INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY ZACH KAISER
Barreling down the narrow streets of Baltimore is a green box truck with gold and black lines intertwined running down the sides. Where it stops, the air fills with aromas of allspice, ginger, garlic, cloves, thyme, and pepper. There is a level of complexity that sends your senses into a spiral. Then Chef Brown hands you an enormous platter, blending foods that are both familiar, and elevated to far more than what you’d expect from a food truck.
Chef Jeff Brown, of JBees-Jamaican-Me-Crazy food truck, grew up in New York City and later supported his family as a Baltimore City police officer for most of his life, but recently took his childhood passion to the professional level. His mother and father taught him how to cook, how to create the Jamaican culinary staples, and how to put a Maryland twist into each dish. It started with cooking for his mother, then his family, friends, and co-workers, and now for strangers that quickly became regulars. You see lines up and down various streets throughout Baltimore with people following the good smells that Chef Brown’s truck leaves behind.
Recently, while visiting his food Truck, Chef Brown took time to answer some questions about his inspiration, challenges, and achievements. He is mindful of where he came from, but also where he is going. This past month, he took his talents to R-House; a community kitchen and restaurant that features local Chefs looking to launch their own restaurant concepts. Chef Brown is taking a passion that started as a child and propelling himself towards an exciting path. So, take a seat and I hope you enjoy my conversation with Chef Brown as much as I did.
Welcome to our new series called Roots to the Table. A series of sit-down interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs discussing the roots of their culinary influence. We are hoping to catch a glimpse of what connects us to our past as we continue to innovate forward. This interview was recorded on March 11th, 2017.
ZACH - What got you interested in cooking?
CHEF BROWN - Well I have been cooking since I was 9 years old. My father is from Kingston, … Kingston, Jamaica, he taught me a lot as a child. The only unfortunate thing about him is he had a business in New York. That’s where I am from. My mother is American. He owned three stores… and he was a bad boy, he didn’t pay his taxes when he was supposed to. So they deported him. When it was time for him to come back he didn’t come back. I am over there a lot. He is over here a lot. What got me here is my love for cooking. My mom always cooked a lot as well. She didn’t know much about Jamaican food at first. My father always taught me how to cook Jamaican food. The interesting thing about it is I have a large family. So she always cooked a lot. It was like cooking for an army all the time. So I was like… okay show me how to cook.
ZACH - How many siblings do you have?
CHEF BROWN - Three. But the point is my grandmother had ten children. So my mother had nine brothers and sisters. We all lived together. The difference was, she herself would cook for the family a lot. She was the baby sister so she took over the cooking and cleaning. So that experience… we learned a lot growing up. Everyone wanted me to cook jerk chicken… cook jerk chicken… cook jerk chicken. When we would have family events… family events was a lot… all the time… and we would cook that and make alterations over time. Eventually, as I grew older I became a police officer. I have been doing policing now for 15 years. 3 years military police. So together going 18 or 19 years policing. That’s all I knew: policing and cooking for the home.
ZACH - So it was something that you eventually realized you could do for other people. Your cooking I mean?
CHEF BROWN - It came to a point where I was working very hard. I wanted to get back to my family. I was constantly fighting with myself whether or not I should come back and do something different or just simply do what I love. I love to cook. So why not cook. Crazy Ray’s down in Curtis Bay… I was working police work there doing the security and trying to catch people stealing car parts in the yard. Then I saw a food truck over there. A Mexican food truck and I didn’t like the food that I ate from it. So I said let me try to sell people some food here. So while I was working I would cook maybe 10 dinners and bring them out to the people. A lot of people would come their hungry everyday… 800 to 1800 a day. I only started with 10 people… two weeks go by… and I thought man no one is going to buy my food. But one day 50 to 60 to 100 people were sitting in line and this man came by and said he saw me cooking some food a long time maybe two weeks… and he said “I see nobody buying your food, let me try some.” That day I had the Jerk fish platter: rice and beans, cabbage, carrots, and plantains… and he tried the fish and lost his mind. Everybody saw him eating it. The next 10 people that came in line bought my food.
