Rockhouse Hotel, a gorgeously appointed oasis sitting atop the cliffs of Negril, Jamaica, is the go-to spot for good eating. The globally infused kitchen starts in the property’s own backyard with garden fresh herbs and vegetables that are picked fresh daily. Feast on bespoke local and international cuisine, and in particular a unique brand of Jamaican fare, which blends home-style West Indian spices with cutting-edge recipes. As healthy as they are mouthwatering, the in-house recipes prepared by Rockhouse’s uniquely talented chefs are sure to bring you back for more.
We spoke with Chef Warren Rowe from the property’s popular Pushcart Restaurant about organic gardening, specialty herbs, and the hotel’s 1970s heyday when guests like Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones were seasonal regulars.
Tell us about the ‘farm to table’ concept, and when Rockhouse started its organic garden?
The ‘farm to table’ concept of Rockhouse Hotel is to provide fresh locally grown produce to the hotel’s restaurants, and a vibrant on-property farm experience to those hotel guests that are interested. The original idea was to have planter boxes with raised garden beds which primarily focus on specialty vegetables, fruits, and herbs that are not easily sourced on the island, or if they are grown on the island, they use a lot of pesticides. Salad leaves are a good example of this. As we built out the farm and created our extensive rainwater harvesting capacity, we realized there was an opportunity to expand its size and the mix of items to include Jamaican staples like calalloo and sorrel – the farm has quadrupled from the original plan. Not only does it showcase how organic vegetables are grown in Jamaica, it also lets the hotel guests see first-hand where some of their food is produced. The organic garden was started approximately 2 years ago.
How did you learn to cook and why are you so passionate about the culinary arts?
I was about 7 years old when I started learning how to cook. I couldn’t stay out of the kitchen; I always helped my mom out after school to fix dinner. Cooking is one of those things that just came naturally to me even at that young age. In my high school years, I studied the sciences and majored in Food and Nutrition, and Home Economics. In my final year of high school, I did my Work Studies at Sandals Negril Resort, which is considered to be one of the top all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do. After finishing high school, my first job was at Couples Negril at the age of 17. That is where most of my training began, on the job. I went on to get formal culinary training and academic qualifications but it is really in the kitchen that I find most of my passion. Over the years, my love for the profession has grown and grown. I like to see the expression on the faces of the guests when they eat my food. That’s the best reward for me as a chef – making people happy with my dishes.
Why do you think the health benefits of locally grown Jamaican foods are so potent?
Jamaican food and fruit crops have been found to have a very high nutritional value. Eating local produce can have a positive impact on the nation’s economy, environment, and health. Our government rightly encourages us to grow what we eat and eat what we grow; an initiative to help improve our economy. Our Jamaican food and diet has been thought of as being full of fat and starch, and therefore unhealthy. But many of these supposedly ‘fatty foods’ such as coconut, avocado, and our Jamaican national fruit, ackee, are of plant origin. They contain ‘good’ unsaturated fats, or short chain saturated fats, which are good for your health, in addition to having many other nutrients and health benefits. They are cholesterol free, and their benefits are now being promoted throughout the Natural Health World. For example, cold-pressed coconut oil is now supposed to be the "BEST" oil for you to use, even better than olive oil.
Do you ever cook with cannabis?
Not yet. It has only recently been decriminalized in Jamaica and while there is a strong movement towards legalizing it that has not yet happened. I am looking forward to the opportunity to create some great dishes when it becomes legal. I am sure they will be popular with some of our guests!
What’s one of the latest dishes you’ve created?
Oxtail patties have just been added to our Rockhouse Restaurant menu and we have also just added escovitch fish tacos.
What’s your favorite standby dish?
Our whole steamed fish served with local vegetables, bammy, and water crackers at Pushcart.
Can you tell us one of your favorite juice recipes?
We have a fresh juice menu at Rockhouse and my favorite is the Jamaican Greens, a fresh homemade juice that uses ingredients from our farm: calalloo, pak choy, ginger, lime, pineapple, and cucumber.
More than one celebrity has enjoyed spending time at Rockhouse. What’s one of your more memorable celebrity chef experiences?
Rockhouse Hotel is known to attract some of the world’s biggest celebrities dating back to the 1970s when it first opened and Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones were regulars. Still today, I am always most impressed by our guests from the music industry, particularly Jamaican superstars as it really gets all the staff excited as well. One night last year, I got a call to come back onto property in the early morning hours to cook for Tarrus Riley. He had finished a performance and loves our crispy tofu in a ginger soy sauce. He was requesting it before going to bed and we always want to keep our guests happy! Another time recently, I had the pleasure to cook for legendary reggae artist Freddy McGregor and the entire Big Ship family as we hosted his daughter Yashema Beth's wedding here at Rockhouse. The 3-day event brought together a lot of artists from the reggae music industry, including two of my all time favorites, Judy Mowatt & Marcia Griffiths.
If you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Steamed Red Snapper with lots of okra!