In February 2019, Dawn Skeete opened Jam’It Bistro. Located in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the restaurant serves Jamaican fusion cuisine that reflects the diverse cultures of the borough. I spoke with Dawn about her background, restaurant, and hopes for the future.
|Address: 367 Columbia Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn 11231|
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10AM-9PM; Sunday, 11AM-8PM
Service: Delivery, Takeout
Contact: (929) 298-0074, jamitbistro.com, @jamitbistro
Interview with The Owner of Jam’It Bistro
Tell me about yourself. What is your heritage and how did you first get into cooking?
I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. I came to the United States at the age of ten with my younger brother. My parents were already in the U.S. at that time, and my mother had recently had another child. My mother had two jobs to support the family, and she was working 17 hours each day. My father also had a full-time job.
As time went on, my parents had five more children and my cousin came to live with us. Because I was the eldest, I began to help my parents with the household chores. My father taught me how to cook and clean.
Wow! So you started cooking for a house full of people at a young age. Did you go straight into the restaurant business after high school?
No, I actually received my undergraduate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and my graduate degree from the New School. I worked at The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA CREF), a Fortune 100 company, for many years. I held several positions there including becoming a management consultant. When TIAA moved most of their operations to North Carolina, I decided to stay in New York.
Now, what was I to do? Well, my family has been in the restaurant business in Brooklyn and Queens for over 20 years by that time. My maternal grandparents were butchers and shop owner in Jamaica. My paternal grandfather was a baker and farmer. When my aunts and uncle came to the United States, they opened their own restaurant as a way to provide for their families. Being an entrepreneur and restaurateur is in my DNA. Making the decision to get into this business was second nature for me.
Entering the Restaurant Industry
My husband had opened a small restaurant that he and my mom were operating, so I decided to join them. Once I began to work there, I began to think about how I could use my corporate skills to turn this little restaurant into a business.
That is how I got where I am. Today I am operating this brand, Jam’It Bistro, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. February 2021 will mark two years since I opened this location. My restaurant is where I get to be free. I have the chance to create a brand that is reminiscent of the food I ate as a young girl growing up in the cultural melting pot we call Brooklyn.
Can you speak more about the restaurant that you operated with your mother and husband?
Yes. The restaurant was located in Bed-Stuy and called Jamaica Grill. It was a joint venture between the three of us and I was there for ten years. I perfected my cooking style learning from all the chefs and cooks that worked for me over the years. I left that restaurant to open Jam’It Bistro because I wanted more freedom to create and grow. I wanted to perfect my skills and build my own business.
Creative freedom is definitely important. How have you used that to benefit Jam’It Bistro?
It had always been my hope to create dishes that are reflective of the diverse cultures that make Brooklyn, Brooklyn. When I opened Jam’It Bistro, I wanted to create a flavor that we would easily be able to replicate. It is very difficult to consistently reproduce the taste of ethnic food while maintaining the flavors and integrity of the plate. Here I have the freedom to experiment and I am doing the cooking. For that reason, it particularly brings me joy when folks tell me that they have enjoyed their dining experience.
Jam’It is located in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Why did you decide to open a restaurant in Red Hook? What has been the community response to your decision to fuse West Indian and Italian food?
I decided to do a fusion that represented the various cultural cuisines in Brooklyn: Italian, Chinese, soul food and Jamaican. Along with the Caribbean classics like oxtails, curry goat and jerk chicken, I also grew up eating spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken with mac and cheese, and shrimp fried rice. Creating a menu reflective of my childhood meals was easy to do. I pulled together all the favorites, mixed and matched them with Jamaican classics, and Jam’It was born.
Red Hook was not my location of choice, Downtown Brooklyn was. However, I could not afford the rent prices there. My uncle, who was friends with my current landlord, took me to Red Hook. He encouraged me to take the location and see where it could take me.
Initially, when we opened, the community came out and showed up. They were so happy to have us and business for the first two months was great. As the year unfolded, we had to make some adjustments to the prices and offerings. Just because a community is being gentrified doesn’t mean the residents can afford the new restaurants and businesses coming in. I learned that the hard way.
Do you participate in any community initiatives? What legacy do you hope to leave in the community?
One of my strategies to grow and scale my business is to build and become a part of the community in which we serve. The food we provide is not native to the community, so finding ways of introducing the food to the community will be and has been a challenge. Giving away food and support community initiatives is a great way to introduce the menu.
While at Jamaica Grill, I conducted cooking workshops for Emblem Health on how to cook and eat healthy the Caribbean way. That was not possible here at Jam’It Bistro because we found ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the help of neighboring businesses, I was able to help with providing meals to the community. I also landed a contract with World Central Kitchen [a nonprofit organization founded by Chef Jose Andres that provides meals after natural disasters]. This enabled me to hire 2 people from the community as cooks for five months. We also donate food to a local shelter.
As for my legacy, I want people to know us as a business that cares for and about our customers and the community in which we operate.
Food is definitely political, and there are a lot of opinions about Black food in particular. How do you define Black food? How does your menu relate to that definition?
Black food, the food of struggle, the food of creating greatness from nothing. We created something that was healthy and delicious. Our ancestors ate what they cultivated. But as Black people “migrated” (and we won’t talk about that migration), we carried with us our techniques for preparing our meals. In each region, we pulled from what was available, fused it with what was cultivated, to create meals for our family. Our food forms the foundation for a great experience when celebrating life moments. Black food has its own aura. It has evolved as we, as a people, have evolved.
My menu reflects this history in its fusion of cooking techniques and the infusion of seasoning and ingredients from various cultures. This created something that is exciting, familiar, and tasty, yet new and different.
Well said. What is your favorite menu item?
My favorite is the jerk salmon with white rice and mixed greens. The most popular, without taking the oxtail into account, is the jerk chicken or fried chicken irie soul dinner.
The rapper Drake is a fan of Jam’It Bistro. What is his usual order?
He would get the jerk grilled chicken breast with rice and peas. His crew would get the stew chicken dinner.
Jam’It Bistro and the Community
COVID-19 has been difficult for all businesses but has especially hit the food service industry quite hard. How have you adjusted to the pandemic?
We adjusted by reducing some of the menu items prepared on a daily basis. We began to give back to the community and work with others to ensure food security for everyone. We are currently hosting a community fridge in front of the restaurant.
How can the community support you?
Please patronize the restaurant and spread the word about us.
Your restaurant is participating in 2020 New York Tri-State Area Black Restaurant Week, www.blackrestaurantweeks.com. Why do you think this event is important?
It is important because it provides a platform to celebrate Black food and to widen its reach. It also is an opportunity to showcase the people behind the food.
Are you working on any new projects now that you would like to share?
Yes, we are looking at creating a bakeshop. We will be working with local Black bakers in the community to sell their products at the restaurant. We are also creating meal kits that will be provided via a membership site.