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Interview #6: Chantal Thomas's Vegan Patties
"I was very intentional—as cheesy as it sounds, ‘Amazing Ackee’ was so there would always be a positive connotation with the word 'ackee.'"
During an extended vacation in Jamaica to visit her mother during ackee season, Chantal Thomas found herself with a glut of the creamy, nutty fruitand decided to get creative with it. “Ackee is Jamaica’s national fruit, and ackee and saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish,” she says. “By the third or fourth time I made ackee and saltfish, I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to be able to do something else with this.’” After experimenting with dishes like ackee mac and cheese and ackee pizza, Chantal realized she was onto something, and in 2017, she launched the recipe blog Amazing Ackee not long after relocating to Hartford, Connecticut.
The blog was an outlet for creative recipes that drew on Chantal’s professional culinary training in both Trinidad & Tobago and Canada. But it also had a secondary purpose, as a corrective to the media narrative around ackee. “I had noticed that when you Google ackee, there were a lot of click-baity type titles or things that were misleading, like ‘oh, this Jamaican breakfast could kill you!’” she says. (It’s worth noting that while ackee can be toxic if improperly harvested or prepared, so can other common produce like rhubarb or potatoes.) “The way it was villainized, I was taking that personally,” she says. “So I was very intentional—as cheesy as it sounds, ‘Amazing Ackee’ was so there would always be a positive connotation with the word ‘ackee’.”
One of Chantal’s ackee recipes—for vegan Jamaican patties—fueled the launch of a micro-bakery, also called Amazing Ackee, which launched in 2018. Which brings us to now, a time when Amazing Ackee is a full-fledged vegan patty business, with patties sold at regional Connecticut farmers’ markets and on shelves at local food retailers. To the interview!
How did Amazing Ackee come to be as a food business?
When I started sharing recipes on my blog, people started asking me if I had a food truck or did pop-ups. I was toying with the idea of having a bakery, but I also know the graveyard shift from when I worked at a large hotel, so I wanted to create something that would allow me the flexibility to enjoy my life and not be up at 12 a.m. waiting for bread to bake. When I made the decision to try to bring my blog to life, so to speak, I had to decide—if I had to choose just one of these recipes from my blog, which one would it be? I landed on patties, because every culture has some form of bread or pastry with something stuffed inside of it. So I was like, if people aren’t familiar with ackee, at least they’ll be familiar with the format that it’s being presented to them in. So that’s how we really started, and then from there, Amazing Ackee, the patty business, grew into what it is now.
Can you tell me about your connection to patties growing up in Jamaica?
There are two major patty brands in Jamaica. There’s Juici Patties and Tastee patties. There are other smaller ones, but those are the two main ones that people tend to know. When I was in prep school, when I would have been around 8 or so, we would start getting patties at school, and my mom would give me and my sister twenty Jamaican dollars, and it would be for us to each get our own patty and a bag juice, and we had to bring home two dollars change. It was always a treat when we got to have patties at school, and I remember a teacher saying, “Hold up how many fingers for how many patties you want to have,” and everyone in the class put up all five (laughs). Whenever I visit Jamaica, it’s one of those things on the list that I absolutely must eat to feel like I’ve gone home. It’s a staple for me.
Yours are all vegan, correct? What inspired you to take yours in that direction?
When we were getting started, I looked around to see what was available in terms of the competition. And because I knew that because I was going the handmade route, the cards were already stacked against me, because the producers that do patties here purchase them bulk in cases and then just bake them and sell them. You can’t compete with machines. So I thought, “How can I be different?” So that was one, and then two, there actually aren’t very many vegan Caribbean food options where we are in Hartford, which is interesting, because there are a lot of Jamaican restaurants. Some places had a vegetable patty, and that was it. Or maybe they’d have a spinach patty, but it would be spinach and cheese. Lots of people have lactose intolerance. So I decided to go the vegan route, to focus on a niche that wasn’t being served.
Was it challenging to apply vegan cooking techniques to something that historically wasn’t vegan?
It wasn’t, because Rastafarians in Jamaica are vegetarian for the most part, if not completely vegan. They call their style of cooking ital, which also extends to seasoning mostly with herbs and spices rather than using salt. We also have a very large Seventh-day Adventist population which tends to be vegetarian. So there is a lot of vegetarian food in Jamaica. And what we make could be called a “yatti,” which is what the Rastafarians call an ital patty. They would usually use things like spelt or whole wheat flour. I personally find them a little too dense; I wanted to have an indulgent crust, so I still use regular wheat flour. So for me, it was more about, how can I make this exciting? I wanted to challenge myself to say, “In what ways can we present vegetables and make them delicious?”
