“Jamaica is a speck on the map. You can’t even see it on the map. There are only 10 million people... and yet it’s a cultural blast.”
Chef Craig Wong couldn’t have put it better as he reels off the contributions the Caribbean island has made to the world’s cultural pantheon (some unpublishable) — and that includes cuisine, which until now has been pretty underrepresented in the UAE.
I know what you’re thinking. Uh... Craig... Wong? Jamaican restaurant?
Open your minds, people. If cricket can make it to the West Indies, so can the Chinese — specifically, Wong’s Hakka ancestors, on both his parents’ sides, three generations ago. Wong, however, was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and though he can do a Jamaican accent, he also throws some classic Canuck “outs” into conversation as we chat in his soon-to-open restaurant in Downtown Dubai — Ting Irie. (Due to open this week, it’s Jamaican patois for “everything’s alright”.)
After discovering a passion for classic French cooking techniques (“I got interested because I really just wanted to cook for myself — going out to fine dining wasn’t even an option,” he says), Wong headed to France with one dream: Working for renowned chef Alain Ducasse. I’ll take you straight to the happy ending: He did it.
Was it one of those don’t-meet-your-heroes situations? “Ducasse is amazing. He knows how to make any person that he’s speaking with feel like the most important person in the room. It’s changed the way that I work because now the most pleasant thing that I can do for our cooks is to reach out, teach them a couple pointers here and there. It gives a nod to him.”
Food meets culture
Wong returned to Toronto with his classic techniques, but didn’t open a French place, instead he opened Patois, celebrating his heritage with dishes such as jerk chicken chow mein and a Hong Kong-style sweet pineapple bun burger. Three months in, he got a mysterious visit from Dubai.
“They seemed to know just a little bit too much about me... I knew I didn’t owe anybody any money, so I knew it wasn’t one of those things.”
The result is a gorgeous (soon-to-be licensed) spot in the Souk Al Manzil, with a bar, casual seating, open kitchen and tons of Jamaican music posters on the walls. There is a DJ booth and plans for live music. It’s not just a restaurant but “more of a cultural place. The majority of staff, front of house and back of house, are Jamaican”.
“We are definitely doing Jamaican food, like nobody else. We are not taking influences from random places — it’s very calculated. I don’t see myself as Chinese first or Jamaican first, I just really love food. I thought it was such a novel concept to have a Jamaican restaurant in Dubai but not doing Jamaican food just like everyone else has, it’s easy to duplicate. We are going to be that comfortable spot people can get their rice and peas, their oxtail, but it ain’t oxtail like your grandma makes.”
Case in point is the Chips Oman burger, a local riff on that burger from Patois. It features a spicy scotch bonnet pimiento cheese, crushed-up chilli flavour Oman chips and oyster sauce mayo, on a sweet milk bun with a sweet crackling top. The jerk chicken is cooked in a French rotisserie — “crisp skin, juicy, juicy flesh”.
“Why do people overcook their jerk chicken on purpose?” he asks. “We serve three sauces beside it, a straight-up French chicken jus with lots of jerk spice, a mango-pineapple-scotch bonnet sauce — everyone is expecting that — and a tasty treat, a take on shawarma sauce, that garlicky-creamy sauce.”
Spice is at the heart of Jamaican cuisine, whether it’s the scotch bonnet chillies or allspice, a signature of the island’s cooking. “Our scotch bonnet sauce is insanely good, it’s 95 per cent straight-up scotch bonnet, it’s no-joke spicy, the kind of sauce that burns you twice. It’s pureed with a little seasoning that accentuate the fruitiness of the scotch bonnet. It’s intoxicating.”
Allspice “has a real earthiness that’s unmistakable. You know you are eating Jamaican food.”
Seafood on the menu includes lobster — a hot dish resembling Thermidor called beachshack, where the meat is mixed with island-spiced ingredients and served in the shell — and a lobster linguini, with crispy lobster chunks tossed in jerk butter, tossed with a light tomato sauce.
Wong is particularly excited about his state-of-the-art kitchen and hand-picked staff. “All of our cooks, and front of house, we want to portray Jamaica. It’s not often where we get to do this kind of food in this kind of multimillion dirham kitchen.”
The fried chicken question
Craig Wong speaks highly of his fried chicken, which he says took him three years of experimentation to perfect. I remind him that another Toronto import, Weslodge, also says they have the best fried chicken. Is this a Toronto chef chicken-off?
“That’s what we use instead of business cards,” he says with a chuckle, miming pulling a wing from his pocket.
“Our fried chicken is called OG fried chicken,” as if I needed more proof of a chicken throwdown.
After plenty of experienmentation with ingredients and cooking methods, he decided to go old school. “Fried chicken’s roots came from mums that don’t have enough chicken to extend to the entire family. That’s what I fell in love with, that story all over again. Armed with [cooking] mastery, I came to that same point, cooking something very simply but understanding how things behave.”
He won’t reveal the blend of starches he uses to coat the chicken, saying only it’s non-allergenic and naturally gluten free. “My wife doesn’t know what’s in it.”
“We finish it with some spiced extra virgin coconut oil, it just gives it subtle hints of the islands, plus a lime and black pepper salt, some honey butter and our straight-up hot sauce.”