For Kwame Onwuachi, taking a “vacation” isn’t easy.
Maybe it’s because he’s busy running Tatiana, his immensely popular restaurant in New York City’s Lincoln Center, which opened last November and is still impossible to get a reservation at. Before that, you could have placed the blame on his publishing schedule: In 2019, he wrote Notes From a Young Black Chef, followed by his cookbook My America: Recipes From a Young Black Chef. Between appearances on Top Chef, and now, all the work going into opening a new restaurant in Washington D.C.—coming this March—Onwuachi has a lot keeping him busy.
Work trips are his best bet at squeezing in some personal travel, which was the case last year when he spent a week in Jamaica. “I was going for a shoot, and I was able to go off and do my own thing in my free time,” says Onwuachi. “I don’t go on vacation, so this is it. It’s always like, okay, I’m doing an event over here, so I’m going to spend a couple days over there.”
Jamaica was a special one, though. Onwuachi, whose restaurants famously draw on his family’s Southern, African, and Caribbean heritage, was excited to return to the island largely on his own terms. “My family’s from Jamaica, so I went there as a kid and I’ve been back several times,” says Onwuachi. “But as an adult, it’s great because you can choose your own meals.” Whenever the cameras stopped rolling on the YesChef cooking class he was filming, that’s exactly what he did: he went out, and ate, devouring his way through Kingston, Negril, and Boston Beach over the course of a week.
Below, Onwuachi guides us through the high notes of his trip—from tasting a whole hog, in the birthplace of jerk, that took 12 hours to roast, to the morning cup that finally showed him how to appreciate coffee.
What was the first thing you ate when you got off the plane?
Whenever I fly into Kingston, I’m going to Devon House and I’m getting a curry goat patty, and then some grape nut ice cream. So that’s what I did on this trip. Grape nut is particular to the island, that’s really their thing—it’s like a cereal? I don’t really know what the hell it is, but it’s good.
What about your go-to breakfast every day?
Ackee and salt fish, ackee and salt fish, ackee and salt fish! That the traditional Jamaican breakfast. Ackee is this fruit that grows on a tree, and it has these large seeds that protrude out of it. When it’s ripe and safe to eat, it will open up; when the fruit is closed it’s poisonous. It tastes almost like scrambled eggs when it’s sauteed, and they do it with onions and peppers, and then they add salted cod. You eat it with either a fried boiled dumpling, or boiled green banana. So that’s an everyday thing. They serve it everywhere, but we went to Ziggy’s several times on this trip.
And your most anticipated meal—how was it?
My most anticipated meal of the trip was Belinda’s in Port Antonio. You have to cross a river and get there on a raft. I had heard how exclusive it was—you can’t just pull up, you’ve gotta be on the list. Somebody that told me it was it was going to be the best curry goat I’ve had in my entire life, and they were not lying. It was phenomenal. Everything was just cooked with love, and it’s all natural. What she has is what’s available for the day—luckily she had the curry goat—and she cooks it on guava wood and rocks, there’s no stove or anything. It’s pretty fucking wild. And you can’t really replicate the journey of spending an hour on this raft. It must make the food taste even better, right?
How about the best cheap eat—something quick and easy on the street?
The best cheap eat was pan chicken, it’s like jerk chicken but done in the pan, in an oil barrel that has been turned into a grill. Jerk chicken has more of a smoke on it, because it’s cooked with pimento wood, but pan chicken is charcoal—one is charred, the other is slow-smoked. There’s a pan chicken man in Port Antonio, everyone knows him.
And your biggest splurge?
That’s kind of relative, right? The most expensive meal I had was at Usain Bolt’s Tracks & Records in Kingston. It was really good, chef’s kiss. It’s eventful, too—people dress up, there’s a line, there’s a huge wait for reservations. It feels almost like an upscale sports bar in America, and that’s exciting because in Jamaica that type of thing isn’t as common. But also Belinda’s is a splurge. I had to take a raft, you know?
By that definition… what else felt like a splurge, either from the time or effort it took to get your meal?
I went into the mountains, in Maroon land. When the native Maroon people escaped from the British, they went into the mountains and that’s how they created jerk chicken. In order to not reveal their location, they dug holes for the fire and then put the meat in and covered it really quickly. They didn’t want the smoke to reveal their location. So, I went and did that process in the mountains. We got a whole pig, and it took like 12 hours: we started at 4 in the morning and then we ate at like 5 p.m. There was this ex-Army guy from Jamaica cooking. The food was amazing—I was brought to tears. I think it’s something we take for granted, to put a little sauce on chicken and put it on the grill but man, if you had to do this in silence, with the fear of the worst humanitarian nightmare happening? They weren’t worried about any culinary bravado, they were just making things work. So it brought it all into context for me. There are a lot of tours you can do like this.
Which meal came with the best view?
That was probably at Hellshire Beach. It’s this beach in Kingston where boats just come up and they cook for you, the catch of the day. They’ll ask you how you want it: you can get it fried, steamed, or curried, and it comes with bammy, which is this pressed cassava disk, or festival, which is a fried cornmeal bread. They’ll have spiny lobster, crab, and about 15 different types of fish. You see people pulling up with fish on a surfboard to give to the vendors there. It’s not touristy, just people that are from there eat there.
What’s the one dish would you fly back for?
I’d fly back for all of these dishes… but if I had to pick one it’d be Belinda’s curry goat. I’d fly, take the raft, all of it. There was another dish I loved, a tripe and bean curry, and the chef Alex D’Great makes it out there with his catering company [he’s available for private dinners]. I’d also fly back for that.
Best thing you drank?
Coffee in the Blue Mountains. They are these mountains where the reflection of the sun against the foliage makes them look blue. They grow coffee up there and I went up to pick my own beans. I saw how they dried the beans out, and then had the most amazing cup of coffee. I actually developed an appreciation for coffee after that. I knew about Blue Mountain coffee all my life, but I never went there until this trip.
Anything you brought home?
Milo, the malted chocolate powder. I grew up drinking it.
After all this great food—what do you think other travelers need to know about Jamaica and its cuisine?
I’d tell people to look past beef patties and just get deeper into the cuisine. Jamaican’s motto is, “Out of Many, One People.” If you look at the food, you can see the Indian influence. You see the Chinese influence. You can see the African influence, even the British, with the hand pies and beef patties. But I also like that everything that you need in Jamaica can be grown in Jamaica. It’s so bountiful. People are happy. It’s an epicenter of culture in so many different ways. And I love, love, love, love going there. It’s great to find people like Belinda and Alex D’Great, because that’s where the real magic is. Jamaica is one of the most incredible places on earth—I think you have to go there to really feel it.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler