Robert McGrath’s Jamaican Feast
It’s the beginning of a Tex-Jamaican food adventure. Robert McGrath, executive chef of Houston’s Four Seasons Hotel, and I are sitting in Caribbean Cuisine, a bare-bones Bellaire lunch-room filled with a handful of tables and the sound of an oversized calypso beat. Mock pickle barrels with stools make up the seating in a side room that doubles as a West Indian grocery. Noting a countertop TV, McGrath says, “I don’t know how they do it, but they actually have TV reception like they do in Jamaica.”
McGrath was born in Kentucky but grew up in Jamaica, where he first learned to cook. An alumnus of Cordon Bleu in Paris, he returned to the United States (“I lived in the Keys for a while – that was my transition”) and ran kitchens in New York, at the Disneyland Hotel, and at Austin’s Four Seasons. For the past year he has worked at the Houston hotel.
Although he is best known for his accomplished New Southwestern cuisine, McGrath has never severed his island roots. At the Four Seasons he has created light spring and summer menus in which island briskness meets Texas staple in dishes such as skillet-seared mahimahi on Pecos melon, and lobster-and-mango salad with poblano peppers. Looking for inspiration from an authentically earthy Jamaican lunch, McGrath is planning a meal incorporating island tradition and his own inventive touches. The result illustrates the perfect adaptability of Caribbean cooking to this neck of the woods.
“Texans should find Caribbean food pleasantly familiar, because ideally it’s cooked outside on the grill, it can be spicy, and a successful meal depends on fresh foods,” McGrath says. “The two cuisines are compatible because it’s the same philosophy – food that goes very quickly from field to kitchen to table.”
Texas, in fact, with its own tradition of hybridized cuisines and its stretches of balmy coastline, is a natural for the fresh, piquant tastes of Caribbean cooking. And the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in recent years (especially to Houston, where reggae supersedes rock and roll in some neighborhoods) has established the kind of cultural base that can keep ethnic flavors alive. West Indian markets are springing up, and Caribbean specialty items are appearing in other Texas groceries. With a grill and a few exotic items, Texas cooks can try their hands at summery tropical magic.
To get started with our culinary research, we order fresh ginger beer, iced sorrel tea, and each of the entrées on today’s menu: oxtail, cow’s foot, kingfish, curried goat, and salt cod with akee fruit. McGrath, an energetic, impulsive man – fingers drumming on the tabletop, feet tapping on the floor – is a little wound up from running a big kitchen. His shirt is starched so heavily it crackles when he moves. “It would take a concerted effort to mellow out again,” he says. But there’s an island attitude at Caribbean Cuisine. Soon after we order, McGrath unwinds, sitting back in the booth and bobbing to the beat. Even his shirt looks softer.
Red-pea soup (made with pigeon peas) arrives in Styrofoam cups on a plastic tray. McGrath explains the special chemistry of Jamaican cooking. “By nature, it’s already an alternative cuisine,” he says. “You don’t need to add a lot of cream or butter or things from a can or a jar. Everything you need comes from the market or the sea. I find a lot of ways to get flavor from things with ginger and lime, garlic and bonnet peppers [fiery Caribbean chiles].” Caribbean food celebrates the blending of Spanish, French, British, African, East Indian, and Dutch cookery with the indigenous foods and techniques of native islanders. The flavors, recognizable and yet mysterious, reward the adventurous palate.
Our waitress delivers a plateful of fried plantains and white rice, which McGrath douses with the soup. Of the plantains (large greenish, slightly sweet bananas), the chef says, “They’re served as a starch, as an accompaniment to the meal – they’re treated the same way we treat carrots.” The second plate sags with entrées. The flavorful kingfish is crunchy with black pepper, and it whispers of bonnet peppers, a bright heat that jalapeno fanciers should find appealing. “Of the one hundred and twenty-five or so peppers that are rated for hotness, jalapenos come in only about seventy-fifth,” McGrath says. “Bonnet and Jamaican bird peppers are just about the hottest I’ve ever come in contact with.”
After a palatable cow’s foot we move on to curried goat, more tender than any cabrito. “What’s interesting about the curries is that they’re part of the tremendous influence of Indian and African cuisine on Jamaican cooking,” he says. We both skimp on the oxtail, tasty but gelatinous, then tangle forks over the national dish of Jamaica, salt cod and akees. The meat of the bland, oblong, yellow akee fruit looks like scrambled eggs and has a nutty, custardlike flavor when boiled and sautéed with fish, tomatoes, and white and green onions. McGrath accepts the suggestion that British colonialists might be responsible for the dish: salt cod and akee as the island equivalent of kippers and eggs.
We settle back to the ginger beer and sorrel tea, a claret-colored brew of dried tropical blooms (also called jamaica) simmered with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar. Before we leave Caribbean Cuisine, we buy a tin of akee fruit, some fresh coconut cream, and a jar of Jamaican Country Style Boston Jerk Seasoning.
The shopping continues at a Fiesta Mart, one of a chain of Houston stores that are international, almost interplanetary – jam-packed from door to rafters and abuzz with a multilingual cast of thousands. Flashing neon signs lead us from dairy to bakery and past plantains piled to the ceiling, banana leaves for sale by the yard, and acres of callaloo, a spinachlike green featured in pepper-pot soups. McGrath passes up the malanga and cassava, which are starchy tubers, but lingers over mangoes. Bird peppers are unavailable, but we do find cachuche, a gum-ball-size variety of the brassy-orange bonnet pepper.