With Culinary Exposure Comes Greater Understanding
Chef Kwame Williams brings Jamaican cuisine to the Jersey suburbs.
June 6, 2017
As told to Korsha Wilson by Kwame Williams | Photo via Instagram
Chef Kwame Williams is the chef behind Vital Dining in Montclair, New Jersey and a first generation Jamaican-American who grew up eating his parents’ Jamaican meals. On his menu, Jamaican and Caribbean classics are served in surprising ways but always pay tribute to the traditional flavors of the islands. Finding a way to bridge the gap in the culinary landscape of New Jersey has been challenging, he says, but rewarding—here, he shares what he’s learned and how he both shapes the public’s view of what a Jamaican restaurant can be and pushes the cuisine forward.
When I meet someone and I say I have a Jamaican restaurant, people have an expectation of what I serve, and how I serve it.
When they show up to my restaurant and have dinner they say things like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think it was this big or this nice.’ They expect a carryout restaurant even though I’ve explained that it’s a 40-seat restaurant in a New Jersey suburb outside of New York City.
We’ve been open for three years. When we first opened I was super excited to do my menu my way; those who liked it, liked it, and those who don’t, don’t. I wanted to expose people to my cooking. We weren’t calling ourselves a Jamaican restaurant then. In my mind, calling ourselves a Jamaican restaurant right off the bat would limit us in terms of what we could serve; [then] customers kept asking us what we “were.”
It’s funny, people want to have that box of what a restaurant’s cuisine is so they can have an understanding before they even come in. Once I realized that, the mission changed: Instead of trying to create my own separate lane, how [could] I broaden people’s perception of what a Jamaican restaurant can be?
I use ingredients that are traditional in the Caribbean in different ways. We make a barbecue sauce with sorrel, which is a very traditional Jamaican ingredient. My customers may not know what sorrel is unless they’ve had it before, but they’ve definitely had barbecue sauce. It starts the conversation. The hardest people to cook for, in my opinion, are people who have vacationed on the island or who have lived on the island. They come in and they want to recreate an experience that they’ve had, even though dishes can vary house to house or restaurant to restaurant.
That’s where I think my job as a chef and providing education comes in. It’s not like we’re forcing it, it’s just a subtle way of introducing diners to a different take on Caribbean food. Hopefully, when they go somewhere else, they already have a reference point. If I said I was a chef at a French restaurant and it was a super rustic cafe-type place, people would adjust their expectations because they’ve been exposed. That’s why representation is so important. The more Jamaican restaurants that are out there, the more people can see things outside of what they know. The more diversity we get in the Jamaican restaurant scene, then naturally that education happens because people are building on their experiences.
When and where Jamaican spreads to middle America, I don’t know. Here in New Jersey? I can represent the culture to the fullest and do it as best as I can.