In the middle of a busy lunch service, Adrian Deacon realized he was running low on barbecue sauce. And, with less than a bottle to spare, he was desperate to find another way to prepare his jerk barbecue fish.
“I had a bottle of Jamaican guava jam laying around,” he remembers. “I was skeptical at first, but I decided to use it. I didn’t have another option.”
After the first batch, customers raved over Deacon’s Jamaican-inspired jerk guava barbecue red snapper, which came stuffed with pumpkin and callaloo with a side of mashed bananas and saltfish.
“It’s an infusion of flavors,” he says. “I tweaked the recipe a little to reduce the sweetness, but that’s it. By not having enough barbecue sauce, I stumbled upon my signature dish.”
The Jamaican-born chef runs the kitchen at Cork & Kale, an unassuming restaurant inside the Even Hotel, located minutes from Miami International Airport. Though he cooks a relatively traditional Miami menu of baked barbecue wings, Cuban wraps, and flatbreads for travelers and nearby locals, he also rotates through his most beloved Jamaican recipes as daily specials – but the only way you’d know is by word of mouth.
“I don’t have a set menu of Jamaican food at the hotel,” he explains. “But in keeping with Cork & Kale’s concept of eating well and eating green, I find ways to incorporate my own hometown flavor.”
In the last couple of months, Deacon’s specials ranged from coconut and almond snapper glazed with a pineapple ginger rum reduction, to grilled lobster with honey garlic Guinness butter, and coffee- and cocoa-dusted beef tenderloin with red peas and coconut risotto.
“I started cooking around seven years old for family and friends that lived close by in Jamaica,” he says. “A true Jamaican uses foods that are locally grown and in abundance, which also makes them cheap. The epitome of Jamaican meal planning is pairing local foods to create wholesome meals. As much as it’s healthy, it’s always tasty.”
You’ll never see Deacon frying inside his kitchen. Instead, he grills, bakes, or pan-roasts almost everything, using various spices and produce to create unique flavor profiles.
“Jamaican cuisine is unique and loved by many,” he says. “But to eat it the right way, one has to use real Jamaican spices and herbs. For example, jerk chicken doesn’t need to be extremely spicy and overbearing. True jerk chicken is flavorful, like a perfect balance between sweet and savory. Paring a meal with Jamaican beer, wine, or a Jamaican fruit juice is just as important, too.”
Deacon, who moved to Miami in the late ‘90s, has worked in hotels since he was a teen. As he’s climbed up the kitchen ranks, he’s found new ways, from specials to various events, to unite his passion for cooking with his love for Jamaican food. A few years ago, he was given the opportunity to cook for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign in Richmond, Virginia, which encouraged children to eat healthier.
“People don’t always have the right idea of Jamaican food,” he says. “They think it’s all about the spice, but it’s actually full of fresh and vibrant flavors. It’s about finding a flavor profile that even a small child can enjoy.”
When creating a new dish, Deacon almost always includes a dash of ginger, which helps reduce the need for salt or sugar, he says. He also reaches for coconut milk, such as when he’s preparing coconut risotto or snapper, as well as scotch bonnet peppers, a variety of chili pepper native to the Caribbean which features a delicate balance between sweet and hot.
As Deacon moved from boiled dumplings and curried meats to more sophisticated Jamaican dishes, like his escabeche shrimp with roasted corn and brie cake, he can’t help but remember his early days on the island, where he often pooled money together from friends and family to have just enough to buy ingredients from a local grocery store and spend his afternoon cooking.
“I’ve always been passionate about food,” he says. “I grew up in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother. Not much has changed since them. I’m constantly trying to push the boundaries and take simple Jamaican dishes into elaborate, tasty, and healthy meals for travelers and locals in Miami. One day, the goal is to run my own restaurant.”
Cork & Kale. 3499 NW 25th St, Miami.