Do not be fooled by the discreet and modest facade of Ripe Restaurant and Bar on the south side of Mount Vernon, New York. For it was here, in this space with its low ceilings, roughly textured red walls, tropical plants, antiquated fixtures and multi-coloured mood lighting, that the world famous Iron Chef and Food Network Star Bobby Flay was trumped by a Caribbean chef.
Nigel Spence was that man, a Jamaican who had left home at the age of 11 to live with his family in the South Bronx and had pursued a career path to diagnostic medicine as a radiographer. Financing his radiography education was what took him to the restaurant business. To meet his tuition fees he had got into food, selling what else but Jamaican jerk chicken at a South Bronx street corner. It was a hit and the success fuelled his culinary interest Still, Spence stuck with Radiography, progressing over a period of five years, from X-rays to other imaging modalities.
Cooking continued to beckon the young Spence. Eventually, a friend encouraged him to look into the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He went and was amazed by its in-depth programmes on the science, preparation and handling of food and its encouragement of his creativity and love for Caribbean cooking. What it didn’t teach him, however, was how to start his own business.
The traditional route for the CIA graduate was to work one’s way up through the ranks of a restaurant and, eventually, to become head chef. Spence wanted none of that. He got the opportunity to work at the then fledgling Food Network, on Emeril Legasse’s show. It was there that Spence met Bobby Flay. The two immediately developed a unique synergy. Flay exposed Spence to the wonders of South-west grilling with its heavy spices and bold flavours, while the Jamaican showed Flay “how to peel a plantain properly”.
Working his way up was not something Spence felt he had the time for. Older than most graduates, having done radiography before, he opted to dig into his own pocket and, on a wing and a prayer, went into the food business with his restaurant “Ripe”. Spence says Ripe was his way of breaking away from the fast food business model adopted by most Caribbean restaurants in New York: “You’d just come in, get your Jamaican pattie or Oxtail Soup and go.” On the other end of the scale was the typical “white tablecloth” restaurants, expensive, formal and with an ambience set to muted music. Spence’s dream was to take Caribbean food to another level, with a style that was accessible and relaxed with Caribbean warmth. But it was not about to come easy.
The first year was absolutely dreadful., he recalls. Spence remembers long nights when he and two employees would sit, waiting for customers who wouldn’t come. But all that changed after he got an opportunity to promote the restaurant on a radio show in New York. Perhap it was the “Viagra Fish” that brought them, one of Ripe’s signature dishes which, he explained, did not actually contain the potent medication, but which, he claimed, would still work wonders for men’s virility.
Customers literally lined up around the corner to come in. To this day, Spence is still intrigued by the number of people are willing to wait for over two hours outside his restaurant for the chance to get a table at Ripe. For Spence, Ripe is indeed all about the Caribbean spirit of mixing and mingling of styles and cultures His current staff complement includes three Trinidadians, one Haitian, one Peruvian, one Dominican and one African.
Then came the famous “Throwdown” episode where Spence was reunited with Bobby Flay. Ripe’s signature dish, the 16-ounce “Big Ass Jerk Steak” beat off Flay’s Southwestern cuisine. This writer admits to knowing the steak’s opulent meatiness from personal experience.
About a year later, at a “Throwdown Rematch” at the Biltmore Hotel in Florida, Spence’s grilling topped Flay again. Beating Flay twice has been the crowning achievement for Spence to date, because, as he explains, “It was not just that I beat Bobby, but I beat him in his element. Bobby’s specialty is grilling.”
These encounters with Flay have boosted the reputation and credibility of Spence and Ripe. Spence continues to tweak his unique menu, giving as much meticulous attention to the names as he does to the ingredients, preparation and presentation. Apart from “Big Ass Jerk Steak”, Ripe’s specials include “Plantain Boat”, a plantain sliced lengthwise filled with saltfish and white cream, topped off with caviar and the “Rasta Pasta, a unique twist on traditional Fettuccine Alfredo, with shrimp or Jerk Chicken and organic spinach. In the cocktails category, there is the “Mango Mojito”, Spence’s version of the classic Cuban beverage.
Today, Spence has brought his cuisine full circle with the opening of a smaller version of his restaurant in rural Jamaica. He is also investigating opportunities for expansion into Latin America and China. Other projects in the pipeline also include a cookbook and appearances on Rachel Ray, Good Morning America and Oprah Winfrey’s new network, OWN.