Situated in an modest building across from Hill Auditorium, the Jamaican Jerk Pit (314 S. Thayer St.) represents a culinary departure to an island-inspired basement restaurant whose kitchen roils with authentic Jamaican flavors. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Robert Campbell, channels his zest for Caribbean cuisine into enthusiastically seasoned dishes with the ability to reawaken guests’ affinities for nuanced spices. Chef Campbell shares a peek at a few of the ingredients that elevates the Jerk Pit’s namesake seasoning into a destination for Caribbean spice.
How would you characterize the appeal of Jamaican cuisine?
Many of us eat with our senses. It has to look appealing, smell appealing and taste appealing for us to enjoy it. Jamaican cuisine is no different. It has a variation of vibrant colors, flavors, and spice levels ranging from sweet and/or mild to hot and spicy. It’s a collection of food from many of the island’s indigenous influences, hence the Jamaican motto “out of many, one people.” Marinating overnight enriches flavor deep into the food. Grilling and smoking give the foods intense color and flavor as well as a beautiful aroma. Many dishes are slow cooked or stewed for hours which allows the flavors to blend. It really is a form of art.
What’s the quintessential ingredient that sets Caribbean cuisine apart?
The most quintessential ingredient would most definitely be jerk seasoning. Jerk Chicken and Jerk Pork are staples in Jamaican cooking, although you can apply the spice to an array of proteins, vegetables and seafood. Jerk is the style of cooking in which meat is dry-rubbed or wet-marinated in a spicy mixture\. I won’t give out all my secrets, but my homemade jerk sauce consists of onions, garlic, allspice, scotch bonnet peppers and thyme, just to name a few.
Where do you eat in the Ann Arbor area aside from your restaurant?
Honestly, the restaurant keeps me pretty busy so I don’t often get the chance to eat out, but when I do, I choose to support “mom and pop” shops like mine. Places like Silvio’s pizza, Paesano’s, Fleetwood Diner, Los Amigos and Yotsuba.
What/where was your all-time favorite meal and what drink did you pair it with?
If I were a wise man, I’d say anything my wife cooks. But I think she will still appreciate my answer since she has an Italian background. When I traveled to Italy for the Olympic Games I had a beautiful gnocchi dish that was paired with a bold Chianti wine.
How has your relationship to cooking evolved since you started the Jamaican Jerk Pit?
I love my job and I love my culture and it evolves daily. Being able to expose somebody brand new to Jamaican cuisine is an absolute blessing and honor. Being in such a small venue, I have learned how to organize and prep food efficiently and effectively. I have complete creative control in how I chose to present our dishes and I’m always trying to improve. I have fun taking one staple item (like Jerk Chicken) and incorporating it into several different dishes like nachos, pita sandwiches and even pasta.
Describe the moment you decided to become a chef.
After graduating with my three hospitality degrees, I landed a job at EMU as a Foodservice Manager. During my 10 years of service, I was selected through a New York based company to work at the Olympic Games as a bartender for the USA [athletes’] house in Salt Lake City, Athens, Beijing and the Torino games. Working in both bar and kitchen capacities, I was constantly watching the culinary skills of the chefs and the artwork of their food presentation. Intrigued, I thought to myself, ‘Why couldn’t I bring my culture and techniques to the [Ann Arbor] area?’ Since there was really no market at the time, I started in college with my fiancée (now wife) and did an “in home chef” service preparing Jamaican cuisine for people’s families as well as for party functions. From there it grew into owning and managing two Jamaican restaurants and working full time at EMU. It was a lot to consume, so I quit my position at EMU and devoted myself to one restaurant (Jerk Pit) where I can effectively manage my business and express my creative cooking outlet.
Your last meal on Earth would be comprised of what?
Jamaican style breakfast, of course. Ackee and saltfish (Jamaica’s national dish) with bammy, fried dumplings, boiled bananas, a cup of Blue Mountain coffee, a cup of Milo sweetened with condensed milk and maybe some cornmeal porridge.
This interview has been edited for length, content and clarity.
314 S. Thayer St.
734-585-5278 | jamaicanjerkpit.com