8 years ago
|Dale F. Bentson , a Professional Reviewer, wrote:||
by Dale F. Bentson, Palo Alto Weekly (Dec 14, 2007)
"Simple and authentic is best. Don't mess up the food," the affable Robert Simpson says. The chef and owner of Back A Yard Jamaican American Grill in Menlo Park, he loves to cook, eat and talk about food, especially his native Jamaican cuisine.
Simpson was born and raised near Kingston, Jamaica, where his grandmother was the cook of the family. "I helped her prepare weekend dinners on Fridays because she worshipped on Saturdays," he said. He was bred on exotic Caribbean fare such as oxtails and plantains, yams and coconut, jerk pork and chicken, stews and spices, crayfish and escoveitch fish.
Regional cuisine is the history of its people, and Jamaican cooking was one of the earliest fusion cuisines. The island was colonized by Spain after Christopher Columbus visited it. Waves of immigration from Britain, Africa, China and the East Indies have also contributed to the singularity of the Jamaican palate.
One style of cooking unique to Jamaica is jerk, in which meats are dry-rubbed with spices before being barbecued over charcoal or aromatic wood. During one of Columbus's visits, he described a way the Tainos aboriginal people preserved meat by adding peppers, allspice and sea salt to make what is now known as Jamaican jerk spice.
Allspice, a Jamaican pimento and the flamethrower-hot Scotch Bonnet pepper are still the principal spices used, although most jerk rubs now incorporate dozens of ingredients.
Simpson's jerk rub consists of 16 spices that are patted on hours before cooking over hot coals. Because Scotch Bonnets are difficult to obtain here, he uses the closely related habanero pepper. The result is meat that is spicy but not fiery with complex fruity flavors, intriguing textures and pleasantly lingering tastes.
He uses dark chicken meat because it is moister but white meat is available upon request. His choice for pork is butt (which is actually a shoulder cut) because it is fattier and ideal for slow barbecuing, he says.
Simpson's original goal in life was to be an engineer but he became enamored with cooking while a student. He worked his way through entry-level positions at resorts around Jamaica. Later, he attended a Kingston technical school (similar to a culinary institute) and studied nutrition, health, dietetics and restaurant management.
He did a year's stint in Antwerp, Belgium, where he became well-grounded in French cooking techniques, as well as perfecting Dutch and Flemish specialties. Then it was on to New York, where he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
Returning to Jamaica, he leveraged his knowledge to become a top chef at the Sandals resort. He also met his soon-to-be wife, Anetta, a native Jamaican, who lived in Chicago.
Moving to The Windy City, Simpson cooked at Park Avenue Cafe and the Drake Hotel, and became an executive chef at the Swissotel. Later, lured to the Bay Area, he became opening and executive chef of Burlingame's Crowne Plaza Hotel, a position he held for four years before setting out on his own. He says the Bay Area is "one of the greatest places to be" for a chef.
The term "back a yard" means the way things are done back home and that is what Simpson is doing at his tiny two-year-old grill. The vast majority of his business is take-out and catering.
There are but a half-dozen tables for eating in, but the reward is inhaling the rich textured aromas wafting from the kitchen while enjoying the reggae music that caroms off the walls.
Anetta handles the front of the house while Robert and his staff inspire the kitchen. The Simpsons are proud parents of two sons, Jason and Julian who "help out when available," Simpson said with a grin.
In addition to his regular menu Simpson crafts daily specials, one of which is beef oxtails served with rice and beans, fried plantains and a small tossed salad. The oxtails are seared, seasoned and braised with vegetables for three hours. The result is fork-tender meat that is rich and distinctive.
Oxtails, according to Simpson, were introduced to Jamaica by West Indians. Being the least desirable piece of meat, oxtails were fed to the slaves. Over time, they became a dish of choice and are now highly regarded. Diners should be aware that oxtails are one of the fattiest parts of the cow. It can be almost like eating marrow.
Simpson's Friday special is escoveitch fish filet. Escoveitch was a contribution of the Spanish Jews who lived on the island nearly 500 years ago. It is fried fish, marinated with vinegar and spices, almost pickled. Thursdays and Saturdays, the special is curried goat.
Simpson's kitchen also turns out tempting desserts: sweet potato pudding, Key lime pie and black cake: a traditional rum cake favored at weddings, baptisms and other celebrations.
The well-traveled Robert Simpson knows food, loves to cook and is passionate about his Jamaican cuisine. Back A Yard might just be one more stop for the tireless Simpson, but it's the beginning of something all his own that will flourish in the coming years.
Back A Yard Caribbean American Grill
PO Box 7809
Menlo Park, California 94025
650-323-4244 | phone
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