Close your eyes. Take a moment. And, imagine a destination so beautiful and breathtaking there is nearly no distinction between the earth and heavens. An island nestled in the literal and proverbial heart of the Caribbean, a land blessed by the hand of our Good Lord with soft white sand beaches, aquamarine waters teaming in the greatest diversity of ocean flora and fauna, lush jungle blossoming from city center to mountaintop, days of gentle blue skies and a constant calming breeze, locally-crafted rum that flows like the salmon of Capistrano and timeless island tunes drumming on each street corner, in every club and seaside pub from Alligator Pond, to Half Moon and Golden Grove.
The timeless vision of Jamaica we romanticize is a paradise of picturesque landscapes from the pristine shorline of Seven Mile Beach, to the tropical rain forest waterfalls of Ocho Rios, Negril’s black coral cliffs and tranquil seaside resorts, to the quaint and secluded Frenchman’s Cove, tourist-rich and resplendent Montego Bay, and the Trench Town government yards that gave birth to Bob Marley’s reggae revolution of One Love.
While Jamaica’s 3,000,000 annual visitors are largely compelled by eco-tourism, cultural history and an appeal for the countless number of 5-star all-inclusive private resorts, there is a bursting sense of pride and undeniable excitement for the state of gastro tourism that will soon position this island nation as a global destination of choice for culinary wanderlusts, professional chefs, and foodies alike seeking to explore a sea of comestible Caribbean experiences.
Ground Zero for this mouthwatering movement is Jamaica’s industrial and political capital, Kingston. Long-known as the historical “stomach” of the Caribbean, Kingston is humbly-famed for it’s culinary reputation – from spicy street fare dishes such as jerk and pan chicken, to live fire lobster and prawn prepared beachside from Hellshire to Savana al Mar and back, deep fried bammi and festival for every occasion, ackee and saltfish served by the spoonful at sunrise, ice buckets brimming with bottles of refreshing Red Stripe, to sipping the finest boutique-roasted Arabica coffee overlooking the serine slopes of Saint Catherine’s Peak at the oldest coffee estate on God’s Green Earth, Clifton Mount.
Kingston, the island’s largest city, is physically positioned in harmonious symmetry, situated just south of the towering Blue Mountains, in immediate proximity to near-endless rolling tropical farmlands, and settled overlooking an enormous harbor rich with a countless wealth of sustainable sea life. With foundations dating to the early 1700’s, the commercial epicenter of Kingston is Coronation Market, the literal and proverbial bonding of location, farmer and fisherman, country artisan, culinarian and consumer. This sprawling complex of barter and trade is the largest market of it’s kind amongst more than 7,000 individual Caribbean islands. Today, in the cross-hairs of “Grand ‘ol Coronation’s” hustle, bustle and cast iron infrastructure is where long-standing tradition meets contemporary culinary evolution and the momentum of a globally-influential, 21st Century Kingston. And, it is only natural that this city, play host to among the greatest annual celebrations of agriculture, aquaculture, food, and music in the Western Hemisphere – The Jamaican Food and Drink Festival.
Over a 9-day span late each October, the city transforms, taking a complete departure from the ordinary to extraordinary. The Jamaican Food and Drink Festival comprises seven entirely-unique and unforgettable themed-events hosted at seven iconic venues, including a formal capstone affair at the palatial residence of Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness. More than 50 acclaimed domestic and international chefs are selected to lead the festival in collaboration alongside a series of cicerones, sommeliers, and spirit experts. Together with the support of elected officials, national celebrities, local media and volunteers by the hundreds – this collective prepares for months with a distinct, energetic sense of urban grit, delivering fusions of regional and international cuisine, and an experience unlike any other on this side of the Atlantic or the next.
This grand celebration commences with an extravaganza appropriately-coined, “Pork Palooza.” Affectionately-speaking, this is Jamaica’s “Jack Daniels,” “American Royal” and “Memphis in May” rolled into a single winner-take-all event – a competition-style food fiesta enticing attendees with whole hog asado by the campfire, creative servings of crisp pork belly, slowly smoked, fall-from-the-bone pork shoulder, and tender-to-the-touch baby back ribs smothered in sweet and spicy homemade barbecue. While the public most covets the pork, teams of chefs prepare all year for the opportunity to be awarded the prize of “Top Hog,” the distinction of Jamaica’s top pit master. This year’s big winner was Team Pink Apron, led by Chef Charissa Henry, Brittany Ho, and Josh Parkins. Congratulations, my friends, for your well-earned victory!
Over the days following, thousands of folks will enjoy events ranging from a Master Chef wine and delicacy pairing, complete with awe-inspiring, panoramic cityscape views, to an exotic east greets west affair called, “Chopstix,” which is a cornucopia of Asian-Caribbean fusion hosted in Kingston’s Zen Gardens. The largest event in the series is street fare-inspired “Meet Street & Market” in Historic Downtown, with food trucks galore lining the waterfront, live bands jamming into the late hours of the evening and families from all walks enjoying a fun-filled night of friendly entertainment.
But, my two favorite events were undoubtedly, “Crisp” and “Picante.” Held on back-to-back evenings, the former is an escape of gluttonous indulgence, hosted oceanside and fueled by DJs bumping the best of 80’s pop and rock music. Nearly a dozen chefs prepared juicy pan-fried tenderloin, sweet scotch bonnet-glazed crispy chicken, deep fried lobster skewers, and fish tacos dusted with the perfect balance of spice and seasonings – all washed down by a near infinite offering of local and regional beers. The latter whisked it’s guests to a fairy tale-like Moroccan-themed event hosted in a stone walled castle-like setting called, “The Ruins.” Here the heat turned up with hot dance beats, stylish attire and fiery dishes, both savory and sweet, complimented by Jamaica’s finest mixoligists pouring creative cocktails and smooth, locally-crafted rum. Sincerely, incredible.
As a last dance on our whirlwind culinary adventure, my wife and I were both honored to accept a once-in-a-lifetime, private invitation to the Jamaican Food and Drink Festival’s formal capstone event – an evening of elegance, celebrating history, culture and cuisine at the official residence of the Jamaican Prime Minister.
The soiree was themed as “Modern Heritage Dining,” an embrace of the West Indian culinary evolution. The seasonal 8-course menu was inspired by the terroir and heritage cuisine of the Caribbean, including slavery to colonialism. Each dish featured flavor profiles, ingredients and techniques with deep historical respects, redesigned to resonate with the modern epicurean, offering a menu designed and executed with flawless perfection.
I could not be more grateful to my friends from the Jamaican Food and Drink Festival, CB Foods, Yello Media Jamaica, The Daily Meal, Finn Partners, and the Jamaican Tourism Board for this phenomenal experience and a lifetime of wonderful memories. But, above all, it will be your endearing kindness, gracious hospitality and warm spirit that will be long remembered.