What makes Caribbean cuisine “authentic”?
According to the trio behind downtown San Jose’s newest restaurant, it has an atmosphere. “Think of Caribbean cuisine as equal parts resilience, history, tradition and of course spice,” reads her Instagram page. “It’s how our people show love.”
Introducing this culture to a wide audience is the mission of Island Taste Caribbean Grill, which opened Saturday in the heart of downtown across from City Hall. This new place comes from Dorianne and Marc St. Fleur, the children of immigrants (her family is Jamaican and his is from Haiti), and chef Imani Manning, a native Jamaican who learned to cook at her mother’s restaurant in Kingston before starting her career in NYC.
The St. Fleurs had no intention of transitioning from their human resources and real estate careers to this cultural and culinary venture when they moved to San Jose. But they found that the term “the islands” doesn’t mean for the west coast what it means for the east coast. In fact, they were surprised that many residents they spoke to had never been to Jamaica or the Caribbean. And West Indian cuisine was much harder to come by here than in New York.
In the midst of the pandemic, these insights germinated into an idea. We were excited for her Brooklyn-to-the-Bay-Area story:
Q: How did the restaurant idea come about?
Doranne: We originally moved here with our daughter in 2019 when I started a job at Google working on diversity, equity, an inclusion strategy. Just as we were getting into the groove of life in the Bay Area, the pandemic hit. We found ourselves isolated in our home, thousands of miles away from all of our friends and family. During this time, my husband began teaching himself how to cook traditional Caribbean dishes by watching videos on YouTube. His goal was to make us feel less isolated and homesick. We liked what we built here, but it’s very different from our life in Brooklyn.
One day he had the brilliant idea that we should open our own restaurant and bring a taste of the islands to The Bay along with our Brooklyn swag. The only drawback: we are not chefs.
Q: So you lured a third Brooklynite to come west?
Doranne: Yes, that’s when Marc pitched his idea to a friend from NY who is a chef – Imani Manning – and she was on board immediately.
Q: Imani, what is your philosophy as a chef?
Believe: My passion is telling stories through food and using food to educate. Every dish has a story. I want to push that culture out there. … I don’t even see myself as a chef. i am a creator The kitchen is a blank canvas.
Q: What’s on the menu?
Mark: Our menu features authentic, freshly prepared dishes from Jamaica and Haiti, as well as flavors from across the Caribbean. All dishes have a name that means something special to us. For example, our jerk chicken dish is called “Bolt”, named after the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, who was born and raised on the island of Jamaica.
Q: How is Haiti’s cuisine different from Jamaica?
Mark: While both Jamaican and Haitian dishes incorporate a mix of styles and spices from West Africa, the indigenous Taino people, Spain and France, the flavor profile of each country’s cuisine is very different. Most Haitian dishes start with a green spice base called “epis” (meaning “spices” in Haitian Creole) that contains coriander, onion, and thyme. Jamaican dishes, on the other hand, typically include staple spices like scallions, ginger, and allspice. Both Jamaica and Haiti, as well as the other islands in the Caribbean, cook dishes that include rice, meat and vegetables, but what makes each country’s cuisine unique is the way local spices and preparation methods are incorporated.
Q: What are the uniquely Haitian dishes on your menu?
Believe: Our menu currently consists of two dishes. The first is called “1804” and pays homage to the year that Haiti became the first independent black republic in the Caribbean, as it successfully fought for its liberation from French colonial rule. The dish consists of roasted goat meat (called “taso” in Haitian Creole) and black rice (“diri djon djon”). The second is called “Bang Bang,” named after a popular song in Haiti that features fried pork (“griyo”) and white rice with black beans (“diri kole ak pwa”).
Q: If someone is averse to spices, what’s a good choice?
Believe: Although all of our dishes contain a rich combination of herbs and spices, that doesn’t mean they’re all spicy. I think this is the biggest misconception about Caribbean food. That said, if someone isn’t happy with too much heat, they can try our Vegan Rasta Pasta, Oxtail, or Escovitch Red Snapper Fish. The only really spicy item on our menu is jerk chicken.
Q: What do you serve for drinks and dessert?
Mark: Island Taste has bottled Caribbean drinks like cola champagne and pineapple lemonade, as well as traditional drinks like sorrel (the Caribbean name for hibiscus) and Haitian lemonade. While we don’t currently have any sweet treats on the menu, we plan to add traditional island desserts like sweet potato pudding, potato pancakes and krema in the near future.
Q: What would you like customers to benefit from the Island Taste experience?
Doranne: We want people to come for more than just the food. Yes, the cuisine may draw people to Island Taste, but we also want guests to connect with our culture. We have artwork and music that speaks to the heart of who we are. We can’t wait to share it with the community.
Details: Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 225 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose. See the full menu at www.islandtastegrill.com and Chef Imani’s Instagram journey at yaadchef_45.