Words by Chenee Daley, Photos by Carlo Less—
On a recent Monday night, I drove up the steep, winding roads of Jack’s Hill overlooking Kingston to interview renowned Jamaican restaurateur and musician Suzanne Couch about her new culinary and musical ventures at home and abroad. Before, I asked Susan for directions, since an out-of-Kingston transplant like me doesn’t know how to navigate the serpentine route to her home. Her speech moves, like her life, at rapid-fire pace and so I’m forced to ask her to slow down. Sweet and upbeat, she accommodates me and I arrive to find her bustling and, as usual, wearing many hats: head chef, artist and interviewee.
I sat down with Suzanne to discuss her new role as culinary director of NYC Jamaican restaurant Miss Lily’s, her music career, and the future of the Kingston-based eatery she owns formerly called Café What’s On. Our interview swings from the subject of cicada bugs to the detriments of Monsanto corn. And her wealth of miscellaneous knowledge seemed to find practical application in just about everything she did. As we spoke, her bandmates spilled into the venue for their usual Monday rehearsal and she bartered with them: her signature eats for their rehearsal time.
“I went very light tonight, because I just came in from New York, so it’s curried chicken and curried chickpeas with white rice and vegetables, some cookies, and a cheesecake I brought in from Junior’s,” she says. She’s intent on feeding everyone in her presence. “Have something to eat” she insists. “Lawd, don’t tell mi yuh on a diet.”
“I love to prepare food, but my music is my life,” says the singer, known in reggae for her cover of Carly Simon’s “Why,” produced by legendary dancehall duo Steely & Clevie, and the more recent single “Smile.” “They say I won’t make any money from it, but I’ll have to die trying.”
With the backdrop of Kingston’s city lights energetically keeping watch and a hubbub of activity before us, she went on to describe the many things clamoring for her time and energy.
LargeUp: How did your involvement with Miss Lily’s start?
Suzanne Couch: Two years ago, I started helping [Miss Lily’s owner] Paul [Salmon]. He needed a little tweaking on the menu and a mutual friend, one of the investors in Miss Lily’s, suggested they call me. I started working with them to sort out a few little things on the menu. Since then, I’ve been getting more and more involved and, now, I devised three sauces for them.
LU: Tell me about your jerk sauces for Miss Lily’s…
SC: It’s actually three sauces: the Jerk BBQ sauce, a Jerk marinade and a RassHotJerk BBQ sauce. You just throw it on the chicken, keep it there for at least half an hour, and throw it on the grill. As best as somebody that’s moving around in America would want to achieve by something that’s a 1-2-3 step. They retail at $7. We just got into Gourmet Garage and Dean and Deluca. So we are going to be doing a lot to advertise the sauces. I actually just did a food segment for Kelsey’s Essentials on the Cooking Channel.
LU: What about the launch at the GoogaMooga Festival?
SC: We wanted to go the festival and showcase Miss Lily’s and the whole factor of the jerk chicken, and let me tell you, it was really amazing. The chicken was amazing. I was really proud of it and even the chefs were impressed. The positioning was actually a disaster because it rained, and the festival had to be cancelled on the Sunday. The chicken was amazing, but we made too much. But the chicken…the chef said he’s never tasted chicken like that. It was really good.
LU: What are your thoughts on the rise of foodie fans, and chefs being dubbed the new “rock stars”?
SC: There is definitely a bigger interest in food. I have a story to tell you: Daryl Hall came to Jamaica two years ago to film the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival. He has an online show called Live from Daryl’s House that’s about artists coming to Daryl’s home and singing his songs and, during the show, they have a little cooking segment. Fans kept writing to him, telling him that they wanted more cooking in his music show. So when he came to Jamaica to do the festival, I was asked to be the chef. He came and recorded with Toots at Brian and Wayne Jobson’s house down in St Ann, where I was the chef, and I got to sing “Sweet and Dandy” with them.
It was great because when they showcased me, they used my music and food and it’s been one of the most popular episodes. I think the ABC network picked up the show and put it at like 11 o’clock on Saturday nights, which is amazing. It’s an internet show that got picked up for television and went on some obscure time like 11 o’clock at night on some LA channel. But from that, they’ve just been bought by a bigger station and they’re going to be doing even more food. Why? Because the whole synergy of food and music is great.