By Kim Choe
“Jamaicans love to party! No matter how small a party, no matter how big a party, there’s always food.”
In the middle of the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica, about half-way between Kingston and Montego Bay, sits a small district called Chalky Hill.
Perched in prime position on that hill, its 19th century verandah overlooking the sparkling ocean, is the Woolery family home.
For the past year, it has also been a place where visitors can experience authentic Jamaican food and hospitality, thanks to family matriarch Ms Faye and her daughter-in-law Tanayia.
“Woolery Kitchen started as a way for us to connect people in Jamaica to our Jamaican experience,” says Tanayia. “We conceptualised it as kind of like an underground dining club.”
There are no dingy basements or hidden staircases here though. Woolery Kitchen is probably one of the most idyllic personalised dining experiences that exists. Guests are treated to a three or five-course meal on the house’s verandah, where the tropical breeze provides the perfect accompaniment to Ms Faye’s array of traditional Jamaican dishes, which may include ackee and saltfish, curry goat, hominy porridge, and whatever is in season from the Woolery garden.
Cooking for guests comes naturally to Ms Faye, who was taught to cook as a young girl by her mum and grandmother. It wasn’t long before she was preparing entire meals for her family, and in the three decades she lived in New Jersey before returning home to Jamaica, she became known for her elaborate New Year’s Day parties.
“It started off with maybe about 10 of us,” she says. “Around the time of me coming back to Jamaica there would always be at least 50 or more people. Jamaicans love to party! From that there’s always food, no matter what. No matter small a party, no matter how big a party, there’s always food.”
Tanayia, on the other hand, would happily eat that food, but never prepare it herself. In her family, cooking was a chore.
“My mum actually does not cook at all, and her way of showing us love through food was taking us out to eat. When my dad cooked, he didn’t like me in the kitchen at all, so I would have to find ways to sneak into the kitchen by entertaining him. So if you look at how I enjoy being in the kitchen now, it’s just to look and have fun, and taste, and do the dishes, and it’s not from a cooking perspective at all.”
Tanayia married Ms Faye’s son, Andre, in 2012. The couple decided to give up their secure New York City jobs and move to Jamaica, where Andre’s parents had recently retired, so he could pursue a career as a visual artist.
Andre also proved instrumental in developing Woolery Kitchen’s signature drink, Seville orange and lemongrass juice. He was the one who first proposed combining the two ingredients, Tanayia says.
“Then Faye got a hold of it and she perfected it, and now no-one can make it as good as her. I think it’s kind of a good representation of Jamaican cooking, of just playing around together and taking it on as a tradition now. So now we serve it every time at Woolery Kitchen and I think it’s a really great example of a collaboration between the two of them.”
For United States-raised Tanayia, moving to Jamaica was an intense, unfamiliar experience. Setting up Woolery Kitchen helped her acclimate quickly.
“[It] was a really good way for me to transition, because I was trying to pay attention to the culture a lot and participate in it. So it made it a lot more fun and enjoyable to be in a new place and to celebrate it. Every day I was finding something new.”
Tanayia and Ms Faye now hope to offer some of that discovery and understanding to their visitors. Tanayia has even ventured into the kitchen to do some cooking of her own, under the watchful gaze of her mother-in-law.
“One of the big things that I learned is just the different side of loving to cook,” Tanayia says. “Cooking was the worst part in our family, and it was viewed as a chore. Here it’s viewed as a fun thing to do, and a way to show love to your family. ”