What’s influenced how you come up with your flavors, your crust, and all of those different elements?
The constant question that I’m asking myself is, “How can I make this true to our roots as Caribbean people, what does that even mean, and how do we even progress our cuisine?” Even in terms of how I shape the patties, for example: I do the regular half-moon shape, and then I do one that’s square, inspired by Devon House Bakery in Kingston, Jamaica, and then the third shape I do is based on a Cornish pasty. But then I have people who say, “Well, that’s not a patty,” and then I ask myself, “Well, what makes a patty a patty?”
With Jamaican cuisine, I feel like there’s an opportunity to help push our cuisine forward through being imaginative, rather than just kind of doing things the way that they’re done traditionally. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I do use a lot of traditional flavors and spices, like thyme, pimento, scotch bonnet peppers in almost everything, garlic, ginger. At the same time, I am trying not to box myself into something where it has to be jerk, or something like that.
Knowing you’ve done some self-examination on this topic, what does it mean to you to stay true to your roots? Have you reached a working ethos in your brain?
I think at its simplest, Caribbean food is flavor-focused. And then everything else, to an extent, is secondary. So the first thing I ask myself is, “Where is the flavor coming from in this recipe? What are the flavors that I’m building on?” The Caribbean is a huge melting pot. Is it Caribbean only if its ingredients are grown there? Or is it Caribbean because a Caribbean person is making it? And I don’t know that there is going to be a satisfactory answer to that question, but for me, I define staying true to my roots as being flavor-first.
Did the different flavor combinations that you have now evolve over time, or did you already have those set when you launched the business?
So when I started, I was only going to do ackee patties (laughs). That was going to be it. But in this journey, I have just kind of learned to grow and flow into the direction that I’m being pushed in. A lot of the local farmers markets here want either locally grown or Connecticut-made products. We were fine for the Connecticut-made umbrella of things, but ackee’s not local, so I wanted to incorporate more locally grown products. That’s how the second patty—which is a curried chickpea and zucchini patty—came about. And then the farm that I had a relationship with was like, “We’ve got these really cool eggplants, can you use this?” Then I brought in eggplant, and that was jerk. And so what I do every now and again is I’ll ask my farmer, “What do you have a lot of? What’s not moving that you are looking to get rid of?” And see if I can make something with it. Right now we have nine flavors. I plan to add one with a creole kidney bean that I just tested out the other day that was great. We are going to do something with broccoli. I’ve wanted for the longest time to do a BBQ black bean and mushroom. I still want to do something with potatoes. And just in the back of mind I have this idea for a spooky patty, to make the crust black, but I’m not sure what to put in the filling. It’s churning. It’s always in the back of my mind.
How many patties are you typically making per week, and what’s that production process like split among nine varieties?
Altogether it’s about a three-day process. First day is filling, second is making the dough and shaping them. But pastry dough always likes to get a chance to relax. So I try not to bake it on the same day that I shape it because then they tend to shrink, so it is three days before you’re done.
What I tend to do is I work on the filling one day and then the next day I’ll work on the crust, because the filling needs time to cool down. I’ll try to make all of the fillings that have the same dough together: For example, the ackee, the eggplant, and the chickpea all have the same colored dough. So I’ll make those three fillings, and then the following day I’ll make the turmeric dough. And then I’ll shape all of those patties, and then will put them in the freezer unbaked. And then I’ll repeat with the next colored dough. So when I do have an order, I find what I need and then bake it and serve to customers either hot or I freeze the package. During the slow period we’re making about 300 per week, during the busy period last summer my husband and I were doing around 700.
You’ve moved into a new production kitchen. I noticed on Instagram that you’ve been able to get new equipment over time, and I’m curious how much of a difference that’s made in your process.
The best advice I can give anyone that is starting a food business, is to get equipment that will cut your prep time down as soon as you can afford to. One of the first things I got was a sheeter, because I had to roll dough by hand. And as much practice as I have, it loses sheen very quickly. We had straight-away bought the hand-crank machine to shape the patties. Previously for chopping things, I just had one of my home food processors, but as an established business the health department expects you to get a certain standard of equipment. The Robot Coupe processor has been a game changer in terms of how quickly I am able to prep vegetables. A lot of people go, “Oh, vegetarian food, it’s just vegetables, it’s cheap.” And I’m like, no, it’s the labor. Think of spinach. You start with 10 cups of spinach, and by the time you are done cooking that spinach you have two cups to work with. Likewise, you stand and peel and dice up a whole case of eggplant, and then it feels like you are left with a third of the bulk of what you started with. So anything that I can do to help cut down on the prep time or make it easier on my body, I tend to focus on that.
