Ready, Set, Plate: A Masterclass Served on a Silver Platter
Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards conceptualiser and webinar host Novia McDonald-Whyte(left) made the connection with guests for the Ready, Set, Plate webinar on Tuesday, June 29.

The local restaurant industry continues to thrive, and competition has become increasingly fierce. This era of fast-paced food service is rapidly evolving. However, there are several ways restaurateurs and chefs can stand out from the pack, ensuring that they provide a quality product while attracting and retaining customers. On Tuesday, June 29, the Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards hosted the third instalment of its 2021 webinar series, entitled “Ready, Set, Plate!” The discussion centred on ways the “brave ones” (what Executive Chef Brian Lumley calls chefs and restaurateurs) stay ahead of trends, consistently delight customers, and embrace competition.

Participating in the discussion were Broken Plate co-principal and chef Damion Stewart; Oceano co-principal and chef Shea Stewart; Lala's Nutmeg Restaurant principal Lauren Tomlinson; Summerhouse at Harmony Hall co-principal Michelle Rousseau; Pop Up Poke co-principal and chef Geoffrey Lee; TRIO Grill Wine Bar co-principal Sophia Max Brown; District 5 (R Hotel) Executive Chef Brian Lumley; Butcher Block principal and Master Meat Crafter Geoffrey Burrowes; Half Moon Hotel Food and Beverage Director Giorgio Rusconi; and veteran restaurateur Lisa Chin who, with husband Kirk, owns Fromage Brasserie, Cafe Dolce, Zack's Smoke Shack, Fromage Bistro, and Oak Kitchen.

New Pastures

Though the pandemic forced many business owners to embrace austerity measures, it, too, provided an opportunity for others to start new ventures. Birthed during the most challenging year most of us have ever had were TRIO Grill, Pop Up Poke, Oceano, and Lala's Nutmeg. Ignoring the disruption of 'normal' life caused by COVID, the principals of the businesses mentioned above were not deterred by the crisis. Instead, they were fuelled by the demand it created and rose to meet it.

Decades in retail have made Max Brown a wiz in giving people what they didn't realise they needed. Who knew that Hope Road desperately needed a wine bar? Since opening its doors in November 2020, TRIO has been a popular spot, and Max Brown and her business partners — brother Carlos Max-Brown and Jason Lee — have been delighting a broad cross-section of customers.

Chef Geoffrey Lee is based in Miami but has long wanted to have a restaurant in his homeland Jamaica. Surveying the local landscape, he saw an opportunity for a real poke bowl experience. The Hawaiian dish continues to enjoy popularity in major foodie cities across the world. Fun fact: The number of Hawaiian restaurants in the US offering poke bowls doubled at the height of the craze in 2016. Lee and business partner Brett Murray took the plunge in April 2021 and sold out each day of the soft opening weekend that was not heavily promoted. It was all word of mouth.

Oceano is the brainchild of chef Shea Stewart and Chad Williams. The Japanese-inspired restaurant opened in early June and has been creating waves as the newest kid on the Marketplace block. Stewart shared with online viewers that each touchpoint was thoughtfully executed, and they even flew in chefs from Osaka to help with menu development. Stewart and Williams took advantage of the current “now or never” mentality and fulfilled a dream while captivating diners with sophisticated palates.

After several weeks of teasing on social media, Lauren Tomlinson finally opened the doors of her vegan restaurant Lala's Nutmeg on June 25. The pandemic allowed her to listen to her gut and follow through with becoming an entrepreneur and reevaluate what's important (a plant-based lifestyle is fundamental to Tomlinson). Menu highlights include the ackee hummus, 'plantchetta' (pressed fried green plantain bruschetta) and escoveitch tofu.

A Year for Growth

The pandemic entirely shifted how we operated. What was once gospel about staying relevant has now changed. Some chefs and restaurateurs decided to be open to possibilities and used the lessons taught by COVID to grow or expand their reach. The businesses which grew during the past year have very “brave ones” at the helm. They are Broken Plate, Butcher Block, and Summerhouse at Harmony Hall.

