Bee the Jerk Cafe, a storefront tucked into a strip mall in the Cape Cod village of South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, sweet-smelling smoke greets guests as soon as they open the front door. So does the cafe’s owner, Glenroy Burke, who bounces around the wide-open kitchen while tending the grill and plates. “I don’t like being hidden in the kitchen,” said Mr. Burke, who is also known as “Chef Shrimpy.”
For over three decades, Jamaican cooks and chefs have been coming to Cape Cod via the H-2B visa program, which offers foreign workers a pathway to temporary non-farm jobs. A modest number of seasonal workers have become permanent residents or citizens. This summer, as international travel resumes and the domestic job market remains strong, Jamaicans are once again staffing the kitchens of traditional Cape seafood restaurants, gourmet destinations, resorts and inns.
And with their ingredients and cooking techniques, Jamaicans are making a mark on the region’s culinary identity, opening their own restaurants and enlivening the menus of established eateries from Hyannis to Provincetown. Cape Cod flavor, long defined by Yankee seafood favorites, now includes flaky, golden patties, vibrant jerk rubbed meat, and turmeric-rich curries buzzing with allspice.
“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who works as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. “Other people are learning to understand us — how we talk, how we laugh, how we have conversations through food.”
A shared history of bananas
The number of Jamaicans working on the H-2B program in the United States has increased by 84 percent in the past 10 years, to 8,950 in 2021, from 4,874 in 2011, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. Looking further back and local, a Cape Cod immigration attorney, Matthew Lee at Tocci & Leeestimate — based on data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — that 500 Jamaicans were working in the Cape by the summer of 2000, and that number rose to a pre-pandemic peak of 1,000.
Mr Burke first came to the Cape in 1997 after interacting with an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He had grown up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, watching his mother cook, eventually working in cruise ship and resort kitchens. After a year as a seasonal worker, Mr Burke was awarded a green card and worked as a cook and maritime technician in the Cape Town towns of Harwich and Chatham. The economic opportunity he found in the Cape motivated him to stay and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.
Three years after acquiring US citizenship, Mr. Burke opened the Jerk Cafe in 2008. The restaurant quickly became popular for its jerk; As for side dishes, Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are beloved. Used almost as a garnish, a fritter tops any order and tastes like lightly baked chunks of sweet banana bread.
During his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mother made these occasionally on Sundays. “When poor moms and dads had no sugar, they could crush bananas and put a little flour in them so they could make us something sweet,” he said. “I wish she made them every day.”
Bananas are the backbone of an older, shared history between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, after an accidental landing in Port Antonio, Lorenzo Dow Baker, a ship captain and entrepreneur from Wellfleet, introduced the fruit to the United States. The wealth he gained from this modern banana trade led him to establish hotels in both Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he employed seasonal workers for Jamaican people.
Herbs in the overhead
Bee Mac is on the pier in Wellfleet, a majority Jamaican kitchen staff makes marinated pork and a Caribbean seafood platter, alongside fried cod sandwiches and clam chowder.
“Collaboration in the kitchen leads to more diverse and well-rounded food, so I’ve always encouraged that,” says Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the Ten Mac’s Seafood restaurants and fish markets that can be found all over the Cape.
The Jamaican-inspired dishes made their way onto the menu thanks to Neily Bowlin, a former Pier Chef who now runs two Mac’s Seafood markets. About 10 years ago, Mac’s had a smoker and the restaurant served barbecue ribs. Mr. Bowlin suggested doing marinated pork, and Mr. Hay thought it was a great idea.
In the past, Mr. Bowlin and others carried pounds of allspice and jerk seasoning in their luggage, “just to make the jerk fly off the menu,” he said with a laugh.
Mr Bowlin is originally from Black River, Jamaica, a part of the country where seafood is a specialty – he was well suited to working with the Cape’s local ingredients when he arrived for his first summer in 1996.
“At the time, it was a very small, close-knit community,” he said. “Now, even in winter, you see a lot more Jamaicans, and they don’t just come here. They live here, they have families, they have houses, they have businesses.”
Motel rooms for workers
Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds local Jamaicans and the wider Provincetown community ackee and salt fish, curry lobster and jerk chicken at her laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats† Like many restaurant owners, she faced a challenging time during the pandemic.
“While Covid has hit us very hard for two years, the locals in P-Town have supported their local businesses,” said Ms Brown.
In 2020 Tara Vargas founded Wallace Reinforce POC Cape Cod, a non-profit racial equity organization, to support and showcase minority businesses in the Cape. She counts Irie Eats, along with Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham and the Caribbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, among beloved Jamaican restaurants on the Cape. “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive,” she said, “but they’ve also struggled a lot.”
A lack of affordable housing has emerged as a serious consequence of the pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting communities of color. Before the coronavirus, the conversion of seasonal rentals and other housing stock to Airbnb’s removed many affordable long-term rentals from the market; the mass exodus from urban areas to the Cape during the pandemic exacerbated the problem.
While Ms. Vargas Wallace is backed by tourists who support minority-owned businesses — those who are “conscious about their wallet activism,” she said — the shortage of affordable housing risks pricing out the very business owners and workers who cater to visitors. .
As a result, many business owners who participate in the H-2B program acquire motels, multifamily homes, or other properties to convert into employee housing. Mr. Hay owns several properties; several years ago he bought a motel that now offers 10 rooms to his seasonal staff. “Every business that’s here has some kind of housing to survive,” he said.
Another issue is the annual cap on the number of seasonal workers, which this year is 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all countries. Mr. Hay relies on recruiters and personal connections to find employees and has employed Jamaican workers for twenty years, but because of the cap and that lottery-based system, “even if we have someone who is a relative or friend, we can don’t necessarily get them into the country,” said Mr Hay.
Mr. Crooks, the executive chef of Westmoreland Parish, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his career and entered the H-2B visa lottery for more opportunities.
This summer, as one of the four chefs of Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he makes dishes like smooth oxtail, soaked in a rich, auburn gravy and studded with chunks of potato and fava beans. Quality is vital.
“We’re trying to make it as authentic as possible,” Mr. Crooks said. “All the chefs here actually learned to cook from our grandparents.”