Taking One Step at a Time is a Recipe for Success
Chef Nicola Blaque, the chef and owner of The Jerk Shack and the new Mi Roti, isn’t letting COVID- 19 derail her mission to share the flavors of the Caribbean with everyone.
“I have mixed feelings about the pandemic. We have to learn how to live with it. When I was in the Army, I would be deployed and think, I hate my life right now, you know? But this is my life. I have to learn how to live in this environment. I have to learn how to adapt and be away from my family. You just have to learn how to overcome all of that. You have to accept the challenges.”
Blaque has certainly done that during COVID-19. She grew her business, opening Mi Roti, a new concept in the Bottling Department at the Pearl. She and her husband Cornelius Massey also welcomed Champion, their newborn son born in April, and are expanding The Jerk Shack, opening a second location on San Antonio’s northwest side in the spring of 2021.
How do you do all of that in the midst of a world shutdown? “Just being consistent and working on something every day. That’s all that I’ve done. I’ve done a little bit every day. No day goes by where I’m not thinking about work or thinking about business. I’m just doing a little bit every day.”
That course of action goes well with how she approaches life in general. “Stay calm. There are so many different challenges every day, and you’re not going to be able to overcome them all. It’s best to stay calm, get a little organized in your thoughts, your processes, your mind, and take one step at a time.”
Blaque has had a passion for cooking since she was a child. “I remember cooking with my mom and my aunts and my sisters, wondering how to make all these different foods, and it just stayed with me. When I was in the military, I would cook all the time. When I was in the barracks, I would cook for the soldiers. I would share with my battle buddies, what I grew up eating, the foods of my culture.”
She served as a logistics specialist in the U.S. Army for ten years, with multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. When she left the Army, her lifelong passion for cooking ultimately led her to the Culinary Institute of America at the Pearl.
After graduating from the CIA, she opened a successful catering business. Then a trip home to Jamaica gave her an idea. “I was inspired. We ate at a little jerk stand and, I told my husband it’d be cool if we could bring this back—that people could enjoy this vibe.”
Cue The Jerk Shack. “I had a low goal in mind when I opened. I thought, if people come, then we’ll sell some jerk chicken. If they don’t come, we’re OK, because we still have catering.” On opening day, 3,000 people showed up. “We were flooded with a huge blessing.”
The crowds came back, again and again. And the accolades began rolling in. The Jerk Shack was featured by Eater.com as one of the Top 16 New Restaurants in America, confirming what devoted San Antonio foodies already knew. GQ Magazine named it as one of its top new restaurants earlier this year, describing The Jerk Shack as “the finest Caribbean fare in the Lone Star State — maybe anywhere.“
“I never imagined that my restaurant would be written about like that. Jamaica is my home. It’s where I was born. I’ve always shared it with people. So to me, it was just sharing it with people. When people are saying you’re the best or you’re the best in the city, or you’re one of the best in the nation, it’s very humbling. At the same time, I feel like I’m just paying homage to my ancestors and paying homage to the great chefs before me.”
The Jerk Shack spotlights the flavors of Blaque’s native Jamaica, while Mi Roti builds inspiration from the West Indies and the Caribbean. Even with the success and accolades, Blaque doesn’t always get credit in the traditionally male-dominated culinary industry. “If my husband’s with me, they assume that he’s the chef. I am the owner; this is all my vision. I wish that people understood that there are women chefs that are executives. We’re not just line cooks or preppers. We hold major roles.”
“At The Jerk Shack, we have out of towners that have read about me. They’ve also read about my sous chef, Chef Imani, and they want to meet us and take pictures. So I feel like the world is starting to change. But it’s a slow change. When I started, people didn’t take me seriously until they saw me written about.”
Blaque hasn’t let the attention and accolades change her. “People have told me that I’m very successful, but I don’t feel like I’m at a point where I can say that I’m fully successful. I’ve created some things that have the possibility of being successful, but until something’s running for four or five years, it’s not fully successful to me yet.
“We’re three years in, and I feel like there’s a lot I still have to learn. There’s still a lot I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m always going to put the best food out as possible and make sure that my customers are happy and my employees are happy. And if that’s the definition of success and maybe I’m there, or maybe I’m not.”
But she’s definitely not taking her foot off the gas. “What’s truly inspiring to me is just being able to see my food being received well. Caribbean food, to me, needs to be brought to a national level. And seeing that I’m able to do that, seeing it recognized nationally, seeing people eat it and love it? That’s what’s driving me right now.”
BY DAWN ROBINETTE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID TERAN