Broken Plate co-principals Chef Damion Stewart and Kwasi Henry quickly outgrew their original location. If you ever visited Broken Plate 1.0, you'd understand their desire for more space, especially parking during busy weekend brunches. Having business interrupted provided the opportunity to seek out an alternate location, and luckily, they are kitty-corner to where their customers are used to travelling. At the Progressive Shopping Centre (24 Barbican Road), Broken Plate 2.0 is now grown up and ready to enthral more customers.

Since opening the doors to Butcher Block over three years ago, Gregory Burrowes has captured the hearts and palates of the Corporate Area's most discerning gourmands. Dominating the entire alcove of Upper Manor Park Plaza, where he used to just occupy a portion, wasn't enough. The Master Meat Crafter (a very prestigious certification) is enticing St Ann and St Mary with an outpost in Harmony Hall.

Speaking of Harmony Hall, Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau moved their tony Summerhouse restaurant to the Harmony Hall Great House. Talk about a breathtaking experience (and a mammoth undertaking). With spacious surroundings to call their own, the Rousseau sisters can wield their entertaining wand and create a captivating experience without limitations.

Fine-Tuning Perfection

Those for whom relocation or expansion was not necessary did not sit back and idly watch the calendar until they could resume in-house dining. Oh, no. The past several months were spent improving, training, learning and educating. This exercise offered greater insight into their restaurants' strengths and challenges. Those in charge were able to fine-tune goal setting to be realistic and achievable in the “new normal.”

Half Moon Hotel Food and Beverage Director Giorgio Rusconi, District 5 (R Hotel) Executive Chef Brian Lumley, and Lisa and Kirk Chin, co-principals, Fromage Brasserie, Cafe Dolce, Zack's Smoke Shack, Fromage Bistro, and Oak Kitchen, all zeroed in on staff training and fine-tuning their respective experiences. Each ensured that a pandemic dining experience was no different than before, well, except for masks, socially distant tables and lots of hand sanitiser at the ready. With the rapid shifts that have occurred, each of the restaurants and hotels above has learned to be flexible and creative while prioritising the empowerment and growth of their employees.

The pandemic revealed which businesses were the most cohesive and fluid. It pushed many into new directions, broadened their horizons and challenged thinking around how to achieve results in a world that has dramatically changed.

Ready, Set, Plate allowed attendees to learn from the best in the business. The webinar was chock-full of information and inspiration and served up, on a silver platter, a masterclass in resilience.

Broken Plate, now located at 24-28 Barbican Road, ProgressiveShopping Centre (Photo: Joseph Wellington)
Oceano Restaurant, located at the Market Place (Photo: @raihndrops)
BrokenPlate coprincipalandchef Damion“Stewie”Stewart
Oceanoco-principaland chef SheaStewart
Kirk and Lisa Chin, award-winning restaurateurs, Zack's SmokeShack, Fromage Bistro, Fromage Brasserie, Café Dolce & OakKitchen
Fromage Bistro
Lala's Nutmeg
Summerhouse, Harmony Hall (Photo: Michael Condran)
Pop Up Poke is located in a wellappointed300-square-foot spaceat the rear of Kaya Herb house.(Photo: Joseph Wellington)
District 5, R Hotel
Butcher Block Gourmet Foods is located in Upper Manor Park Plaza.(Photo: Garfield Robinson)
Lala's Nutmeg Restaurantprincipal Lauren Tomlinson
PopUp Pokeco-principal andchef GeoffreyLee
TRIO Grill Wine Bar (Photo: Joseph Wellington)
TRIOGrill WineBar co-principalSophia MaxBrown
Delmare dining area (Photo: Courtesy of Half Moon)
GiorgioRusconi, foodand beveragedirector, HalfMoon Hotel
ButcherBlockMaster MeatCrafter GregoryBurrowes

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