ZACH - Just by those customers seeing the look on his face… changed their mind.
CHEF BROWN - They were done. They asked “when are you going to bring some more?” I said I will see you tomorrow. So long story short… 20 dinners turned to 40 dinners, 40 dinners turned to 80 dinners to the point where I couldn’t bring it in my truck anymore. I had a pick-up truck with two warmers on the back. Actual, manual warmers, with trays you would pull out. Making the plates that way. It got to the point where I decided I had to do something. This is getting out of hand. I ended up getting the licenses and started thinking about what to do next. Then I got hurt on the job and had some time to think and put some things together to try to make this happen. Voila…
ZACH - ...and you just went for the food truck all out? Is that a different kind of hustle working the truck?
CHEF BROWN - It is not even a hustle to me. It’s like fun. It’s like who am I going to meet today… what smile am I going to put on people’s face today. One thing I want to start doing is putting up shots of people’s faces after they try my food. Because they go nuts when they taste my food. I want to put that type of thing on Facebook. Share that to the world and show that I can put some serious love into this Jamaican food. I think I go past love and put my soul into it… So it is to the point where people try to find me… they are following me… I needed to hire someone just to run my social media. It is getting out of hand. “Let me tag you here and hashtag here…” I can’t get to that, that’s how busy I am. So it is to the point now where okay… let’s get the food truck out. Find the locations that are great. The ones I go to… I am liking it, the people. It is fun for me to see the smiles and to hear “keep doing it.” All the encouragement, questions like “do you have a restaurant?,” “Where your restaurant at?,” “Where can I find you next?,” - I don’t have one, I just gotta keep going. That’s my next stop.
ZACH - Do you get a lot of regulars or new faces?
CHEF BROWN - Regulars are great because they usually bring one or two new people. Word of mouth is the best type of advertisement you can have. Especially in this small world. It’s this small word of mouth that makes a difference. That’s where it is at. People that come in… tell a lot of other people. That’s why I know when I go into R-House the word of mouth is going to be excellent. Going to the first brewery, Union Brewery, people loved me down there. Chris loves the food. That’s where discussing my sauce and selling that became an idea. So I have some fun ideas.
ZACH - Are you going to expand the menu more at R-House? Are you going to do more things?
CHEF BROWN - I am going to bring it down at R-House. Because of the demand, 1200 people a day…
ZACH - You want to ensure you can put out a consistent product… makes sure your team is ready…
CHEF BROWN - Exactly. Exactly right. That’s where I want to make sure I can meet the demand. Some of the pop-up people that are over there. They are running out of food. Some of them are and some of them are not. I want to keep up with that demand. I will have my food truck over there too. So that should also help with the supply…
ZACH - So you have the Po Boy and the Chicken…
CHEF BROWN - My menu consists of… jerk chicken, curry chicken, jerk ribs, jerk fish… I used to do the fish four different ways. The platter, the nuggets, a sub… the jerk fish sub was what I started with at Rays. But I perfected it because I wanted to add something to it. I didn’t know what to add to it. So I thought about it. A friend of mine said… “have you ever heard of a Po Boy?” … I said yeah I have, he said “you should put shrimp on it…” I said okay… let me figure out how I can change this… I went through 12 different threads for my sub and in doing that I decided I would change what I was doing and use what I had. The difference was coco bread, so I said okay let’s go the coco bread way. So I tried the coco bread version four different ways and I added curry shrimp and that’s how I got to the Po Boy. Colossus curry shrimp, beer battered onions, fresh jerk fish, onion, lettuce, tomato, JBees aioli sauce, and coco bread.
ZACH - It looks like it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out all the little things… to design the sandwich that you wanted.
CHEF BROWN - It was going that way I think, and then the beer battered onions and curry shrimp changed it…
ZACH - Those where the parts that altered everything… Are these all things that have some sort of thread from when you were growing up?
CHEF BROWN - The fish is a vietnamese fish that we used to eat over in Jamaica. I made the fish several different ways because people wanted different things, to be more healthy and didn’t want the bread. Jerk fish nuggets were ones that people requested. The sub were for people on the go. If you wanted a full dinner: the platter.
