Located at 14th and V streets opposite the original Busboys & Poets, Eatonville was created to honor the legendary Zora Neale Hurston, author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," among other titles. Hurston was also a Columbia University trained anthropologist whose life's work focused on folkways of people in the African Diaspora. Hurston spent time in Jamaica, Haiti and the Bahamas documenting Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices that she published in her 1938 study "Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica." So it came naturally that Eatonville would feature the foodways of both Caribbean islands for its first Caribbean Heritage Month celebration.
32-year-old Jaja, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, agreed to come to D.C. to help create a week of Caribbean food, culminating with the Food and Folklore event that also featured storytelling by Claire Nelson and food lore by Doreen Thompson, founder of the Caribbean Food Alliance.
The day before the mid-June event, Oji Ashebre Jaja, whose middle name means "the artist," gave a sneak preview of his modern Caribbean cuisine for "Remembering Haiti," a reminder of the continuing need of the Haitian people, featuring classic Haitian ingredients; the quintessential Soup Joumou, a savory pumpkin soup unique to Haiti and said to be endowed with special powers, and mayi moulen, best described as a Haitian version of grits. But the central focal point of Eatonville's Caribbean Week, which featured a different aspect of Caribbean food and culture for each night of the week, was the dinner for "Food and Folklore: Caribbean Connections," a prix-fixe three-course dinner that reconstructed traditional Jamaican ingredients into new configurations.
"Of course, there will be ackee-and-saltfish (the national dish of Jamaica), but instead of the usual we'll be serving ackee and saltfish spring rolls. I could not have left it out," Jaja commented. The remaining courses featured a spicy jerk chicken salad on seared polenta with cabbage and cho-cho slaw, cold smoked salmon with pineapple mango relish and sautéed callaloo, and an orange-coconut bread pudding with a delicate coconut wafer accompanied by warmed coffee rum cream.
These dishes fall into what Oji describes as "Modern Caribbean Cuisine," also the title of his upcoming book.
At the time of Caribbean Heritage Month, Jaja was scheduled to spend significantly more time in Washington, shopping and preparing for the weeklong special menu.
"I'll be here for two-and-a-half weeks," he said. "But I love it here in D.C.," enthusiastically sharing the sentiments that most out-of-towners feel when they discover the vibrant multiculturalism of the metro area. "But I also like knowing that I can walk down the road and pick a mango off of the tree, and that doesn't happen here. I love to go to the beach and get some fish and festivals (fried cornmeal cakes served with fried fish on Kingston's Hellshire Beach). But right now," he added, "I am based in Kingston and Fort Lauderdale."
In his youth in Jamaica's capital city of Kingston, Oji Jaja was not exactly destined for his current profession. "I was a really bad child, very disturbed," he admits. At 16 years old, he said "I was lost and at 18, I started to find my way." Through the HEART Academy, a government-run vocational program that trains young people in marketable skills, Jaja found his calling. Even before, he would always find himself in the kitchen with his father. "I was my mother's fist child, and the only boy, so I did some horrible things to her. I am very strong minded, so if I don't want to do something, I am just not going to do it."
Following his time at HEART, where he had a 3.5 GPA, he went on to attend Johnson and Wales University in South Florida, then spent three years at the just-opened Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Naples, Florida. Unfortunately, there were not many opportunities for chefs in Jamaica. "Dennis MacIntosh is my inspiration," he attests. "He was the first Black chef in Jamaica, where 13 years ago, there really were no Black Jamaican chefs."
Meanwhile Eatonville has been moving up the ladder in Washington's highly competitive restaurant arena, attracting high profile diners like journalist Helen Thomas and Michelle Obama, who recently attended a friend's birthday dinner in the eclectically-decorated restaurant with murals regaling aspects of the life of the legendary Zora Neale Hurston.
"One thing I love about Washington is that fact that there is a dining landscape which I never experienced anything like before. It is a very nice experience," he pointed out. So when the call came shortly after Caribbean Heritage Month for Oji Jaja to take over the kitchen at Eatonville, he quickly put his love for the island of his birth on hold.
Back in June, he asserted that "I will definitely be back, definitely. I want to do my book signing here at Busboys and Poets." And that proclamation came true sooner than anticipated, and just in time for Oji Jaja to spread his culinary wings.
"Oji is a perfect fit for Eatonville," owner Andy Shallal boasts. "His Jamaican roots combined with his skill as a classically trained chef will be a valued asset for our kitchen. Be on the lookout for Southern-Caribbean fusion cuisine!"