There’s no denying it, Bernie Gendron is a giver. The chef and owner of Island Jerk on Newcastle Street in Brunswick is always ready to open her heart … or her recipe book to share with others.
Case in point, on an early Tuesday morning, she received a call from a patron about where to find some of her key jerk spices. Gendron surrendered her secrets without hesitation.
“I’m an open book,” she says with a shrug.
Of course, recreating the flavors she cooks up at her restaurant is no easy task. The process is not only labor intensive, but it requires a deep knowledge of the source of the foods, the Caribbean Islands.
“The thing is … it has to be fresh. That’s the key to Jamaican food. You have to use fresh produce, fresh seasoning and herbs,” she said. “We have our meats cut custom.”
Gendron has been refining her cooking skills for years, which is why so many patrons flock to her downtown space. But it’s not just the paying customers, many of them are homeless and hungry. And, true to her nature, Gendron welcomes them in with open arms.
“I can’t turn anyone away while I have food in my kitchen,” she said. “I just can’t do that.”
But to help the hungry, Gendron established a Meals in Reserve program in 2017. It’s a simple concept, a diner comes to order a meal, then donates $5 to go toward a meal for someone in need. Those in need will also receive a hot plate and bottle of water.
To put it mildly, the program has been wildly successful.
“I actually rolled out the program because so many people were coming in asking for food. And I knew we had to do something, so we started the Meals in Reserve program,” she said.
“Since we started this program, we have given out over 5,000 meals. We probably get about 10 to 15 donations a week, which really helps. We’ve seen a lot more homeless lately … I don’t know what’s going on, but we have.”
While Gendron serves those who come to her for help daily, she is also planning ahead for a special day where those in need are usually left out in the cold — Thanksgiving.
For quite some time, she’s served up a donation-based meal, allowing those who come to pay what they can (if they can pay at all).
“It will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thanksgiving (Nov. 25),” she said. “It’s mostly the homeless that come, and they can get a hot Thanksgiving plate.”
Her compassion for those in need is inspiring, as Gendron continuously finds ways to help others. But it’s not just the homeless or the downtrodden that she lends a hand to … she also serves up food for the rare few Golden Islanders who do not eat meat.
Truly an anomaly in the South, Gendron’s restaurant offers a respite for those who are vegetarian or who are simply embracing the meatless Monday movement.
One of her most popular menu items is the veggie delight, featuring a fresh, colorful combination of corn, squash, carrots and peppers. Another go-to is her garlic pan fried tofu.
“Tofu really is flavorless so it takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in … so you have to build the flavor. For our garlic pan fried tofu, the suggestion is to fry the tofu prior to putting it in the garlic, onion and butter sauce because it will hold its texture and form better,” she said.
Island Jerk’s Garlic Pan Fried Tofu
1/4 lb tofu (firm or extra firm, cut to about 1 inch cubes)
All purpose flour for dusting tofu, gluten free if desired
3/4 cup multi-colored sweet pepper (or green pepper and onion mix if preferred)
Lightly dust pieces of tofu with flour and lightly fry, set aside.
Saute onions and peppers in garlic butter to al dente. Pour in water, black pepper, Goya Adobe (to taste), then drop in pieces of tofu. Bring to a slow rolling boil, add in slurry until it thickens. Serve over brown rice.