An early appreciation for food and beverage would lead to bartending then to living in Italy and seeing the concept of roadside cafés which would eventually birth the idea of starting one in Jamaica.
That idea is now Kenny's Italian Café on Norman Manley Boulevard (Beach Road) in Negril, Westmoreland.
"I went to Europe and I liked the concept of persons hanging out at roadside cafés in the evening. They would dress up and have aperitivo. I decided I wanted to open a place like that in Jamaica and I went to school while there to learn how to make pizzas and pastas. I worked in restaurants while there and a friend's mom taught me a whole lot about preparing Italian food," owner [Kenny] Johnson explained.
Johnson returned to Jamaica and started to operate a tour bus with special focus on taking Italian clients around Jamaica.
"I started small. It was opened only in the evenings. I was cooking, serving and driving Italian guests during the day. I would take them all over the island during the day and then I would take them to the restaurant in the evenings. Usually I would prepare dishes, like lobster, calamari, pizza and bruschetta. I started playing house music as the entertainment and a lot of people said it wouldn't work. One individual however, said 'if you believe in yourself and your product just keep doing it and eventually they'll adapt'. It was hard work and it still is, but now we are a household name," Johnson stated.
When quizzed on how consistency, taste and quality are maintained, Johnson expressed that he taught all the kitchen staff how to cook.
"I don't have a chef that started as such; I taught them how to cook how I was taught in Italy. My ragu sauce is cooked for eight hours and my tomato sauce is done the authentic way, especially without sugar. My cream sauce is made with heavy cream; typically some persons go for a roux mixture with butter. Bruschetta done with freshly chopped tomatoes and basil. Pizza is always thin crust, a much healthier option — only olive oil is used, and the best cheeses because we're about quality. Everything at Italian Café is really me and the lessons I brought back with me and passed on to everyone, including the dishwasher. I wrote the menu, baked breads and pizzas. My dough is grown for at least 24 hours and monitored for temperature consistency to prevent the dough dying. All this is done for authenticity and quality," Johnson explained.
Johnson is looking to the future and wants to open another two locations with Kingston as the targeted area for the next spot.
"I want to open another two locations and I'm looking at Kingston to start. I'm always refining and making changes to the space and entertainment to keep it fresh. Indeed, keeping it fresh is is a feature many have come to expect. I just added Dolce Vita, that's for all the desserts including cakes, crêpes and ice cream," Johnson added.
— Text & photos by Aceion Cunningham
Kenny's Italian Café
Norman Manley Boulevard, Negril
Opening Hours: Sunday to Saturday 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm
Note: Bar closes at 3:00 am