Located within a quirky shipping container in Sheraton Grand hotel, colourful New-york brand Miss Lily’s ships diners away to a world of reggae music and authentic, Jamaican cuisine. Crystal Chesters catches up with executive chef Adam Schop to find out more
On the fifth floor of Sheraton Grand Hotel Dubai sits a black shipping container with a Jamaican flag and the word’s “Miss Lily’s” painted on the door. On entering the space, all sense of being in the Middle East evaporates as a retro bodega counter appears, set behind colourful picnic benches. Hanging from the ceiling is a bright disco ball and a tall stack of retro yellow speakers conceals the left-hand wall. Behind the scenes, in what appears to be the back shop of the bodega, are shelves of Jamaican condiments, which not only serve to section off a private dining table from the restaurant, but as functional storage for kitchen ingredients. There are just 10 tables in the main dining area, all painted to resemble vinyl records, while old-school reggae album sleeves line the walls.
“It’s really a mash up of our restaurants in New York. We’ve taken components and design elements that we really love and have put them together,” says Miss Lily’s executive chef Adam Schop, referring to the brand’s two US outlets – one in New York’s East Village and the other in the West Village.
“The focus of the design is that you’re walking off the street into a yard and you’re hanging out at a picnic table eating chicken. The bar is like the store front bodega in New York and then when you walk into the main restaurant it’s like being at the back of the bodega, so there’s a method behind the madness,” he says.
Schop joined the Miss Lily’s team just over two years ago with no previous experience of working in a Jamaican restaurant. However, having opened his own pan-Latin restaurant, Nuela, in New York as executive chef and partner in 2008, Schop is no stranger to Caribbean ingredients.
“It was a quick study to pick up the ingredients and recipes and learn about who they are as a group of people and what they like,” says Schop. “I’d always eaten in the fast food cafes in Brooklyn; I’d never travelled to Jamaica but I’d been cooking Latin American food from the Caribbean so the ingredients weren’t new to me. As far as learning recipes that were specific to Jamaica and understanding cultures, that was something of a curve.”
However, Schop admits that it was the people behind Miss Lily’s rather than the food that attracted him to the brand. He had worked previously with co-owner Serge Becker, a well-known name on the New York nightlife scene and behind such concepts as The Box nightclub and La Esquina taco stand. Becker was also the creative mastermind of the Miss Lily’s interiors. “The main reason I came into Miss Lily’s was the people involved. The core group of folk that own Miss Lily’s were just really cool so that was what pulled me towards it,’ Schop says.
The other co-owner, Paul Simon, is chairman of The Rockhouse Hotel, part of Jamaican children’s educational charity, The Rockhouse Foundation. A portion of all Miss Lily’s profits goes to this cause. As part of his role within the group, Schop oversees the food and beverage offer at The Rockhouse Hotel, and travels to Jamaica every six weeks in order to do so, which helps him to stay up-to-speed on the latest techniques and ingredients being implemented there.
“The food we serve is very similar to how we would make it in Jamaica. We have great respect for the authenticity, the truthfulness of the food on the plate. It’s really classic, homely food that grandma would make”
“Soulful, delicious and craveable,” is how Schop describes the menu at Miss Lily’s, which specialises in good old fashioned, classic Jamaican cuisine. “The food we serve is very similar to how we would make it in Jamaica. We have great respect for the authenticity, the truthfulness of the food on the plate. It’s really classic, homely food that grandma would make.”
One of his favourite dishes is the oxtail stew, which is marinated for a day in a rub of ginger, garlic, scallion and Scotch bonnet chili and then cooked very slowly with broad beans and served with a side of rice and peas. “It’s exactly what you’d get in Jamaica; the flavour profile is identical; we went to great lengths trying to find oxtail that was up to par,” Schop explains.
A classic Jamaican technique used widely throughout the menu is jerking, with jerk corn, and a jerk grill of either chicken, salmon or pork some of the options on offer. Schop explains jerking as marinating meat heavily and cooking it slowly on pimiento or sweetwood to create a dried out, smoky product that can be stored. He combines this with the more Western technique of brining to make the meat juicier. “The cooking process is heavy on the preparation so when people come in and order their chicken, it just gets grilled and finished. The flavour really resonates all the way down to the bone with the special jerk sauce we use.”
To create authentic flavours, Schop is keen on importing as much produce as possible from the Caribbean, explaining, “there’s something soulful about cooking ingredients from that region”. However, he admits this is no mean feat given the associated expense and the challenge of finding suppliers that can source the right products. So far, the Scotch bonnet chili, indigenous to the Caribbean, has been the most troublesome ingredient to find in Dubai, and Schop says a number of suppliers have actually sold him the wrong product.
“There are a lot of chilies imported that look like Scotch bonnet and get sold as Scotch bonnet, so it’s this arm wrestling situation with vendors. I had to bring them chilies and show them what they are supposed to be so it took a while but we got them eventually”
“The Scotch bonnet chili is very unique, it has characteristics that are impossible to mimic,” he says. “There are a lot of chilies imported that look like Scotch bonnet and get sold as Scotch bonnet, so it’s this arm wrestling situation with vendors. I had to bring them chilies and show them what they are supposed to be, so it took a while but we got them eventually.”
Explaining why Dubai is the first international location for Miss Lily’s, Schop reveals it wasn’t so much that the brand chose Dubai but that “Dubai chose us”. The relationship between Dubai partners Varun Khemaney and Khalil Dahmash and Miss Lily’s was already established so it was just a question of finding the right location and timing to introduce the brand.
“Varun identified Miss Lily’s as a brand he wanted to get involved with and he thought there was a niche here in Dubai for a Jamaican restaurant, and obviously he was right given that another group has just opened one here,” says Schop, citing Ting Irie in Downtown Dubai, which opened earlier this year. “It’s really fun to have two restaurants doing similar things in the same area.”
Schop’s involvement in the development of Miss Lily’s has gone beyond a consulting role, he explains, calling ‘consulting’ a “dirty word in the restaurant industry”. He has spent a lot of his time over the past 12 months visiting Dubai and has worked closely with newly appointed on-site head chef, Andrew Paderes – previous head chef at Claw Crabshack & Grill in Souk Al Bahar and executive chef at The Gramercy, DIFC – to train him thoroughly on the menu. “We have a partnership here and I’ll be here as long as it takes to create the standards that we want. I’ll be here as often as it takes to implement new dishes, meal periods and ultimately creatively work in tandem with the folks here,” he explains.
And aside from the usual teething problems encountered when opening a restaurant in Dubai, such as licensing and procurement, the success of the restaurant will ultimately depend on how well the Dubai market responds to Jamaican food – something relatively new to the region – and to a concept as quirky as Miss Lily’s. It’s not surprising therefore, that Schop has a “healthy dose of anxiety” about the launch.
“I know expectations in Dubai are very high. We’re bringing a cuisine that’s very different, so of course we’re concerned. I don’t think you ever lose that anxiety or anticipation; you’re always asking questions, you never feel good about the next restaurant, it’s always right back to square one where we hope people will get it. We want to give a lot of love and we want people to love our restaurant,” he says.