Kingston Kitchen, a scratch Jamaican cuisine restaurant, is set to open in Okemos late next month. Owner/operator Shawn Fearon studied culinary arts in Jamaica, but spent most of his professional career in Michigan.
Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, Shawn Fearon said he learned at an early age that there was just one way to avoid a life of abject poverty.
“In Jamaica, the only way to survive is by working,” he said. “Luckily, I found something I was good at very quickly, and I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to grow into it. But cooking isn’t just a job for me. It’s a way of life.”
After spending much of his life studying culinary arts and working under other chefs, next month Fearon will launch his first solo venture: Kingston Kitchen, a Jamaican-themed restaurant featuring dishes that are practically ingrained in his DNA. He acknowledges he faces a distinct challenge of going all-in on ethnic cuisine.
“Jamaican food is extremely spicy, and I’ve found that customers aren’t always prepared for all those flavors,” Fearon said. “Of course I’ll have authentic dishes with full jerk seasoning, but I’ll also feature milder versions so people can get slowly acquainted.”
After he displayed an early knack for the business working as a food runner at a Kingston hospital, Fearon was nudged into a culinary arts vocational school by one of his mentors. This led to a work exchange program on Mackinac Island, which turned into a regular seasonal gig. He eventually got certified as a sous chef from the HEART College of Hospitality Services, a government-funded institution in Jamaica designed to pump out culinary arts professionals.
“And I was lucky enough to keep finding work in Michigan,” Fearon said. “I’m obviously from a tropical country where it’s hot year-round, but I discovered I love winter. If I won the lottery, I’d probably move to the U.P.”
Before he can be a Yooper, however, Fearon will try to build Kingston Kitchen into a local hotspot. He plans to source as much of his menu as he can locally, keeping in line with the humming, farm-to-table movement. Of course, Caribbean cuisine isn’t new to the area — local diners can already opt for Jose’s Cuban Sandwich & Deli near downtown Lansing, Lil’ BBQ Shack on the city’s south side and the Caribbean BBQ food truck at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Mt. Hope Avenue. But those places are more grab-and-go; Fearon hopes Kingston Kitchen will become a destination location that will draw diners from around the area.
“I’m going to try to be as local as possible,” Fearon said. “I’ll constantly tweak the menu based on feedback I get. Some of the dishes I’ll be starting with are things I see on local menus, but of course I’ll add a Jamaican twist.”
Those original creations will include dishes that combine jerk chicken with classic American staples such as macaroni and cheese, pasta alfredo and nachos. Fearon’s working this week to perfect a lobster hot dog, which may be a hit just based on the curiosity factor. The menu will also be loaded with Jamaican favorites such as fried plantains, ackee and codfish — a customary fruit and fish dish, braised oxtail and goat curry.
“These are all dishes I’ve been working on for years,” Fearon said. “I’m happy that I finally have an opportunity to share them with the public. When it comes to trying new kinds of food, I’ve found that Michigan people are slowly adventurous, but once they’re on board, they’re on board. I can’t wait to see what they think of my food.”
Kingston Kitchen (opens in late September) 4749 Central Park Drive, Okemos 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday (517) 708-8322, thekingstonkitchen.com
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