At the Jerk Cafe, a storefront tucked into a strip mall in the Cape Cod village of South Yarmouth, Mass., sweet-smelling smoke greets guests as soon as they open the front door. So does the cafe’s proprietor, Glenroy Burke, who bounces around the wide-open kitchen stirring pots, tending the grill and plating dishes. “I don’t like to be hidden in the kitchen,” Mr. Burke said, who’s also known as “Chef Shrimpy.”
For more than three decades, Jamaican cooks and chefs have been coming to Cape Cod through the H-2B visa program, which provides foreign workers with a pathway toward temporary nonagricultural jobs. A modest number of seasonal workers have become permanent residents or citizens. This summer, as international travel resumes and the domestic labor market remains strong, Jamaicans are again staffing kitchens of traditional Cape seafood restaurants, fine dining destinations, resorts and inns.
And with their ingredients and cooking techniques, Jamaicans are making a mark on the region’s culinary identity, opening their own restaurants and enlivening the menus of established eateries from Hyannis to Provincetown. The taste of Cape Cod, long defined by Yankee seafood favorites, now includes flaky, golden patties, vibrant jerk rubbed-meats and turmeric-rich curries, humming with allspice.
“It’s like a cultural exchange through food,” said Byron Crooks, an H-2B visa holder from Westmoreland Parish, Jamaica, who is working as a chef at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe this summer. “Other people get to understand us — how we talk, how we laugh, how we have conversations through food.”
A shared history of bananas
The number of Jamaicans working in the United States on the H-2B program increased by 84 percent in the past 10 years, to 8,950 in 2021 from 4,874 in 2011, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. Looking further back and locally, one Cape Cod-based immigration lawyer, Matthew Lee at Tocci & Lee, estimates — using data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — that by the summer of 2000, 500 Jamaicans were working on the Cape, and that number increased to a high of 1,000 before the pandemic.
Mr. Burke first came to the Cape in 1997 after connecting with an H-2B recruiter in Jamaica. He had grown up in Port Antonio, Jamaica, watching his mother cook, and he eventually worked in cruise ship kitchens and at resorts. After one year as a seasonal worker, Mr. Burke received a green card and worked as a cook and marine technician in the Cape towns of Harwich and Chatham. The economic opportunity he found on the Cape motivated him to stay and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant.
Three years after gaining U.S. citizenship, Mr. Burke opened the Jerk Cafe in 2008. The restaurant quickly became popular for its jerk; as for sides, Chef Shrimpy’s banana fritters are beloved. Used almost like a garnish, one fritter crowns each order and tastes like lightly fried morsels of sweet banana bread.
During his childhood, Mr. Burke’s mother occasionally prepared these on Sundays. “When poor mothers and fathers didn’t have sugar, they could crush banana and put a little flour in it so that they could create something sweet for us,” he said. “I wish that she made them every day.”
Bananas form the backbone of an older, shared history between Cape Cod and Jamaica. In 1870, following a chance landing in Port Antonio, a ship captain-turned-entrepreneur from Wellfleet named Lorenzo Dow Baker introduced the fruit to the United States. The wealth he accrued from this modern banana trade led him to establish hotels in both Port Antonio and Wellfleet, where he employed Jamaican workers seasonally.
Spices in the overhead
At Mac’s On the Pier in Wellfleet, a majority-Jamaican kitchen staff makes jerk pork and a Caribbean seafood bowl alongside fried codfish sandwiches and clam chowder.
“Collaboration in the kitchen leads to more diverse and well-rounded food, so I’ve always encouraged that,” said Mac Hay, the chef and restaurateur behind the ten Mac’s Seafood restaurants and seafood markets that dot the Cape.
The Jamaican-inspired dishes started appearing on the menu thanks to Neily Bowlin, a former chef at the Pier who now manages two Mac’s Seafood markets. About 10 years ago, Mac’s had a smoker and the restaurant was serving barbecue ribs. Mr. Bowlin suggested doing jerk pork, and Mr. Hay loved the idea.
In the earlier days, Mr. Bowlin and others would bring up pounds of allspice and jerk seasoning in their luggage, to “make the jerk just fly off the menu,” he said, laughing.
Mr. Bowlin is originally from Black River, Jamaica, an area of the country where seafood cookery is a specialty — he was well-suited to work with the ingredients local to the Cape when he arrived for his first summer in 1996.
“Back then, it was a very small, tight community,” he said. “Now, even in winter, you’re seeing a lot more Jamaicans, and they’re not just visiting here. They live here, they have families, they have houses, they have businesses.”
Motel rooms for workers
Up Route 6 in Provincetown, Natessa Brown feeds local Jamaicans and the wider Provincetown community ackee and salt fish, curry lobster and jerk chicken at her laid-back restaurant, Irie Eats. She, like many restaurant owners, faced a challenging time during the pandemic.
“Even though Covid hit us really hard for two years, the locals we have in P-Town supported their local businesses,” Ms. Brown said.
In 2020, Tara Vargas Wallace founded Amplify POC Cape Cod, a racial equity nonprofit, to support and showcase minority-owned businesses on the Cape. She counts Irie Eats, along with Branches Grill and Cafe in Chatham and the Karibbean Lounge and Island Cafe & Grill in Hyannis, among cherished Jamaican restaurants on the Cape. “I’ve really seen the Jamaican community thrive,” she said, “but they’ve also struggled tremendously.”
A lack of affordable housing has emerged as a serious consequence of the pandemic, one that disproportionately affects communities of color. Before the coronavirus, the conversion of seasonal rentals and other housing stock into Airbnbs removed many affordable long-term rentals off the market; the mass exodus from urban areas to the Cape during the pandemic exacerbated the issue.
While Ms. Vargas Wallace is buoyed by tourists who support minority-owned businesses — those who “are intentional about their wallet activism,” she said — the shortage of affordable housing risks pricing out the very business owners and workers who cater to visitors.
As a result, many business owners who participate in the H-2B program acquire motels, multifamily homes or other properties to convert into employee housing. Mr. Hay has several properties; several years ago he bought a motel that now offers 10 rooms to his seasonal staff. “Any business that’s here has some type of housing to survive,” he said.
Another issue is the annual cap on the number of seasonal workers, which this year is 33,000 nationally for beneficiaries from all countries. Relying on recruiters and personal connections to find employees, Mr. Hay has employed Jamaican workers for two decades, but because of the cap and that lottery-based system, “even if we have somebody that’s a relative or a friend, we can’t necessarily get them in the country,” Mr. Hay said.
Mr. Crooks, the chef from Westmoreland Parish, saw the pandemic as a turning point in his career and entered the H-2B visa lottery for more opportunities.
This summer, as one of four chefs at Cape Cod Caribbean Cafe, he makes dishes like unctuous oxtail, saturated in a rich, auburn gravy and studded with chunks of potato and broad beans. Quality is vital.
“We try to make it as authentic as possible,” Mr. Crooks said. “All the chefs here basically learned to cook from our grandparents.”