Spicy jerk stokes hot controversy at AF1
Caribbean spot delivers hot parties – and heated debate about real jerk
AF1 Caribbean Canteen occupies what some have called a “cursed” location, a corner spot at College and Clinton that’s had a half-dozen tenants over the past few years. So far, chef Adrian Forte appears to have dodged that streak of bad luck, though not without getting a few hairs singed off in the process.
At AF1’s opening bash this spring, the patio was packed to the gills, as was their custom-built smoker.
“We had this whole thing stuffed with, like, 300 pounds of chicken,” Forte says. The extra grease settled at the bottom of the barrel of the smoker, picking up enough heat to ignite and send flames shooting into the sky.
“I came outside and saw it happening, and I was like – ‘the chicken!’ I was pulling the carts out of the smoker, not even thinking about the fact that it was on fire, and, like, I could die.”
The chicken, unsurprisingly, was unsalvageable, and the smoker still bears the scars – the heat burned a hole right through a metal grate.
“People stuck around after,” Forte adds. “Six trucks came, put the fire out, and people still hung out. That’s how I know it was a good party.”
With that excitement out of the way, Forte (also of chicken-and-waffles spot The Dirty Bird) has settled into a larger mission: serving jerk chicken the way they do it in Jamaica.
That’s proven to be a way tougher sell than one might think. “Let’s put it
this way – there’s a Toronto type of jerk chicken, and a Jamaican type of jerk chicken,” he says.
In Jamaica, the Kingston native explains, jerk refers to smoking over pimento wood, not necessarily the marinade or seasoning. “Our chicken’s very smoky, which is which is what jerk chicken is. Jerk is a process. You could put a carrot in that smoker and it would be jerk.” On top of the three-hour smoking process, Forte grinds his own spice rub and makes his own 13-ingredient marinade.
Opinionated customers tell Forte the saucy, sweetish, smoke-laced end result is too close to barbecue, or point out the pink ring inside the chicken, a by-product of the smoking process, and tell him it’s undercooked.
“They’re used to the chicken that’s baked in the oven and slathered in a jerk sauce, right? But people who have been to Jamaica, who’ve been to (Jamaican jerk restaurant family) Scotchies, who’ve been to all the classic jerk places, they come in here like, ‘You’re doing it right.’
“I’ve already convinced myself we’re not gonna make everyone happy. What I tell my staff is, we don’t make food for people who don’t like our food.”
Chef Adrian Forte smokes his jerk for three hours over pimento wood.