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Chef Jaja Heats up Eatonville's Kitchen

8/3/2011, 10:47 a.m.
Chef Oji Jaja / Courtesy photo

When Oji Jaja first came to Washington for the 2010 Caribbean American Heritage Awards, he was impressed by what he saw in four days. At that time, he was catering the event paying tribute to Caribbean legends such as Rita Marley. But he was not the only person forming impressions. Busboys & Poet's founder Anas "Andy" Shallal had also decided to attend the event and was eager to meet the creator of the food for the evening. Labeling himself a "culinary artist," rather than a chef, Oji Jaja was also observing the way things worked in Washington's vibrant dining scene, having come to town for the awards ceremony from Jamaica where he was headquartered (with another outpost of his firm, Ashebre, located in South Florida). His company, which takes its name from his West African middle name, specializes in food styling and consulting and includes several celebrity clients. But somehow, what he saw in D.C. was different and appealing.

At the end of the awards, Oji Jaja and Andy Shallal connected and put plans into the works for this year's Caribbean Heritage Month and a very special "Food and Folklore" dinner at Shallal's Southern-styled eatery, Eatonville.

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 sauteed callaloo, and an orange-coconut bread pudding with a delicate coconut wafer accompanied by warmed coffee rum cream.