I’d love to ask you about coco bread, which is something you are also making yourself. On Instagram, you referred to coco bread and patties as an “iconic couple.” Can you explain why they work so well together?
Why we eat patties and coco bread together—nutritionally, it makes no sense (laughs). It’s carbs on carbs on carbs. But there is something about the softness of the dough with the bread and the crispness of the pastry, and the filling in the patty as well. It’s those three textures in one bite. I think that’s what makes it, for people who love patties and coco bread together, like myself. There are definitely some people who are just like, “No, I don’t get it, I don’t eat it that way.” The coco bread is typically brushed with a salted butter, and it’s mildly sweet. So there’s something about having a mildly sweet dough that’s soft, with something that’s salty, with a flaky crust, and then the filling is a little spicy. It’s all of those flavors and textures hitting your tongue at the same time. So it really is a culinary experience.
You’re making me very hungry. Yours sometimes have garlic butter on top—is that a personal twist?
That is personal, because I get bored very easily. Coco bread was highly requested once I started making the patties. I did not always do coco bread, because to make bread by hand really is a labor of love, and it can be unforgiving sometimes. Around the fall, which is when Americans finally eat pumpkin, I’ll make pumpkin coco bread. I love garlic, so any excuse to put garlic on anything is going to be there. For me it’s all about, “How can we push forward?” Sometimes a simple push forward is tweaking one little ingredient.
Is that the same philosophy that you apply to making the patty dough as well?
Yes. Traditionally it’s colored with turmeric or annatto, or some kind of dye. One of the reasons that I changed the color of the dough itself is because traditionally people will use ink spots to be able to differentiate, so the chicken patty might have an orange spot so they know that one is chicken, or the other one will have a green spot so that they know that it’s vegetable. But I’ve had that experience of ordering, say, a chicken patty, and then getting home and realizing it wasn’t chicken, it was the wrong colored spot, and I was like, “I am never going to be confused when I make my own patties, because they are going to be different colors.” There’s not going to be a mistake knowing which one is which.
Something else I’ve seen you reference on Instagram is the origins of the Jamaican patty, which descended from the Cornish pasty after the British colonized Jamaica. Is educating around those origins important to you?
In some ways yes, and in some ways no for me. Knowing that this is where it came from and this is where it is today, that is what gives me the liberty as a chef to put my own creative spin on it. That for me is the answer when someone says that what I have is not traditional. Well, what we have is not “traditional”— it started as one thing, and it evolved into another cuisine. A lot of Jamaican food is either from British colonial influence, or what the slaves were fed that has now become part of what we eat, along with the other countries that came in. We have Chinese influence. We have Indian influence. We have Syrian and Lebanese influence as well. And you absolutely cannot forget the Maroons, because jerk. A lot of this blending is how we come to the cuisine that we have now. So for me, understanding the origin is kind of like your path to using your imagination, your ticket to freedom.
Has that been something that customers have wanted to engage in?
Usually the discussion comes up when people say, “But I thought it was only beef.” I say no, and then I explain. That’s usually the only opportunity I get to explain and say, no, it’s actually this— and we have all of these influences and this is how we came to where we are now. And most people just care that it’s delicious.
I watched a video that First We Feast did about Jamaican patties in New York, which involved interviewing a lot of people about their patty opinions. One of the interview subjects was like, “If it’s not beef, it doesn’t count.”
And that’s not true.
So I totally see what you’re saying.
And that’s the interesting thing, is that some of the pushback that I do get is from some people who are Jamaican. And I think that’s because people hold so fast to their traditions without knowing the backstory. A lot of people have the perception that for it to be a patty it has to be beef. There is more to Jamaican patties than beef patties, but that was just the export that became “mainstream” in quotation marks. I remember going to a place called Paradise Patties in Jamaica and having ackee and saltfish patties as a child, so I myself know that that’s not true. It represents this lack of imagination that frustrates me. Creativity and imagination is how we grow. When I get upset about this, it’s usually not about food, but what that means by extension for how people approach other problems.
Absolutely, and I think what people are trying to safeguard and protect is their nostalgia, but both are possible.
When you’re off the clock, are there any specific stuffed and folded foods or dumplings that you tend to want to eat?
I love, what do they call them here—bao buns, steam buns. I was actually born in Trinidad and raised in Jamaica, and in Trinidad they call them “pow.”
Last question: Do you have any particular music you listen to when you’re in the folding and filling zone?
It’s usually reggae. Right now I’m absolutely loving Sevana, she's a Jamaican singer. There’s my first husband, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley (laughs). I’ve learned that if I have to pull an all-nighter, say it’s hour eight and I have more packing to do, that’s when I switch over to soca. Hearing a soca beat, I’ll forget how tired I am and I’ll keep folding and folding and folding.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.