By Earth Izayaa Allat
The sharp aired blades penetrated through the gaps of my winter garments on that day in 2007 as I embarked on the metro north train towards New Rochelle. I was excited to accompany one of the realest Boricua Hip Hop journalists of our time (Sunez Allah) and partake in interviewing two members of the Hip Hop group I-N-I, of which Jolo was a part of. Tales were shared. Incense burned. The original seeds of the planet Earth (Black, Brown and Yellow-not negroid, nor Australoid or mongoloid-but the different manifestations of Black in their phenotypes and skin tones variation splendor all sat in the sacred cipher) where ideas were exchanged and bread was broken. This same year I’d transition into a plant-based diet and if it wasn’t segmented yet, Jolo’s food offerings that night sealed my long-life commitment to vegan eating. Eating his food opened an aspect of my being, it made me experience eating beyond the senses. Then I understood. Plants, herbs and spices all complimented my journey in making my body finally feel comfortable in itself. This early experience has had an impact in my life and I honor meeting brother Jolo. It is why I find it of most importance to share his story and the role he’s playing in the food industry as a black man in the community of New Rochelle through his tasty and beautiful culinary creations over at Jolo’s Kitchen.
Jolo was born in Ayti. He arrived to the United States at the age of fourteen and like many other immigrant groups the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” associated with the American ideals of independence and self-determination as a way to fulfill the American Dream of a better life, was the guiding ideology. However, this meant compromising one’s identity. Hiding one’s background was highly associated with the particular historicizing of the country of origin, which many times meant either making one’s ethnic Black origins invisible or re-learning Blackness through a different perspective (i.e Dominicans). As Jolo states, “Back then when I came in 84 a lot of Haitians didn’t want to be known. At that time they had people believe that AIDS came from Haiti and most Haitians that came here came in banana boats. So it was a rough road.” This meant Jolo would not make his ethnic identity known and allowed a societal placement within the Black-White spectrum. The deliberate attempt to portray Haiti as a backward nation through unfounded Eurocentric racist narratives, from nonfactual portrayals of vodun in Hollywood films to underdeveloped disease-ridden descriptions of its landscapes, and all with the goal that the world forgets Haiti has served as an example of Black freedom and revolution in the “new world.” Jolo would soon play his role of Haitian greatness to defeat these dominant ideas of Haitianism.
Spiritual Identity and Diet
Jolo’s spirituality is intrinsically tied to his sociological identity. He states, “First and foremost, I see myself as an African born in Haiti…I’m proud to be Haitian but we are all Africans taken from Africa. I consider myself an African born in Haiti. I love my roots. That’s why I made sure I went to Ethiopia before I become a Rastaman. Listening to Reggae music that educate and elevate the race. “ Before becoming Rasta, Jolo remembered when Bob Marley passed away at the age of 12 while still living in Haiti. On the screen of the black and white TV his family shared he saw Bob Marley and heard the elders negatively discussing Bob as a drug user, but that didn’t make him stop loving Bob Marley’s music. So when he moved to the United States and learned English, he finally understood the lyrics. This is when he became vegetarian and “…started growing my dreadlocks and had a lot of fights. In the midst of all that I wanted to keep my locks even more but it was hard. Until one day, I saw my grandmother in the basement. She’s still alive. Right now she’s 102. She was giving me the business about my hair. I looked on her wall and Jesus had long hair and a beard and I showed her. I said the only difference between me and that Jesus there is his blue eyes and white skin. So if Grandma could give me a pass, my mother’s mother, then the hell with everybody else. I chose to be myself.”
Jolo lived surrounded by some aspects of the internalized anti-Blackness rhetoric within the mentality of the elders, based on the negation of certain traits that accentuated being black not only physically, but through the views of how to live. In Jolo’s case it was growing his dreadlocks and embracing Rastafarianism. He made sure he travelled to Ethiopia where it all started, as well as use Reggae music as a tool to dwell deeper into the teachings of Rastafari. With his peer group it was also about showing and proving as he served as a threat to the dominant narrative of what being Black meant. In the inner-city, he earned his respect of a culture that was in tune with his views on life and identity. Food was a big component of that. As he stated, “As far as my diet, you could ask the silverback [gorilla] where he gets his strength from? The giraffe, how he gets so tall? The cow, how she stay so fat? Those keep my mind grounded to the natural living we’re all here to enjoy.” Jolo makes sure he ate organic, whole foods that nature provides.
Origin of Jolo’s Kitchen
It all started with home fries. Jolo was obsessed with them. He would eat them at all times during the day. Then it evolved to a more diverse menu and the more he cooked, he would invite friends over like Stic.Man of Dead Prez. Eventually, they took him as a their personal chef in 2000. Dead Prez’s militancy combined with Jolo’s natural perspective of health and mother earth made a harmonious partnership. Eventually, Jolo left Seattle because he has two beautiful daughters that he needed to care for closely. He ventured into some other hustles, like making T-shirts and eventually he reunited with Dead Prez. Of that time, Jolo says “ When I got back the brothers were so happy to see me. I could see they lost some health so that let me see I’ve got something [with my cooking].” This was the spark of realization for Jolo that he should be sharing this ability to heal through food to others. So when he got back to New Rochelle, he looked for a place to rent and knew the right placed was found by the conditions of the small bathroom as neat and clean. He partnered up with a former DJ of Grand Puba, the legendary MC out of New Rochelle and the lead man in the seminal group, Brand Nubian, whom he eventually bought out because the passion just wasn’t there.
