Glenroy Burke aka Chef Shrimpy, restaurant The Jerk Cafe in South Yarmouth Mass

Glenroy Burke, also known as "Chef Shrimpy," at his South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, restaurant, The Jerk Cafe.

Glenroy Burke, also known as "Chef Shrimpy," at his South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, restaurant, The Jerk Cafe.

Pass the chowder and curry: Jamaican chefs are making Cape Cod food even better.

With the help of Jamaican seasonal workers, Cape Cod now has a taste that goes beyond the well-known Yankee favorites. There are now golden patties, jerk-rubbed meats, and curries with a lot of turmeric.

When people walk into the Jerk Cafe, which is in a strip mall in the Massachusetts village of South Yarmouth on Cape Cod, they smell sweet smoke. Glenroy Burke, the owner of the cafe, moves around the wide-open kitchen, stirring pots, taking care of the grill, and plating dishes. Mr. Burke, who is also known as “Chef Shrimpy,” said, “I don’t like to be hidden in the kitchen.”

Jamaican cooks and chefs have been coming to Cape Cod through the H-2B visa program for more than 30 years. This program helps foreign workers find temporary non-farming jobs. A small number of seasonal workers have moved to the area for good or become citizens. This summer, Jamaicans are once again working in the kitchens of traditional Cape seafood restaurants, fine dining spots, resorts, and inns. This is because international travel is back up and the domestic job market is still strong.

Byron Crooks is working at the Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe as a chef for the first time this summer.

And with their ingredients and ways of cooking, Jamaicans are leaving their mark on the region’s food culture. They are opening their own restaurants and adding new dishes to the menus of restaurants from Hyannis to Provincetown. Long ago, the taste of Cape Cod was defined by the seafood dishes that Yankees liked to eat. Now, it also includes flaky, golden patties, bright jerk-rubbed meats, and curries with a lot of turmeric and allspice.

“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, who has an H-2B visa and is working as a chef at the Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. Crooks is from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica. “Through food, other people get to know how we talk, laugh, and have conversations.”

How bananas have changed over time

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, the number of Jamaicans working in the U.S. through the H-2B program has grown by 84 percent in the past 10 years, from 4,874 in 2011 to 8,950 in 2021. Matthew Lee at Tocci & Lee, an immigration lawyer in Cape Cod, uses data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce to estimate that by the summer of 2000, 500 Jamaicans were working on the Cape, and that number reached a high of 1,000 before the pandemic.

In 1997, Mr. Burke came to the Cape for the first time after meeting an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He grew up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, where he watched his mother cook. Later, he worked in resorts and cruise ship kitchens. After one year as a seasonal worker, Mr. Burke got a green card and worked as a cook and marine technician in the Cape towns of Harwich and Chatham. He decided to stay on the Cape because he could make money there and follow his dream of opening a restaurant.

In his restaurant, Mr. Burke is making banana fritters.

In 2008, Mr. Burke opened the Jerk Cafe. This was three years after he became an American citizen. The restaurant’s jerk became very popular very quickly, and Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are a favorite side dish. One fritter tops each order, almost like a garnish. It tastes like lightly fried bits of sweet banana bread.

When Mr. Burke was young, his mother sometimes made these on Sundays. “When our poor parents didn’t have sugar, they would crush a banana and mix it with a little flour to make us something sweet,” he said. “I wish she would do it every day.”

Cape Cod and Jamaica have a long history together that is based on bananas. In 1870, a ship captain from Wellfleet named Lorenzo Dow Baker brought the fruit to the United States after he landed by accident in Port Antonio. Because of the money he made in the modern banana trade, he opened hotels in Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he hired Jamaican workers for the summer.

There are spices in the over

Most of the people who work in the kitchen at Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet are from Jamaica. They make jerk pork and a Caribbean seafood bowl, as well as fried codfish sandwiches and clam chowder.

“Collaboration in the kitchen makes for more interesting and well-rounded food, so I’ve always encouraged it,” said Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the Cape’s ten Mac’s Seafood restaurants and seafood markets.

At the Jerk Cafe, one banana fritter is served with every dish.

Neily Bowlin, who used to be a chef at the Pier and now runs two Mac’s Seafood markets, is responsible for putting Jamaican-style dishes on the menu. About 10 years ago, Mac’s had a smoker and barbecued ribs on the menu. Mr. Bowlin said they should make jerk pork, which Mr. Hay loved.

In the past, Mr. Bowlin and others would bring pounds of allspice and jerk seasoning in their luggage to “make the jerk just fly off the menu,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Bowlin is from Black River, Jamaica. In that part of the country, seafood cooking is a specialty, so when he came to the Cape for the first time in 1996, he was ready to work with the local ingredients.

“It was a small, close-knit community back then,” he said. “Now, you see a lot more Jamaicans even in the winter, and they don’t just come here to visit. They live here, have families, own homes, and run businesses.”

Motel rooms for workers

Natessa Brown’s laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats, is on Route 6 in Provincetown. She serves ackee and salt fish, curry lobster, and jerk chicken to Jamaicans and people from all over Provincetown. During the pandemic, she and many other restaurant owners had a hard time.

“Covid hurt us a lot for two years, but the people in P-Town still supported their local businesses,” said Ms. Brown.

In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace started Amplify POC Cape Cod, a nonprofit for racial equity that helps and promotes businesses owned by people of color on the Cape. She loves Jamaican restaurants on the Cape, like Irie Eats, Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham, and the Karibbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis. She said, “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community grow, but they’ve also had a lot of trouble.”

The kitchen staff at Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet makes jerk pork, Caribbean seafood bowls, fried codfish sandwiches, and clam chowder.

A major problem caused by the pandemic is the lack of affordable housing, which hurts communities of color more than other groups. Before the coronavirus, many affordable long-term rentals were taken off the market when seasonal rentals and other housing were turned into Airbnbs. The mass migration from cities to the Cape during the pandemic made the problem worse.

Ms. Vargas Wallace is encouraged by tourists who buy from minority-owned businesses. These tourists, she said, “are intentional about their wallet activism.” However, the lack of affordable housing could drive out the business owners and workers who serve tourists.

Because of this, many H-2B business owners buy motels, homes with multiple units, or other properties to turn into housing for their workers. Mr. Hay owns more than one property. A few years ago, he bought a motel with 10 rooms for his seasonal workers. “Every business here needs a place to live in order to stay open,” he said.

Another problem is the number of seasonal workers that can be hired each year, which this year is capped at 33,000 for all countries. Mr. Hay has hired Jamaican workers for the past 20 years. He uses recruiters and personal connections to find workers, but because of the cap and the lottery system, “even if we have someone who is a relative or a friend, we can’t always get them in the country,” he said.

At Mac’s on the Pier, you can get two servings of the Caribbean seafood bowl.
The local interest in Natessa Brown’s Irie Eats restaurant kept it open during the pandemic.

Mr. Crooks, a chef from Westmoreland Parish, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his career and entered the H-2B visa lottery to get more opportunities.

This summer, he is one of four chefs at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe. He makes dishes like soft oxtail with chunks of potato and broad beans in a rich, auburn gravy. Important is quality.

Mr. Crooks said, “We try to make it as real as we can.” “Our grandparents taught all of the chefs here how to cook,” said one.

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