Glorious beaches, a vibrant party scene, friendly people - Jamaica serves up a holiday to remember. But for me, it's all about the food
If you want to feel Jamaica, then eat. It’s all about the food. Food is such a big part of family life in Jamaica and the family unit is so important; everyone constantly talks about what they are cooking and eating. I used to love just watching my grandmother in the kitchen; I was an inquisitive boy, and I constantly asked questions about what she was doing – and I' do whatever I could to help. I suppose people call it a sous-chef, now. Where you are now is all about where you came from… and my grandmother was the biggest influence on my career.
Jamaican food is the best because of the vibe that goes into it. The chefs always have this vibe going on. They're partying and dancing as they prepare their food; music is never far from a Jamaican kitchen. I guess you could say Jamaican cooks really put some music in their food. Who else would go on Dragons’ Den with a guitar and a pot of sauce? That was me just being a typical Jamaican. It was being true to my roots. I think people could see the passion I had for the Reggae Reggae Sauce.
Where I came from
I was born in the parish of Clarendon in a little village called Content. It’s mainly countryside and I was proud to be a country boy. I was 12 when I left Jamaica to go to the UK and it was a massive shock to my system. I arrived in London in the middle of winter and I thought I’d arrived in a petrified forest; all the trees were so bare. Jamaica is green and wonderful all year round. I remember saying, “Take me back, please”. It took me a long time to really settle.
My early memories of Jamaica are mostly of my time spent with my friend Carlie when I was about 10 years old. Our island was this massive playground and it was ours to explore. We would catch and cook fish, and pick the most delicious fruits such as mangoes and oranges. We’d pick sugar cane and we’d always know which trees to climb for fruit and which fish were the easiest to catch. We’d make catapults and catch birds and we’d barbecue the things we caught.
I was 18 years old before I went back to Jamaica and I get back there as often as I can. In the last year I’ve managed to visit four times. Here are some of my top tips for making the most of a visit to my homeland.
Places to eat
My top tip for eating in Jamaica is “go local”. Eat at local food stalls, try food sold on the street, eat where the locals eat. Everyone shops in the street, there’s always someone selling something. Try some of the food on offer. It’s proper home cooking. That’s where the real Jamaica is.
The food is so different from what you find in the big hotels. A visit to Faith’s Pen is a must. It’s a collection of little vendors on the roadside between Kingston and Montego Bay and you’ll find locals selling the most amazing jerk chicken. You haven’t had jerk chicken until you’ve eaten here. But it’s as much about the people as the food. I’d advise visitors to go and meet the people and enjoy the Jamaican hospitality. You will be surprised at how friendly Jamaicans are.
The chicken is great but fish is really the staple diet for Jamaicans. It’s a real utility food. Lobster cooked freshly on the beach using a Jamaican Scotch bonnet pepper is an absolutely wonderful experience.
There’s a great joint in Runaway Bay called Peter’s Place. It’s just a little shack but he’s famous for his fish. He does the most incredible tilapia fried in batter and an amazing fish soup. I don’t know why he hasn’t bought himself a restaurant, but then the appeal and charm of it is right there in the shack. You’ll be absolutely sweating, eating this delicious food in this hot shack – but it’s a taste of real Jamaica.
The Courtleigh Hotel serves really wonderful food. If you wanted to impress someone, this is where you’d take them. The menu is quite wide because they cater for people from all around the world, but it’s about the service at the Courtleigh. Nothing is too much trouble.
Places to visit
There’s a place near Kingston Beach called Hellshire Beach. I love it there. It’s a place that the locals visit and you’ll find a few music stars there occasionally. There are always lots of parties and the beach itself is a beautiful strip of white sand. It’s just wonderful.
For really great live music try and be in Jamaica for the annual Rebel Salute Festival (www.rebelsaluteproductions.com) in the parish of Manchester in January. It’s my absolute favourite festival. The reason why I like it so much is that it is all about the music, there is no alcohol and the food is vegetarian and healthy. It was started by a music legend called Tony Rebel and is one of the most respected reggae festivals in the world.
To recreate a taste of Jamaica at home you can try Reggae Reggae Sauce or get some pimenta (allspice). It’s very Jamaican and will put some sunshine into your food. And if you really want to get some vibes into your dishes, then get some music on. It should really be reggae, something like Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff.
Bob Marley is such an icon of Jamaica. People are saying the runner Usain Bolt is putting Jamaica on the map for the second time, but it was Bob who did it first. A visit to the Bob Marley Museum (www.bobmarley-foundation.com) is a must. He was Jamaica’s greatest export. Go to his grave at Nine Mile, too. There’s a certain mystique about it; it’s quite a moving experience.
Where to stay
I’m a Jamaican boy but I’m a businessman too, and I’ll often stay at the Royal Plantation in Ocho Rios. It’s one of the best hotels in Jamaica and what makes it great is the service. Your every whim is taken care of. If you’re on the beach in the evening and you get tired, they will wheel a four-poster bed out for you and make sure you’ve got a glass of champagne, too. Anyone can go there; it’s not a snooty exclusive place. They concentrate on giving you the most wonderful experience. The chef there presents good typical Jamaican food but with a nouvelle cuisine slant.
Clarendon is a great place to stay if you want to be surrounded by countryside and sugarcane plantations. There are many hotels to choose from but the Hotel Versalles (email firstname.lastname@example.org) in May Pen is particularly good. I have stayed there a number of times as it’s one of the closest ones to where I was born. It’s run by an English lady from East London and she always serves a nice cup of English tea.
The Jamaica Pegasus Hotel is also a great option if you want to stay in Kingston. The food here is one of the best reasons to book. I was here recently while we were doing photography for my new cookbook, and all we ate was jerk chicken. They’ve got a really nice little al fresco dining area too.
Daily Mail Online also features an interview with Levi about his Jamaica. Read it here.