No Jerking Around: Jamaican Classics Served Straight Up in Harlem

All Damian Perrin wanted was good jerk chicken in New York City.

For a city as international, eclectic and electric as NYC, its Jamaican offerings didn’t hold up to Perrin’s standards. He is, after all, Jamaican born and raised, whose father worked in the country’s top hotel and his mom--as moms tend to be--was a whiz in the kitchen. Jamaican cooking is in his lifeblood.

“There are too many places selling dry, boiled chicken that’s been burnt to a crisp,” Perrin said. “‘Jerk’ is not the same as ‘burnt.’”

Giving up on what he deemed a futile search for the flavorful spice blend, Perrin set off to create his own. Dialing up good ol’ Dad to provide some consultation, he developed a recipe with no less than eight spices, which he keeps a secret. “I don’t want it to get out,” said Perrin. With recipe in hand, Perrin left his IT job and Scotch Bonnet Grill was born.

But Perrin doesn’t stop at just jerk chicken. His full menu is rife with iconic flavors from Jamaica: a heady curry chicken, savory curry shrimp and vinegary salmon escovitch are all on the menu, along with organic homemade juices and other favorites. “Jamaican food is influenced by the cultures of people coming to the island. Our food is full of curry thanks to Indian immigrants. We have lots of Ghanan and other African flavors coming out, while German, Spanish, Dutch and French flavors find their way in dishes, too,” said Perrin, citing Jamaica’s national motto, “Out of Many, One People.”

Indeed, like its spiritual home, jerk spice is a medley of various spices and flavors that, when combined, speaks to the essence of Jamaican multiculturalism. Made with a panoply of ingredients like allspice, nutmeg, onions, cinnamon, garlic, salt and cloves, jerk spice also features Scotch bonnet peppers, one of the hottest peppers around. But unlike Americanized jerk recipes that are blackened, overly spicy and sometimes rubbery, Perrin’s chicken is juicy, thanks to his hand-blended jerk recipe and use of marinade rather than rub.

The one-year-old Scotch Bonnet Grill is still run out of a test kitchen in Queens, with Perrin at the helm of a steady catering business. Catering isn’t Perrin’s end-game, though. He has already expanded operations to the Harlem's Fresh Connect Farmer’s Market, which sets up shop a block away from Red Rooster every Tuesday in the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Plaza. Perrin’s wish to bring Jamaican cuisine to the city includes plans on expanding into a brick-and-mortar location, preferably in a lounge-style setting, for his already-popular dishes. “I want to bring true Jamaican flavors to Harlem,” said Perrin. “But I want to also give back to the community that has already given me so much.”

A recent trip to the market indicated Perrin may be well on his way to accomplishing his goals. A dense crowd formed around Scotch Bonnet Grill’s stall, clamoring for Perrin’s heaping helpings of Jamaican comfort food. “I love this stuff! When are you opening a restaurant?” asked one eager customer.

Perrin just smiled.

Photos of Damian Perrin and curry shrimp by Joseph Hernandez. Photo of jerk chicken courtesy Scotch Bonnet Grill