There’s a new jerk in town, and it can be found at Peppers Smokehouse on Seven Mile Beach across from the Marriott resort. With a rustic, Caribbean atmosphere, a proven recipe of seasonings, and a unique cooking method, it is as close to an authentic Jamaican jerk experience as Grand Cayman has ever seen.
Ackee and saltfish might be Jamaica’s national dish, but it is jerk chicken and jerk pork that really put the country on the world’s culinary map. It’s partially the intoxicating aroma of tropical wood smoke and grilling meats it produces during cooking, partially the flavorful blend of exotic spices, and partially the fiery sting of scotch bonnet peppers that has made jerk the most recognized Jamaican food around the world.
Given the close historical and cultural ties the Cayman Islands shares with Jamaica, it’s not surprising that jerk chicken and jerk pork have long been favorites on Grand Cayman. However, because the cooking method is vastly different than it is in Jamaica, the foods prepared on barbecue grills in Cayman have relied on the seasonings and sauces to earn the jerk name. Although some of these seasonings and sauces are quite good in their own right, they really can’t measure up, at least in terms of authenticity, to the jerk served in Jamaica. Peppers Smokehouse takes Cayman a giant leap closer to Jamaican jerk.
Peppers brings to Cayman well-loved recipes for jerk seasonings that have made Scotchies one of the best-known jerk centers in Jamaica. Jeremy McConnell, an owner-director of the Scotchies Tree in Kingston, got involved in the restaurant through a friendship with Scotchies’ founder, Tony Rerrie, who established Scotchies in Montego Bay in 2001 and expanded to a second location, Scotchies Too, near Ocho Rios in 2006. McConnell, along with Rerrie and another partner, opened Scotchies Tree in Kingston in 2010. It was there that McConnell was approached by Caymanian Howard Finlason in 2013.
“Howard was a regular at Scotchies in Kingston and he said to me, ‘We have to have one in Cayman; why don’t you come over and take a look?’”
McConnell had not been to Grand Cayman since the mid-1990s and was surprised to see all of the development that had occurred since that time. He was intrigued, and soon he, along with Finlason, began looking for a location for a new jerk restaurant. After several trips to Cayman, they found a prime location on West Bay Road where the Agua Beach Bar and Restaurant had been located.
“We put together a group of investors and purchased the entire property, including the old Jet Nightclub, in November 2013,” McConnell said. After four months of remodeling and refurbishing, Peppers opened to the public on March 29 this year.
Jerk, in Jamaica, is really the marriage of a cooking process with specific seasonings. The cooking process is thought to have originated with the Arawak people who settled in Jamaica from Peru. They smoked meat slowly over wood coals to preserve meat. The word “jerk” is thought to have evolved from the Peruvian language word “charqui,” which is dried, cured meat similar to jerky.
The seasoning aspect of jerk food originated with shipwrecked African slaves known as Maroons, who took to the hills of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains to escape the British in the 1700s. Living life on the run in the mountains, the Maroons used various seasonings and spices, including native hot peppers, on wild boars that they caught and then cooked with a process similar to that used by the Arawaks – over wood coals in pits dug in the earth and covered with leaves from pimento trees.
Jerk isn’t prepared in pits anymore, but authentic jerk centers like Scotchies use a method that replicates the process. A layer of hot wood coals is placed underneath a “grill” of green branches of specific indigenous sweet-wood trees, including pimento. Seasoned meats like chicken, pork and lamb are then placed directly on the wood branches and covered with sheets of corrugated metal to help retain the heat and smoke. The meat is slow cooked in this fashion, resulting in an end product that stays true to the origins of jerk.
Although Scotchies uses that cooking method in its three jerk centers in Jamaica, it wasn’t feasible in Cayman for a number of reasons, including the amount of smoke the process would emit on Seven Mile Beach and the scarcity of suitable native woods in Cayman. As a result, a different method for cooking jerk that would produce similar results to Scotchies’ method had to be developed for Peppers.
After months of experimentation, McConnell chose a method using La Caja China box grills, which are often used in Cayman to roast whole pigs.
With the La Caja China box, the meat is placed inside the metal box and hot lump wood charcoals are placed on a metal tray above the box. Because the coal tray seals the box from the top, heat – and moisture – are trapped inside, allowing the meat to cook more quickly and to retain its juiciness, something that is particularly important since Peppers serves whole chickens, including breast meat.
To add wood flavor, smoker boxes with coals and wood chips are placed inside the La Caja China grill.
“The meat is impregnated with the smoke, which is sealed inside the box,” McConnell said. “We use mesquite, oak and apple wood chips, and we’re experimenting to see which one works best.”
The cooking process might be different from Scotchies, but the seasoning is exactly the same recipe developed by Tony Rerrie more than a decade ago.
“There’s a dry rub for the pork and there’s a dry rub for the chicken, which is a little milder, along with the same scotch bonnet wet rub for them both,” McConnell said, adding that the meat is then marinated in the seasonings for 24 hours prior to cooking.
A diluted version of the wet rub recipe is used to create the fiery-hot finishing sauce that can be used – by those who can stand the heat – on the cooked product, in combination with or instead of ketchup.
For its jerk pork, Peppers uses local pigs, and McConnell said that within two weeks of opening, the restaurant was already the biggest user of local pigs on the island. The chickens are sourced from Jamaica, using the free range Best Dressed Chicken products.
In addition to jerk chicken and jerk pork, Peppers serves house-made jerk chicken and jerk pork sausages.
“There’s a secret way of doing the sausages where there’s no casing involved, but it stays together,” McConnell said.
Peppers also serves house-made soups and roasted, jerk-seasoned mahi mahi, which is cooked in the coals atop the La Caja China grill, along with several side dishes, including breadfruit, yams, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, rice and peas and festival, which is a sweet, fried bread dumpling.
Rather than merely being a restaurant, Peppers is designed to be a place people come to socialize in a fun, island atmosphere. The remodeling project involved the installation of thatch roofs, bamboo railings and rustic wooden tables and chairs to give Peppers a laid-back, Caribbean feel.
Peppers offers a full bar with spirits, wines and bottled beers, as well as Caybrew, Guinness and Red Stripe on tap.
“We’re one of the few places on the island with Red Stripe on tap,” McConnell said.
The bar also uses a special edition of the local Seven Fathoms Rum that is infused with scotch bonnet peppers to create a Caesar that is calls “Fiyah.”
There’s music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with three different local DJs to help establish Peppers as a gathering place.
“I had a nice compliment last night from some tourists from Arkansas,” McConnell said. “They said this was the first place they came to in Cayman where there were able to meet a lot of people and talk to people – local people – and they had been here a whole week.”