The Okay Player tour with Dead Prez made Jolo realize you can heal overtime with the right attitude (mind-body connection). Travel, which Jolo acknowledges is a luxury to many Afro-descendant folks, as he refers to our living condition as a crabs-in barrel reality, solidified the decision to open up a restaurant, as well as the many people that inspired him like the MC Guru of Gangstarr.
Struggles as Business Owner and Chef
Passion is key. It is the fuel to a Chef’s creativity and in providing good service. Jolo didn’t know it would take five years before he would see money surplus. However, he never put the money first and focused on what he wanted to show the world. He saw the immense validity in his creative being. It started with the potatoes, but extended to learning about proteins, greens and many other whole products. Jolo is aware mother nature provides everything we need. He acknowledges the dangers of the pharmaceuticals as it relates to the food industry. His concern lies in the additional non-natural additives in food. Although he doesn’t fully embrace the FDA, he sees a great danger of this entity not inspecting the food due to the government shut down. Toxicity in the foods threatens small restaurant owners.
Dealing with vendors is a struggle. Prices have soared. Something he would pay seven dollars for, now costs twenty, which affects his budget. He currently pays forty dollars for a box of kale that was previously worth twenty. Jolo also highlights the lack of loyal employees in the business. They really are a few and its why he tries to stay with the same group. Employee overturn is not something he’s fond of. Starting with a new employee is hard because you have to set the foundation for exceptional work ethic. Some employees know how to take constructive criticism that allows them to grow, but there are some that don’t, which worsens the relationship.. Preparation and skills acquisition through training in topics like food safety and handling, is of priority. Jolo has closed for the first time in 11 years because he hasn’t had full confidence in his staff. He’s always on the front line with everyone else. He maintains a keen eye and let’s higher vibrations (the relationship between himself and the environment at any given moment) guide his service. Another rule he finds damages small restaurant owners is this idea the customer is always right. He tries his best in providing information and the freshest food possible. However, there have been times where customers really are just out to alter the environment in the restaurant. Everyday a business must be ready for customers who will not be pleased. To these people he advises to take their money and attitude elsewhere. He puts his money first.
Jolo has also had to deal with friends betting that he would be out of business. He asks them, why don’t you come and support me? Instead, they criticize and tell him to change his dishes all the while waiting for his demise. He ignores this hateration and focuses on his mission. Like his father who taught him some of this earliest lessons in work, Jolo says you have to “make it happen” through your vision.
Interacting with food is energy and Jolo realizes if his mind is not right the food will not taste right. This can be a challenge which he remedies by visiting his backyard garden where he “sits, catch a fire and give thanks…from the produce and the energy.”
Menu and Food Offerings at the Restaurant
As a rule of thumb, Jolo does not serve white potatoes or white rice. He also threw out the microwave upon learning it kills all the nutrition of the food. About a year or two, he stopped deep frying food as well. Examples of food he works with and incorporates into dishes are quinoa, sweet potatoes, spinach, eggplant, portobello mushrooms, brussel sprouts, swiss chard, bok choy and succotash. Everyday he goes in, he looks at what’s available and ready to be worked with and he freestyles it. People should never expect the same exact dish day after day. He might have staples like certain grains, etc, but actual dishes are never the same. In his menu, he tries his best to provide two greens, two complex carbohydrates, and two proteins. What he creates is truly unpredictable, but he’ll definitely make sure its a balanced meal.
A nice addition to the living menu at Jolo’s Kitchen is the garden he built adjacent to the restaurant. And this isn’t just a typical garden. Jolo states, “My garden is actually right off the concrete. It’s so amazing. I did strip some of the land, get some dirt. I add my own compost. I have millions of worms…That’s the revolution right there. My garden–you’d be surprised how much stuff I’ve gotten off that little piece of land. And it’s not in the ground. It’s off the concrete so imagine if I do have land and you know what you’re doing.” Being able to grow food on his own has enabled Jolo to expand his ideas around food. He sees the freedom growing your own food provides to our people.
He sees his garden and restaurant aligned with the concept of food justice. He is playing his part in making food accessible to low-income POC in the New Rochelle community where he makes food local by growing it in his garden and incorporates it to the menu. Jolo sees the start to all this as education. He emphasis education as the eye opener to see what’s going on through a deeper lens. He realizes you can’t just use what you read, but by finding out the freshest local food, meaning interacting with food and being in the land.
As the world promotes a mainstream narrative of Dominican racism and anti-Haitianism, I spread the word of the many communities on both sides of the island, especially as it relates to food, working together for generations and cohabiting in many aspects of society (socio-cultural, economic, etc) solidifying an identity as far back as the colonization era. It’s my testament to those who don’t know that my life has mirrored this reality as I play my position with brother Jolo on this part of the world.
Food is what really lets us live and get living in the way we harvest, cook and prepare it as it blesses us ever more.