Trevor Lewis' Caribbean Hut is a reminder of what he loves about Jamaica.
Islanders in his lush, tropical homeland are passionate for simple pleasures such as ripe mangos, reggae music and friendly conversations.
Yet as a child, Lewis briefly chased a singing career to escape Jamaica's poverty, which robbed children of an education and acknowledged few ambitions.
The region's food can be like Jamaica: seductively sweet and painfully incendiary.
The menu Lewis created for his University City restaurant presents many of the island's best-known dishes.
There's jerk chicken ($8 or large $9.50), stew beef ($8 or large $9.50), curried shrimp ($12.50), filled and rolled flatbreads called roti and a variety of accompaniment.
He also makes traditional beverages and desserts such as Jamaican black cake, flavored with molasses and dried fruit.
Lewis' commercial recipes mirror his life in America: sweet, savory and without the intense burn.
“There's more opportunity here to accomplish your dreams,” he said.
Lewis' plan for a singing career vanished when his mother moved her three sons from the capital, Kingston, to their grandfather's rural farm in Saint Elizabeth Parish.
At 11, he found himself living among fruit orchards that perfumed the 100 plus acres with the scent of mangos, coconuts, plantains, citrus, melons, pineapples and the scorching Scotch bonnet chile peppers.
While his mother sold farm produce at the markets, Lewis cooked for the family. He wasn't fond of the job, but he was good at it, he said. His specialty was sauces that relied on fruits for flavor and aroma.
He returned to Kingston at 15 and cooked in small establishments. He got a break at 18 as a cook for the Jamaica Pegasus Forte Grand, among the island's finest hotels.
The job became the life-altering career he had hoped for. Pegasus was owned by Trusthouse Forte, a worldwide chain based in the United Kingdom. In six years, Lewis earned chef-of-the-year awards and won a cooking competition and a culinary scholarship. He also worked in England and Grenada before coming to the now-defunct Pegasus in West Palm Beach, Fla.
He opened his first restaurant, Karib Quizine, 11 years ago in Queens, N.Y. Four years ago he opened Caribbean Hut at The Terraces at University Place.
Lewis uses his varied training and unique culinary perspective to tell his story. It's best told with fresh ginger, allspice, molasses, Jamaican rum and just enough Scotch bonnet peppers to make it interesting.
“I can let you visit Jamaica for a minute,” Lewis said. “I try to make a very warm atmosphere. I want you to hear my accent, and I want to tell you about Jamaica.”