yet.

Q: What type of questions do people ask since seeing you on TV?
People are usually most curious as to what my state of mind was, when I realized I was being challenged by such a giant in the food business.

Q: Has the crowds increased at your New York restaurant, Ripe?
Immediately after the first airing of the show, there was a flurry of phone calls for reservations and a massive surge of walk-in business and catering which peaked at the end of the summer. Overall the segment has increased the scope of our customer base and has the crowds showing up at the front door.

Q: How did you come up with the name Ripe for your restaurant?
The process of ripening intrigued me because it describes a positive, progressive, boundless, infinite act; always working towards a goal. Since its inception, Ripe has been a work in progress, always evolving and this continuous evolution (ripening) has become a signature of the restaurant.

Q: If I was a non Jamaican and walking on the street how would you describe Ripe to me?
Ripe is an unassuming little storefront, housing a kitchen that is creative, inspired and serious about food. It draws an energetic, grown-up crowd seeking a twist on Caribbean fare in a familiar neighborhood setting.

Q: Tell us about the Jerk Shack that helped you pay your way through Culinary school?
I don’t know that the place where this “shack” was located could truly even qualify as that, but I started cooking jerk chicken in the back of a car wash in an industrial neighborhood that was quite deserted at night, as a hangout for my friends and I who were into cars and the sound systems we built into our cars. The desolate area allowed us to listen to our music as loud as we desired without disturbing the peace. The food was actually secondary but as the food and music and the “hide-out” spot became more popular, the demand for my Jerk chicken went through the roof, as the crowd grew to over a thousand people who would hang out till the wee hours of the morning. We were NEVER able to meet the demand for the chicken, no matter how much we cooked! All this was completely illegal of course and lasted for a couple of summers until we were discovered and shut down. It was lots of fun while it lasted and certainly supplemented my income for college.

Q: Did you always want to be a chef growing up?
No. But I always had a curiosity about the kitchen and always enjoyed watching my grandfather while he cooked; I think because it was unlike what I was used to seeing. He liked to cook outside in the backyard on a coal fire which I thought was kinda cool and so it heightened my interest even more.

I think it was much later on in life I realized that my curiosity about cooking was evolving into a passion, especially after the recognition I got during those jerk shack summers and I honestly yearned for more. I initially worked in the field of Radiology, but after a visit to the Culinary Institute of America, I was so impressed by their program, I quit my job and enrolled. It is there that I honed my skills and truly began to understand the rigors of the kitchen – its demands and rewards – and began to think like a “Chef”. I started the Institute at a time when the old school chefs were still quite rough, not politically correct and sometimes downright mean, quite unlike the atmosphere of most culinary schools today. I think that type of training makes you decide quickly if that is what you want to be. I stuck it out so I guess I wanted to be a chef!

Q: With the Food Network emerging as a popular medium do you think it has changed the restaurant industry?
Without a doubt. With new and exotic ingredients appearing on screen everyday, coupled with a “made- for –tv” chef with charisma, they have raised the bar for restaurant service and creativity. Diners have become more sophisticated in their tastes, desires and expectations when they go out to eat, which puts more pressure on the chef and restaurant owner to deliver an exciting product to the table. It’s a positive change in the grand scheme of things as we are now seeing so much more creativity reflected in menus of all cuisines. I am still blown away when I step into a fine dining establishment and see our humble “jerk” style of cooking appearing on menus alongside classic French preparations.

Q: It seems like most of today’s famous chefs went to the Culinary Institute of America. How was that experience for you and were you allowed to experiment with Jamaican foods while you were there?
The best part of being a student at the Institute is that you are surrounded by the best of the best in the industry all day long which is like living a dream for a foodie. They are also very humble and ALWAYS very curious about any culture and ingredient that they are not familiar with. Because of my Jamaican background, I would constantly be questioned about Caribbean ingredients, even by some of the “master chefs” that worked there. Though I did not have the knowledge or skill level that they possessed, they listened like they were the student during these exchanges. Whenever I cooked a dish using Jamaican ingredients, they would hang around for a taste, like I would when my grandfather cooked, with the exception that these guys have cooked for U.S. Presidents. I loved that and it has taught me to be just as humble in my own kitchen. You can always learn something new and it may come from someone with little or no experience in food.

Q: I read that you have been involved with the Food Network for sometime now. Are you a behind the scenes “chef”?
I stopped working with the Food Network in 1999. I worked in the kitchen styling the food for camera along with other chefs. When I began as an intern, I actually worked on Emeril Lagasse’s first series, along with Bobby Flay and Mario Batali. After I graduated from the Institute, they asked me to stay on, which I did.

