Food truck owner Oratio Garrell scrimped and saved for six years to get together enough money to open a brick-and-mortar spot to serve his smoky jerk chicken and pork.
When his eatery King Jerk finally opened at 14821 W. Dixie Hwy., the centerpiece was a $5,000 hybrid grill/smoker that was hardly used before thieves snatched it out of the parking lot surrounding Garrell's new bright-red restaurant.
"They iced me," Garrell says. Crooks in balaclavas came with a ladder and could be seen on security cameras climbing up to cover the lenses in black spray paint to cover their tracks before making off with the grill.
"I hadn't even had a chance to start practicing with the smoker yet," he says.
But Garrell, who simply goes by Jay, is used to hardship. He began cooking at the age of 11 with his cousin Ayende James at a roadside jerk spot in Montego Bay's St. James neighborhood. "It was either get into trouble or find something productive to do," he says.
That first summer, he was responsible for cleaning and cutting up hundreds of birds. But before his cousin would trust him with the family jerk recipe, Garrell had to prove himself with another Jamaican classic: brown stew chicken. The ubiquitous island dish features chicken parts seared and finished in a pungent brew of hot sauce, ketchup, and scallions seasoned with garlic and thyme.
"It took me a few weeks, but I nailed it," Garrell says.
Not long after that, he persuaded his cousin to fork over the secret jerk formula. Garrell then spent years perfecting it. He toyed with ingredients and proportions while holding down odd jobs in Jamaica and then in Flushing, Queens, when he moved there at the age of 19. A brutal commute to a warehouse job and long hours proved to be good training. Because he had time to cook only on weekends, he had to learn how to quickly prepare hefty batches of jerk chicken. The four years he spent there gave him his best trick: marinating the birds in his family's jerk recipe for days at a time.
In 2008, he moved to Miami. The warmer weather is easier on the scar that zigzags across his skull. It's a souvenir from a New York mugging, he says. Three years later, he had saved the $1,700 needed to finance a food truck and finally begin cooking again.
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When he opened in 2012, it quickly became clear Garrell's hybrid technique of standard grilling and slow barbecue was a success. The hour cook time results in meat that's juicy and with a flavor reminiscent of the smoke ring found in the best barbecue. The skin takes on a slight crisp but is still thick with the seasoning, which isn't too spicy and doubles as a kind of dipping sauce.
Don't worry, though. Garrell's jerk chicken is still available at his mobile truck near Opa-locka and at his new spot. His replacement grill and smoker should be ready in late August, when he'll begin dishing out ribs and brisket on sandwiches and by the pound.
14821 W. Dixie Hwy., Miami; 305-300-9682.