When the chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph was opening Canje in Austin, Texas, in 2021, he did something he had yet to do as a restaurant owner: He decided to tell his own story. Namely, the story of growing up in Georgetown, Guyana, a South American country with deep ties to the Caribbean through food and culture.
Ten years earlier, when Mr. Bristol-Joseph moved to Austin, he couldn’t find a single Caribbean restaurant. So for the Canje menu, he added pepperpot, a Guyanese dish of long-simmered beef with earthy spices like cinnamon and allspice, and heat from Guyanese wiri wiri peppers. The only problem was he didn’t have cassareep, a bitter cassava juice that the dish needed to truly taste of Guyana.
So, he called his cousin there, and “he put me in touch with another cousin who makes it, and they shipped it to me in Austin,” Mr. Bristol-Joseph said. “I wanted to showcase Caribbean food in the most respectful and authentic way I could’ve.”
About 46 percent of Black immigrants in the United States — some two million people — are from the Caribbean, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that tracks immigration patterns. They come from 13 countries, over an area larger than Texas and Alaska combined, stretching from the Bahamas to South America. Despite that size and diversity, the Caribbean and its cooking are often talked about in broad, regional terms.
“The Caribbean is not a monolith. It’s beautifully different, and there’s unity in that diversity,” said Brigid Ransome-Washington, the author of “Coconut. Ginger. Shrimp. Rum: Caribbean Flavors for Every Season.” But despite that variation, she said, the food is too often translated as “simple, fruit-forward or tourist-friendly fare.”
Mr. Bristol-Joseph is among a new guard of chefs around the United States who are exploring the cooking of the Caribbean through the cuisine of individual islands. These chefs, many of whom are first-generation Caribbean Americans with backgrounds in fine-dining kitchens, are getting specific about each island’s unique assemblages of culinary influences — and how all of that is evolving even further.
A region of vast cultural exchange, the Caribbean has for centuries been influenced by many groups, from the original Indigenous inhabitants like the Tainos, to colonizing European powers and the enslaved Africans brought to the area by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Asian and South Americans who have immigrated.
This history as a crossroads helped shape what we call Caribbean food today.
Much of the work of introducing these flavors and dishes to the United States was done in the 1970s and ’80s by immigrants who opened takeout restaurants selling plates of comforting fare in Caribbean enclaves in cities like Miami and New York, and by chefs and entrepreneurs like Norma Shirley and Lowell F. Hawthorne, the founder of the Golden Krust chain of Jamaican restaurants.
For the Haitian American chef Gregory Gourdet, the complexities of Caribbean history are best broached through food. At Kann in Portland, Ore., Mr. Gourdet showcases Haiti’s history and his memories of visits to the island and his grandmother’s home in New Jersey, where he first ate Haitian dishes. “With so few Haitian restaurants in this country we had to start from the beginning and tell the whole story,” he said.
Servers at Kann learn not only its menu of Haitian wood-fired cooking, with ingredients influenced by Oregon’s seasonal bounty, but also the history of the island. They can then walk diners through the importance of dishes like griyo, braised and fried pork pieces, or diri ak djon djon, a rice dish made with black mushrooms grown in northern Haiti.
Through this approach, Mr. Gourdet has also learned about his own heritage, after years of working at European and Asian fine-dining restaurants in New York City and Portland. “I was spending so much time learning and cooking other people’s cultures, I wasn’t learning and sharing my own,” he said.
The pastry chef Paola Velez, an author and a founder of Bakers Against Racism, had a similar experience. “I use cooking as a way to find my own identity,” she said of her style, which she calls “Americana with Caribbean influences.”
When she was working at a Mediterranean restaurant in Washington, D.C., Greek spoon sweets reminded her of Dominican desserts like dulce de cereza, Caribbean cherries in spiced syrup. At her next restaurant job, at Kith and Kin in Washington, she was able to embrace her heritage more fully, combining Dominican ingredients with classical French techniques in desserts like carrot cake with passion-fruit glaze or plantain sticky buns.
In Oakland, Calif., the chef Nelson German converted his restaurant alaMar to a fully Dominican kitchen in 2014. After years working in Eurocentric restaurants, he became passionate about Dominicans’ embracing the African influences their cuisine.
His menu focuses on memories of growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and the Bronx, where his family often cooked dishes like slow-roasted pernil. The oxtail, stewed with butter beans and chile africano, is a tribute to a dish his mother often made. “That oxtail dish has saved me,” he said. “It’s that connection, it’s about storytelling and memory.”
Chris Viaud, the chef and owner of Northern Comfort Hospitality Group in Milford, N.H., enlisted his family to help bring Haitian food and stories to his community at their casual restaurant Ansanm, which means “together” in Haitian Creole. He said diners have been curious about these stories and dishes like chicken braised in Creole sauce and delicate baked pastries filled with spiced beef, vegetables or chicken.
“The response was overwhelming,” he said. “It really resonated with being true to myself.”
The chef Sebastián Martinez is going deep on Puerto Rican cuisine, in Puerto Rico. Since opening Celeste in San Juan in August 2022, he and his brother, Diego, have focused on ingredients from the island.
This often requires correcting diners’ beliefs about what is and what isn’t part of island cooking. “I’ve had people say, ‘There’s no way that yellowfin tuna comes from P.R.’ And it poses a nice challenge of showing what’s here and what’s been under their noses the whole time.”
The brothers have established a network of local fisherman, farmers and artisans who supply them with ingredients like rambutans, vinegar made of dark-purple sea grapes and even pig ears.
“So many people and places have had an impact on the Caribbean, we want to show all these beautiful things,” Mr. Martinez said.
This new group of chefs may not strictly adhere to traditional Caribbean recipes, but that adaptability is part of what makes the food of the region so special, Ms. Ransome-Washington said. “There should be an approachable and respectable amount of freedom because that’s how these foods were born.”
To her, the cuisine’s ability to “bend itself to breeze” is not an accident, but instead “the work of genius.”
Take the Trinidadian chef Lisa Nelson. At her New Orleans restaurant Queen Trini Lisa, she makes a localized riff on doubles, the quintessential Trinidadian flatbread influenced by the Indians who were indentured servants on the island.
“It’s so big on crawfish here that I started making doubles with them,” said Ms. Nelson. “The kitchen is a place where we can big-up our island.”
In that same spirit, Mr. Bristol-Joseph gave his pepperpot a local spin. He buys whole wild boar, an invasive species in Texas, and breaks them down to cubes of meat that are cooked until tender. The bones are used to make a stock scented with thyme, cinnamon, orange rinds and cassareep that Mr. Bristol-Joseph buys from a cousin in Guyana. The dish is garnished with fresh herbs that change with the season; right now it’s wild fennel and oxalis.
At Bridgetown Roti in Los Angeles, Rashida Holmes, the chef and a partner, serves the Bajan fare she remembers from her childhood. She is encouraged by the emergence of new Caribbean chefs across the country. “Historically the cuisines of brown and Black people are not celebrated in the culinary space,” she said. “But that’s changing in the last four or five years.”
There’s still a long way to go, Ms. Holmes added. “If there can be a thousand pizza places in each city, then there can be at least 10 different Caribbean places.”