Q: In the past people thought chefs do not have egos. I am sure after watching Food Network that perception is changing. What would you say distinguishes you from other Caribbean chefs?
I never met a chef without an ego. I actually believe that it is this ego that people first think about when talking about chefs.

I think some Caribbean chefs are very secretive about their recipes and cooking styles. That attitude does not promote excelling to greater heights through sharing of information. I don’t guard my recipes and I am always willing to share them with anyone who wants to know, and I get great joy from teaching and being able to help anyone (including my competition) with bettering their food service, and skill, if I can. I also enjoy learning from others who have a greater skill than I do or possess knowledge that I don’t have. That is the maxim by which you were guided at the institute, and it has stayed with me ever since.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important thing when Jerking food Jamaican style?
It’s all in the ingredients. Make it fresh and from scratch; and if time and equipment permit, don’t cut any corners. It hurts when such a beautiful ingredient list, as that for jerk, is compromised by cutting corners. It shows immediately in the finished product.

Q: Do you have a problem with every “Tom, Dick and Harry” throwing pepper on their chicken and calling it Jerk Chicken or do you see it as exposing Jamaican culture?
The only positive aspect of that would be to expose Jamaican culture, beyond that, I think Jamaica has only now seen the importance of branding jerk as being its own and I think that the more stringent they are with this branding is the more that people will respect jerk and not adulterate the process.

Q: Do you do experiment with recipe fusions of Jamaican and other cultures?
That is the culture of our kitchen at Ripe.

Q: If someday you get tired of cooking is there anything else you would do?
Start an organic farm in Jamaica and raise awareness about the importance of steering clear of over processed foods that are gaining strong foothold on the island, to the detriment of our health as a nation.

Q: What is your food philosophy?
Keep it simple. Start with a great ingredient and you won’t need to do much to put a good product on the plate.

Q: What do you look for in a recipe?
Whenever I look at a recipe I try to determine if all the ingredients are really necessary. It goes back to the practice of keeping things simple. All the ingredients need to work in that they highlight as opposed to obscure the authentic flavor of the signature ingredient.

Q: What would you consider you best recipe?
My recipe for Jerk, and also the Codfish Spring Rolls, which are both favorites at the restaurant, as the flavors in each dish meld together really well. I also believe that two ingredients that are under utilized (creatively) in Jamaican cuisine are codfish and coconut milk. We experiment with both extensively in the restaurant.

Q: When someone outside of Jamaica eats the Jamaican food you cook what would you like to hear them say?
The same thing that I said when Bobby Flay surprised me at my restaurant to challenge me to the Jerk Throwdown.

Q: Caribbean and Jamaican food is viewed by many as high calorie. Some people watching their diet worry eating Jamaican food. How should one eat Jamaican food and reduce their calorie intake?
The trend these days, which makes sense, is to eat full flavored, naturally prepared foods, but eat less of it. There is one way. Jamaican cuisine uses many fourth quarter cuts (oxtail, cows feet, pig tail) that render a great deal of fat during the cooking process. By skimming the fat before finishing the sauce or gravy, you in effect decrease the overall caloric intake, without compromising flavor.

Q: What advice do you give to anyone who would like to become a chef?
If you have a passion for long hours, no family time and some sick love affair with the preparation of food then try to acquire an apprenticeship inside a restaurant kitchen for a few weeks to get a solid feel for how a commercial kitchen works. If you end up not quitting on day 2 and your food fetish remains intact, then you know that there is a kitchen out there with your name on it. J

Q: On a personal note, I love to cook and wondered if you could recommend a good, but simple, book, on food presentation (lol)?
Food presentation usually comes to me when I am about to plate a dish, but to get a general feel for plating techniques it is best to look at French cookbooks in general that have lots of pictures, except those are very hard to find. The French Laundry Cookbook is one of the few.

Q: Thanks so much for spending the time with me on this interview. Any final thoughts for the visitors to the website?
Caribbean cuisine is on the cutting edge in the Unites States right now. Take a second look at what you have in your backyards, play around with it and don’t be afraid to use those same ingredients to create something new. Though it’s one of my favorites, Sunday dinner does not always have to be “Stew Peas and Rice”. It is important that Caribbean people carry the torch and are proud of our own rich and varied culinary tradition.

Don’t sit back and allow the foreigners to steal our thunder!