Getting to Know: Jam'It Bistro
If you walk into the modest storefront at 367 Columbia Street, you’re almost guaranteed to be met by the boisterous charm of chef and owner Dawn Skeete. Welcome to Jam’It Bistro - Dawn’s love letter to her heritage, her upbringing and the Red Hook community that she serves daily.
Serving a fusion of Afro-Caribbean, West Indian and Italian cuisine, Jam’It has been operating since 2019 and has managed to survive despite the overwhelming pressure placed on the restaurant industry by the COVID-19 pandemic because of Dawn’s positivity and naturally giving nature. At a time when the world needed heroes, she was proud to step up and be one of them. That’s why we were so excited to find out more about her journey.
The Journey Begins
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Dawn came to the United States at the age of ten and immediately the seeds of what would eventually become Jam’It Bistro began to take shape. She is the eldest of six children and with both of her parents working to make ends meet, Dawn had to help out around the house and her father taught her how to cook.
Over time, more members of her family would make the journey from Jamaica to the United States. Food was never far from the family’s pursuit of the American Dream. Her aunts and uncles opened a restaurant - an extension of their upbringing working with their father in Jamaica who was a butcher and owned a grocery store.
“My mom and her siblings - they all grew up with an entrepreneurial parent. A person who owned his own grocery store, and a person who was a butcher…” said Dawn. “So for me, food has always been in our DNA.”
But Dawn wouldn’t leap into the restaurant industry as she got older. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and then her graduate degree from the New School. She then worked for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund, a Fortune 100 company, rising through the ranks to become a management consultant.
But when the company decided to move operations to North Carolina, Dawn knew it was time for a change. New York was her home and she couldn’t see herself leaving.
“I stayed in New York and I owned a piece of property in Bed-Stuy. My husband, just as a hobby, had opened up a restaurant in that space,” said Dawn. “So I said, you know what? Let me get in there and see my skills to build a business that is representative of who I am, and [a tribute to] my culture and my parents, and my aunts and my uncle.”
That restaurant was called Jamaica Grill and she kept it running with her mother and her husband for a decade before deciding to pursue some creative freedom with her cooking as well as hone her skills in building her own business.
"Are you crazy?"
Jam’It Bistro would open to the public in February of 2019 but the opening was not without its challenges. The location in Red Hook was not as conducive to foot traffic as Jamaica Grill had been and Dawn felt she had to adjust. A greater emphasis was placed on the catering aspect of the business but as a Black business owner in a traditionally Black neighborhood, Dawn saw an opportunity to engage with her community as well.
The pandemic made that clear. Jam’It Bistro was contracted by World Central Kitchen to provide free meals to the community - 200 plates a day, individually-packaged and distributed locally. It put their operations to the test as the preparation, cooking and packaging was meant to happen under a strict deadline but over time they got better and better at it. Dawn felt they could do more.
"What we did [in response]? We added 50 more plates to those 200 plates and donated those meals to the shelter around the corner,” said Dawn. “Not only that, but we started to host a community fridge in front of the restaurant. People look at me like, ‘are you crazy?'"
The community fridge initiative operates on the principle of "take what you need, leave what you can." Members of the community can drop off excess food they don't want, and others can take what they need. Volunteer work helps keep the fridges clean and well-stocked by collecting donations from local businesses. This system provides a direct and accessible way to get food to those in need, without the barriers and stigma that may be associated with traditional food assistance programs.
“That was my way of giving back, enabling people to eat, even if they didn't have money to come inside the restaurant and purchase something,” said Dawn. “We support the community fridge in the neighborhood. And then we took it a step further. We began to hire people who live in the shelter, and have them work at the restaurant.”
Dawn jokes that she’s not sure if she runs a for profit restaurant any more as her community initiatives have continued to mount. But she feels compelled to do it. Her children are grown. Her husband is a caring partner and she feels she has a bit of a safety net that enables her to give more of herself and her business to those in need than others might be able to. To her, that’s what the neighborhood and the community is all about.
Satisfying Her Soul
Jamaican cuisine is a true culinary adventure. With its dynamic blend of African, Spanish, British, Indian, and Chinese influences, it offers a range of bold and robust flavors that will satisfy even the most discerning palates. The use of spices such as ginger, allspice and scotch bonnet peppers, give a unique and powerful kick to the dishes, specially the traditional Jerk chicken or pork, a dish that showcases the true essence of Jamaican cuisine. Curry goat is another example of how Jamaican cuisine can be bold and spicy, while still maintaining a perfect balance of flavors.
But Jam’It Bistro goes beyond Dawn’s Jamaican roots. Growing up in New York had a heavy influence on the kinds of food that she enjoys and she doesn’t have a favorite dish to prepare. Her fusion of Caribbean, Spanish, Chinese, Italian and American dishes is a way for her to honor the legacy of the city and the melting pot of cultures that reside in it.
She also loves hearing from her customers about what they would like to see on the menu.
“You just have to call me and let me know what it is that you want. And as long as we have enough time, we can do it,” said Dawn. “That's not a problem."
Taking inspiration from so many different places means that she is always learning about other cultures and her own. She’s found great joy in exploring more about Juneteenth as an extension of Black History Month.
“I did some research, and I realized what the sweet potatoes symbolize, what the greens symbolize, what the colors symbolize on the American plate,” said Dawn. “Each of those items mean something to the Black culture. I never thought about that before. But in celebrating us and who we are as a people, as a culture, every part of us has a meaning.”
For now, Dawn wants to continue refining what she does. She wants to step back a little bit from the day-to-day operations but make sure that the same quality of service and great tastes are still there.
It is hard work maintaining the restaurant and giving back to the community but she still feels that compulsion to do it.
“The other day, I got up and I said to myself, ‘I am tired. I'm not making any money.’ I'm just going along as long as God gives me life,” she said.
So if you find yourself in Red Hook, stop in at 367 Columbia Street. No matter who you are or where life has taken you, Dawn will be there to greet you with a smile, a great meal and some warm conversation.