Novia McDonald-Whyte walks into the Spanish Court Hotel in Kingston in red lipstick, oversized white eyeglasses and wide-leg linen pants. Her ribbed blouse is emblazoned with a young girl rocking an afro made of butterflies. McDonald-Whyte commands the attention of everyone in the room, who may or may not know that she’s been a trendsetter in Jamaica for nearly two decades as the Senior Associate Editor Lifestyle of Jamaica Observer. McDonald-Whyte joined the daily newspaper in 1997, and has since established herself as an authority on food, fashion and lifestyle, knowing about an up-and-coming restaurant, boutique or chef before anyone else.
McDonald-Whyte sat with Outpostings to discuss the upcoming NyamJam Festival and Jamaica’s culinary evolution. She remembers that just a few years ago, working in the food industry was anything but glamorous. “It used to be that you were just a cook, but the conversation has changed,” McDonald-Whyte explains. There’s nothing wrong with the ubiquitous dish of rice and peas and chicken, she says, but “it can’t be the whole conversation.” Ten years ago, sushi was a novelty in Jamaica. Now you can have it anywhere.
Who to attribute to the change? The list is long, she says, and it includes many local chefs—Colin Hylton, Celeste Gordon, Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau—as well as Jamaica Observer. The leading publication has opened up the conversation about food, covering thought-provoking stories like organic farming and the burgeoning wine scene. The Jamaica Observer also launched the Table Talk Food Awards, and established scholarships for food-and-beverage students at the University of Technology, awarding more than 14 million dollars over 12 years.
While there is no Zagat Guide to Jamaica, McDonald-Whyte believes the time has come. “We have to get to the point where we are traveling to the Caribbean to eat,” she says. As she digs into a heaping plate of jerk chicken, rice and peas, she shared her favorite gems on the island.
“I eat papaya, bananas and coconut water for breakfast every single day. Yes, it’s an obsession.”
“On a Saturday, you can find me at the Spanish Court Hotel sitting quietly and having a coffee. ”
“I’ve just discovered that they serve sushi here at Kingston’s Spanish Court Hotel. Friends of mine were here from Trinidad, and they ordered sushi. I come here every day and I didn’t know they serve sushi!”
“Tastee. The patty has to be so hot that when you bite into it, it burns off your tongue. God help you if the patty is not hot.”
“The mountains at Strawberry Hill, and I’m not just saying that because you are here. There really isn’t anything like it. The staff at Strawberry Hill is special.”
Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant. (Shop # 4 Lazza Plaza, Calabash Bay, Treasure Beach; email: [email protected])
Sweetwood Market. “For fish, vegetables and bammy [traditional cassava flatbread].”
Scandal, Empire and Power. “Because of my job, I’m always interacting with people. On the weekends, I like to watch my favorite shows and have a little quiet time.”
Belinda’s on the River. “The only way to get to this [traditional Jamaican] restaurant is by raft!”
“The Oyster Man,” whose name is Juicy. Where can you find him? “He’s anywhere you need him to be,” McDonald-Whyte says. If you’re hankering for Juicy’s fresh oysters, give him a call (and an hour): 876-388-0086.
“Cafe Blue, just down the road from Strawberry Hill, is lovely.”
“Ask for The Dumpling Shop. It’s fantastic. You get a little saltfish in a brown paper bag, and some dumplings. If you ask anyone for The Dumpling Shop, they’ll know exactly where to take you.” (J&R Grocery & Snack, 44E Waltham park Road, Kingston, Jamaica)