It’s easy to associate Jamaican cuisine with jerk flavor, but few actually consider its deeper meaning. In fact, jerk is really not a seasoning or marinade at all, but rather a technique of smoking an ingredient over pimento wood and charcoal.
For Toronto-based chef Adrian Forte, jerk is a memory. Raised by a religious family in Kingston, Jamaica, he didn’t get to experience much of the city’s nightlife. But after leaving his aunt’s church every Friday night, his family would take a drive and see the street lined with jerk vendors, everyone eating and drinking before heading to dance hall parties.
“We would drive to the jerk pit and you’d see women with long fingernails, lots of jewelry, big hairstyles and the men outside, posted up with rolled-up jeans drinking Dragon Stout,” Forte remembers. “There were all these different vendors selling jerk chicken, and we’d eat it on foil paper with hard-do bread and roadside sauce. I just remember the smell being so captivating and aromatic. When I eat jerk chicken, done properly, it transports me right back.”
Forte channels that same transformative experience into his debut cookbook, Yawd. In his book, the Top Chef Canada alum features more than 100 recipes inspired by modern takes on Afro-Caribbean cuisine, food he is rooted in and eventually found his way back to.
Coming from “very humble beginnings,” as Forte puts it, his maternal grandmother made sure every man in the family knew their way around a kitchen. “The joke she would always make is that, if you know how to cook, then you could be a prize or trophy husband,” he laughs. When he was too young to operate the propane stove, Forte would be tasked with peeling vegetables, seasoning meat, and washing the rice.
When he reached the age of 12, Forte graduated to the charcoal grill in the backyard, making a fire using cinder blocks and cooking after school with his friends. “In Jamaica, we call it ‘running a boat,’ which is basically a potluck and all my friends would bring something over,” he says. “After we finished playing barefoot soccer and cricket, we would put our money together and buy different ingredients. We’d buy rice and flour, and make dumplings or brown chicken stew.”