This is a story about Caribbean food in Crown Heights. Which means that it is also a story about race and class and culture.
That’s because over the past five years, the neighborhood, which has historically had one of the largest concentrations of West Indian immigrants in the city, has become increasingly whiter, younger, and more affluent. And one of the ironic consequences of this change is that Caribbean food is suddenly having a moment.
The same food that generations of lower-income black residents have eaten while standing at the counters of nondescript restaurants where the cashier sits behind bulletproof glass is now being served on sleek, minimalist china to young white college graduates.
Meanwhile, as new restaurants open up, those that have been around for years are gradually closing due to rising rents in the neighborhood.
So not everyone was happy when The New York Times wrote, “The next place to spark New York City’s culinary interest may just be the Caribbean,” and pointed to a handful of new restaurants around the city that offer upscale renditions of the traditional Jamaican beef patties and West Indian roti.
“Just because some chefs with pedigrees are now making this cuisine available in fine-dining restaurants and newly-hip venues like street trucks and Smorgasburg doesn’t make it a new food movement,” one Brooklyn resident commented. Or, as one reader wrote on Twitter, “Now that Crown Heights is gentrified, it’s safe to eat the amazing food they’ve had for decades!”
Located across the street from a bodega, a kosher barbershop, and the Faith Tabernacle of Praise, The Food Sermon belongs to the new Crown Heights. Potted succulents sit on the counters, spices are stored in mason jars, and careful attention is paid to typography. The food appears to be prepared with Instagram in mind: curried tofu is dusted with toasted coconut, and roti arrives folded in a stack of perfect triangles. Since opening in February, it’s been featured in New York and Brooklyn Magazine; Eater named it one of the hottest new restaurants in Brooklyn.
“To be honest, most of my customers are white,” admitted Rawlston Williams, the chef and owner.
Williams himself immigrated from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and estimates that only about a third of his customers are from the Caribbean. “It’s not traditional,” he said of his take on the food that he grew up with. Tofu, for instance, is not typically served at Caribbean restaurants; neither is kale Caesar salad.
Unsurprisingly, there has been backlash due to the disparity between the restaurant’s customer base and the neighborhood outside, exacerbated by the fact that many black residents feel pushed out by white newcomers. But Williams, who is black, says the restaurant is a reflection of his own taste, not a calculated ploy to appeal to people with disposable income.
“I get people coming in and saying, ‘Oh, so you built this place for white people?’” he said. “I guess they mean the aesthetic, the look. But that’s natural. It’s not contrived.” He pointed to a vintage dresser with a peeling layer of chipped yellow paint, which looked like something that would sell for $500 at the Brooklyn Flea. “I brought that in from home. New York Magazine was coming in to do a photo shoot, and I thought we needed something to balance out this corner of the room. But I’m kind of OCD, so when I realized that the yellow paint didn’t match with the stools, I started scraping it off. But then, halfway through, I was like ‘Ehh….’ and gave up.”
Did it bother him, I asked Williams, that all of this—the mason jar mugs, the pair of antique bicycles perched in one corner, the stack of cookbooks from chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and Thomas Keller—made some people in the neighborhood feel unwelcome?
“I don’t care,” he answered quickly, and then qualified, “I want to say to people, you need to step up your game. How should it look if I made it for black people?”
It would be easy to cast Williams as an opportunist, taking the culinary traditions of a group of people who are being driven out by rising rents and packaging them in a familiar, accessible way (see for instance the “island bowl,” which is the most popular menu item and a Caribbean version of Chipotle’s standard formula: choose your rice, choose your beans, choose your protein, choose your sauce) for the people who are replacing them.
The truth is more complicated. It becomes immediately apparent within a few minutes of meeting of Williams that he didn’t go into business to make money. He admits he could charge twice as much for a lamb shank, on which he barely breaks even, but isn’t interested in raising prices. And because he is a Seventh Day Adventist, the restaurant closes at sunset on Friday and doesn’t reopen until Sunday afternoon, meaning that he misses out on weekend brunch and dinner, typically the most lucrative times of the week.
He also tends to lack the salesmanship often found in the industry. “Have you tried mauby?” he asked me, referring to the traditional tree bark-based drink that the restaurant serves. “It’s bitter and weird.” One gets the feeling that he is operating without a script, which he confirms. “When we opened, I didn’t have an image of my ideal customer. That’s how naïve I was.” There was no master plan to design a restaurant that would appeal to food-obsessed young people moving into the neighborhood. No consultant advised him on capturing the coveted 18-34 demographic.
“No way,” he said. “I could hardly afford to pay my food bill. “
He remains bewildered by the fact that his restaurant—which was originally supposed to be a catering business—has become wildly popular. “I have friends who have been cooking all their lives, and the New York Times never called them,” he said. “Why me?”
Crown Heights is packed with Caribbean restaurants—Nostrand Avenue averages one per block—that cater to primarily to first- and second-generation immigrants. The Guyanese eat at Joy and Snook, the Barbadians at Cocks, the Jamaicans at Silver Krust. “That’s the normal progression,” said Saleem Majied, who, being from Trinidad, is a regular at Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine, a small and fairly nondescript storefront known locally for its incredible roti and callaloo. “People go to what they’re familiar with, their same culture.”
Restaurants like Gloria’s lack the aesthetic considerations of The Food Sermon, and the menus offer no clues to anyone who might not know what souse or coo-coo is. That can be the appeal. “There’s something about the experience of eating in a simple space where the food is really the showcase. There’s no frills, so your focus is wholly on the food that’s in front of you. And you feel that maybe it’s a little more authentic,” said Kate Telfeyan, who has lived in nearby Prospect Heights for the last ten years.
She worries about the fact that some of her standbys have disappeared. “A lot of the smaller places are definitely getting pushed out, because landlords see dollar signs when they see gentrification.”
Gloria’s is one of the holdouts, in part because the family that owns the restaurant also owns the building. “I see so many people moving out because they can’t afford the rent, but we’re not going anywhere,” said Bryan Cumberbatch, whose grandmother, the original Gloria, opened the restaurant back in 1976. “We’ve seen a lot come and go, for sure.”
On a Friday night, you can watch the fabric of the neighborhood changing as a young woman, dressed in denim coveralls, shiny silver sneakers, and a tweed overcoat, leads her equally quirkily dressed friends up to the counter at Gloria’s and asks, in a tone that suggests she knows she’s about to mangle the pronunciation, “What is… pholoorie?” More and more of the restaurant’s customers look like her, which has inspired Cumberbatch to expand outside of Crown Heights and into neighborhoods not traditionally associated with Caribbean food. Harlem is next, with an expected opening scheduled for summer 2016.
But the new Gloria’s won’t look like something from the old Crown Heights. “It’s going to be more upscale, more modern,” he said.