AS YOU enjoy the reggae sounds of The Wailers at this weekend's big SCAD show in Forsyth Park, there's another opportunity to enjoy authentic Jamaican culture you shouldn't miss.
At the end of Victory Drive turn left onto Ogeechee Road, drive over the hill, and start looking left for a small, white-tile covered building in the corner facing the road.
I had to smile at their bright green, black & yellow sign: “Come to ‘Jamaican Soul’ A taste of paradise!” Now that’s confidence!
These are the colors of the Jamaican flag, which call to mind their old saying, “Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth”—quite fitting that this little nugget of island cheer should find itself in Savannah! Those striking colors also hint of the authenticity of the culinary marvels within.
Chef Whenford Williams is a native of Kingston, Jamaica, and each spice he uses comes from that sunny island. He started right outta high school working in small eateries around town, then moved on to, at the time, Jamaica’s most famous Chinese restaurant, The Golden Dragon, huddling each evening in a little room off the kitchen.
“It was a humble beginning, but all a young man needs is somewhere to sleep—so I stayed there and I learned,” Whenford laughs.
After a year, he moved on to bigger venues. “In Jamaica all the big businesses, like JPS, Sterling Drugs, Colgate, they got canteens on site so their employees don’t have to leave for lunch—you get to know all about feeding crowds.”
When his brother moved to Miami, an invite soon followed, and young Whenford took off for yet another land of sunshine, developing his growing skills at a private dining club. Restless, he made his way up to Savannah, where his twinkling eyes and shy smile caught the attention of a certain young lady, and before long he found himself married and father of two pretty daughters, Kelly and Latisha.
Kelly loves to help out her dad at his eatery and, when I ask if she also works in the kitchen, she is proud to tell me, “Oh, Daddy does all the cooking! That’s all his recipes and he guards them well!”
“I spent most of my life in restaurants—it’s hard, sure, but I love the work!” Whenford says.
“In Savannah I cooked at home for my family, and sold meals to nursing home residents where my wife worked. They kept asking me, ‘When you gonna start up your own place?’ I opened Jamaican Soul two years ago with a couple of partners, but they weren’t into all the details of running a place like this, so when they bowed out, I took over and it’s been rolling along ever since!”
Now, I have not, personally, had the good fortune to visit the island also known as “Jamdown” or “the land of blessings full of greatness,” though I have friends who’ve been there.
They assure me that Whenford’s food is authentic—but I can verify that it’s so good I’m happy to drive there all the way from the Southside for a Jamaican foodie fix!
Having lived in Savannah a couple of decades now, Whenford pays homage to local tastes with goodies like mac ‘n’ cheese and cornbread—but he adds in his own special touch with made-from-scratch Beef Patties, spicy Jerk Chicken, a tender Curried Goat and Brown Stewed Fish.
His Shrimp Fried Rice is a neighborhood favorite—all that time at the Golden Dragon lefts its mark!-- and Savannah folks love the fresh okra ‘n’ maters and collard greens.
Now I adore a good cornbread, but here I always order up a buttery hunk of Coco Bread, which is pure heaven when it’s fresh and warm, and add a side of his Fried Plantains, plump, sweet and sooooo good!
The portions are generous and the prices very reasonable, and though the meals are truly big enough to share, still, take a look at the desserts, made by a family friend: the star of the show, in my humble opinion, is the Sour Cream Pound Cake—rich, buttery, firm and lusciously sweet, though I’ve heard many customers insist on a “big slice, please!” of the Red Velvet Cake as well.
This is strictly take-out, though if the rich scents make your tummy grumble in anticipation, there’s a single booth where the impatient can attack their meal in peace. A bright colored wall painting of the island greets you as you enter, as well as framed Jamaican art prints, and yes, that Father of Jamaican Soul, Bob Marley, gazes at you from an icon-like portrait behind the counter.
If you crave a bit of island culinary magic at home, pick up a bottle of the island’s Walker’s Wood Jerk spice or “Grace: hot sauce, on sale at the counter where you order and pay (cash or card). Jamaican fruit juices and soft drinks are available for those who yearn for a complete island meal.