ZACH - At the end of the day you just want to make your customers happy.
CHEF BROWN - At the end of the day, you just want to do that. I do ribs. I do jerk lamb. I do oxtail. I do the curry shrimp. I do brown stew chicken sometimes. You do all of these foods in different sizes to make them happy. People want different food. They are tired of the same food all the time.
ZACH - ...and that lets you play around too. Let’s you change it up all the time. Is it usually just you in the truck?
CHEF BROWN - Right now I have four employees.
ZACH - How do you organize yourselves on the truck?
CHEF BROWN - Depends on the day. Two cooking and two taking orders. When I am on the truck… I show the people who don’t know how to do it… how. At the same time my sister, my mom, and myself have all done it. I am trying to get more employees for R-House. I am looking to hire 8 or 9 people for R-House.
ZACH - How hard is it to teach them what you have learned over the span of your life?
CHEF BROWN - It’s not hard to teach at all. They want to learn. They have all been working with me. They learn how to do things and learn how to run the business at the same time. Even though my mother is American and my sister is American they don’t have a problem with understanding it. I have one other manager as well. I don’t have a problem with teaching everyone everything.
ZACH - Are rice and beans a staple in this type of food? What are some staples in this type of food?
CHEF BROWN - It is not anything major. It is just traditional cooking. It is just learning how to cook rice and beans. It is not anything different from other food. It is the island flare you put on it, that’s the most important part.
ZACH - Tell me more about what is going on at R-House…
CHEF BROWN - They have a pop-up restaurants where they allow new chefs to come in. They let us showcase what we do. They allow you to come in for a couple weeks, three days, a month, whatever you want. You can showcase. Run a restaurant like you want. You can make no money or you can do well. It is all up to you. That’s the good part about R-House. It can teach young and upcoming chefs, you know, what to do, how to do it. I am a self-taught chef. I never went to school for it. I know what I know. I am learning the business side of it, it is interesting to learn it in a different way. I try to put a lot of people around me that can teach me a lot more.
ZACH - So that you can learn how to run at that level and pace…
CHEF BROWN - Exactly. Exactly. It is going to be the first time I am at that level. But I think I can handle it. I have been feeding thousands of people. I can’t believe that I have fed that many people. Festivals, catering, all that kind of stuff. I have a thousand meals I have to cook today just for a catering event I picked up this afternoon. What did you think about the food? The jerk chicken and jerk fries from yesterday.
ZACH - I like the thick cut. They have the spice and heat, but have that warm soft potato on the inside. It is definitely something unique with the spices. The jerk chicken is so complex, juicy, you can taste thyme, ginger, cloves, and pepper. It is something I have never experienced before.
CHEF BROWN - I went out to Ocean City. I saw them cutting thick cut fries and decided I wanted to put that island flare on them. Similar to the jerk chicken.
ZACH - What are your most popular dishes?
CHEF BROWN - The jerk po boy, the jerk chicken, the jerk ribs, and the oxtail. I don’t normally cook the oxtail, but I have people thirsten for it. That is something that is different.
ZACH - Do you have people come up who have no idea what Jamaican cuisine is?
CHEF BROWN - A lot of people of other cultures don’t eat Jamaican food. Shame on you. The food is delicious. The food is good so you have to try. It is complex and has that island flare that is ours.
ZACH - I have had trouble finding Jamaican food at this level that feels authentic and complex. I just haven’t had as much exposure. Shame on me. (Chef Brown laughs) It was fun to have jerk chicken.
CHEF BROWN - That was the first time you had jerk chicken?
ZACH - Yeah it was…
CHEF BROWN - What is that on the back of your head? Let me get that for you… Shame on you! (Chef Brown hits me in the back of the head)
ROOTS TO THE TABLE
A series of sit-down interviews with chefs and food entrepreneurs discussing the roots of their culinary influence. We are hoping to catch a glimpse of what connects us to our past as we continue to innovate forward. READ MORE.