BROOKSVILLE — Nestled among blocks of Broad Street storefronts beckoning attention with their look-here yellows and stop-here reds, one small edifice jazzed in stripes of the same, with some purple thrown in, jumps out like a Caribbean sailfish.
Caribbean is the idea, Jamaican in particular, at Island Breeze Grille, where "Jamerican" fare is being served up for lunch and dinner by Tamara Tatham-Ferguson, whose family hails from the island.
"Most Jamaicans eat all the time," she said. "So, they cook all the time."
Having some specialty restaurant experience under her belt, Tatham-Ferguson realized, "I've learned more cooking techniques from my grandfather, my uncles, Mom and Dad, and aunts than anywhere."
Thus, rather than working as a line cook elsewhere, the 31-year-old, along with her husband, Jim Ferguson, decided to take her culinary heritage public with Island Breeze Grille.
"What I'm cooking now is authentic Jamaican, also incorporating a Jamaican twist in American dishes," she said.
As to the former, jerk chicken is the No. 1 seller on her menu.
"Not everyone's jerk is the same, so it's a secret," she said with a mischievous twinkle when asked about the seasonings.
Jerk blends vary by cook but typically include a combination of chili peppers, thyme, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and cloves.
"I make it mild, not super spicy. I leave the Scotch bonnet out," Tatham-Ferguson said, referring to one of the world's hottest chili peppers. Then demurring, she admitted "one or two" in the jerk chicken, "but it's a huge batch."
On request, Tatham-Ferguson will stir spicy heat into an order or suggest a diner choose from a selection of 16 liquid-heat bottles ranked on the counter.
"I collect hot sauces," she said.
Ferguson rolled his eyes in acknowledgement when his wife admitted, "Every time I go into a new store, I look for spice sauces."
Jerk, Tatham-Ferguson said, is as much a cooking method as a seasoning, turned and turned and turned on a grill top — jerked around — or cooked low and very slow, stirred and steeped. Her jerk chicken requires 2½ hours; her also popular braised oxtail and curried goat, three hours.
"You have to slow cook it," she insists, her pots hitting the heat shortly after 5 a.m. six days a week. "If you cook fast, you'll never get the taste."
Cooking time may be prefaced by hours bringing complex marinades and wet rubs to their flavorful peak.
"All the marinades and mixtures are made by hand," Ferguson pointed out, "not a jug of something she buys."
Ferguson, an experienced restaurateur who works part time at Island Breeze, owned three diners back in his native Kansas.
"Compared to other restaurant foods," he said, "I've never seen any cooking so labor intensive as this."
As Tatham-Ferguson eased her husband's Midwestern palate into a Caribbean culinary profile, so the chef is offering to bridge the American-Jamaican divide for the newly adventurous with her jerk burger. Jerk seasoning marinates the big-as-your-hand beef patty before it's jerked around on the flat-top grill, then layered with cheese, hot grilled onions and a slice of sweet plantain, a sweet sauce ladled over all. Diners might like to request the substantive Jamaican hardo or coco bread instead of an American bun.
More island flavors are available with escabeche-style tilapia, Jamaican patties mimicking English pasties, fried plantains and Jamaican D&G drinks.
It's all served up in an island-like atmosphere, complete with a palm leaf tiki bar and a set of dominoes at every tile-topped table.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]