Talking with Trevor Davis and Avis Davis about Taste of the Islands
1. Tell us about Taste of the Islands Mobile Cafe
Trevor: We’re a food truck that features a wide variety of foods from all around the Caribbean. Avis is Jamaican and I’m Bahamian so many of our dishes will be a fusion of those two cultures but we’ll also be introducing people to tastes from many of the other Caribbean Islands as well as from Cuban and Hispanic culture.
2. How would you describe the difference between Jamaican and Bahamian food?
A lot of the ingredients are the same but each comes with a slightly different twist. Bahamian food is often fried and is served with a tomato base whereas Jamaican food is usually grilled and features a more intense spiciness which is seen in its popular jerk sauce.
In Jamaica rice and peas are very common in a dish. In the Bahamas there’s something similar, but it’s called “peas and rice.” They sound similar but they’re prepared quite differently. Jamaican rice and peas are made from red peas that are flavored with coconut milk. Bahamian peas and rice are made with Pigeon peas and use more vegetables such as tomatoes, celery, onions and green peppers in the rice itself.
The Island curries are another example. There is Trinidadian curry, Jamaican curry, and Bahamian curry - they use similar ingredients but have their own distinctive tastes.
3. How did you come up with your specific menu?
Trevor: I started cooking with my mother at the age of 12 years old and by age 14 I was cooking family dinners on my own. After Avis and I got married her mother gave me a lot of authentic Jamaican recipes. Also, we used to live in South Florida and we got a lot of Cuban recipes while we were there. So, it’s a lifetime of cooking that’s given me a base of recipes to choose from. On the truck I want to highlight some of our favorite recipes as well as the Island classics.
4. Did you change the recipes for an American audience or are they what you’d get in the Islands?
We wanted to keep the recipes as authentic as possible but we also wanted to make them accessible to people who are new to Island dishes. So, one thing we did was to tone down the heat in some of the jerk sauces. There are a lot of flavors and seasonings in a jerk sauce. What we did was to lower the temperature from the peppers while keeping all the other flavors and seasoning. That keeps the flavor authentic but without the intense heat. For people who want things spicier we have the option to increase the pepper heat by adding our homemade jerk sauce. One other change we made was to serve our Jerk Chicken skinless and boneless. Traditional jerk chicken is served chopped up with the bone still in. By serving a boneless chicken breast it’s more palatable to many people and it’s also easier to serve up at lunch.
5. Can you recommend something for someone who’s new to Island cooking?
The Jerk Chicken Sandwich is a great place to start. It’s full of flavor and is served with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions. The chicken breast is cooked on an outdoor charcoal grill to provide the full, authentic flavor. The sandwich is served with a side of fries.
From there, I’d recommend trying a meal of Jerk Chicken with rice and peas, cabbage, and plantains. That will give you a full Island experience.
6. What would you recommend for someone who’s been to the Islands and is looking for something to remind them of that experience?
It all depends on what Island they’ve been to. We have a fusion of different Island tastes. We have a great Fried Fish Filet with Bahamian peas and rice, cole slaw, and fried plantains. That will really say “wow!” to your palate.
Another good option is our Reggae Bowl which is made from Jerk Chicken, rice and peas, plantains and steamed cabbage. That’s a very traditional Jamaican meal.
7. What’s the most popular item on the truck?
The Jerk Chicken or the Mojo Pork!
8. What’s Mojo Pork?
We used to live in Southern Florida and during the holidays it was a big thing to roast a whole pig. There’s something called a caja china, also known as a Cuban microwave. It’s a wooden box framed with metal. You put coals on top and the pork inside - you can use the whole pig or choice parts. To make our Mojo Pork we use a boneless Boston butt that we marinate in garlic, oregano, sour orange, onion and a lot of spice before it’s put into the caja china for hours until it’s falling off the bone. When the pork is ready it’s mixed with our own homemade sauce and served with yellow rice, black beans and fried sweet plantains or fried tostones.
Trevor: our black bean recipe comes from an older Cuban restaurateur. He gave me that recipe after I did some work on his boat. I’ve stuck with that black bean recipe for over 15 years and it’s been very successful for me. The whole combination is really, really good.
9. Are there any hidden Island gems that you’d recommend?
There are at least two. One is the Curried Goat. A lot of people are intimidated when they hear the word “goat,” but they shouldn’t be. Goat tastes similar to venison or lamb but a little more intense. Once we add the spices it’s to die for. We use peppers with our curry sauce so the goat comes with a little heat. The trick is to make the goat nice and tender and then to serve it over white rice. In Jamaica, every party has curried goat and white rice. The same is true in the Bahamas. The one dish that’s probably most in common between Jamaica and the Bahamas is the curried goat. It’s a staple in both those islands, and in Trinidad too. We don’t have the Curried Goat all the time in the truck because it’s something that people need to get used to. We make sure it’s available during our Culture Groove events though.
The other thing is our Cracked Conch which has a taste that’s similar to calamari. We dip it in egg and flour before deep frying. In the Islands the Conch is eaten with french fries and is smothered in ketchup, hot sauce and onions. It’s a staple for people coming from the clubs or as a treat on the weekends. Something like that would be perfect if you want to explore a little.
10. What’s Hard Dough Bread?
It’s a regular loaf of bread but it’s more doughy and dense. It’s closer to a bagel in density but in a loaf. It’s very common in Jamaica. It can be used for a jerk chicken sandwich or served with bone-in jerk chicken.
11. Can you tell us about your Ox Tail with rice and peas?
Ox tail is like a very flavorful stewed beef. It’s braised and served over rice in a bouillabaisse stew with carrots. We serve it with Spinners, which are little dumplings made from a long, cylindrical piece of rolled dough.
Ox tails are more familiar in the Southern culture so it hasn’t been a big learning curve for many of our customers. People who know about it really like it. One Friday we served it from the truck to a medical audience and after they tried it they started sending people back to the truck to get some more. We eventually ran out and it almost caused a fight - but in a good way! It’s going over very well. We will always try to serve Ox Tail at Culture Groove.
12. What other things from the Islands do you feature?
We pair up a lot of the meals with Island sodas, which are very unique. We have Cola Champagne, Cream Soda, Pineapple Soda and Ginger Beer. Ginger Beer isn’t an alcoholic beer but it’s a soda made with ginger root. It’s got a great zing to it. Drinking the sodas adds to the full Island experience.
13. Trevor, how’d you learn to cook?
Trevor: I’ve had a lot of great cooking experiences. I was basically trailing around behind my mother from 12 years of age. I learned a lot from watching her. I learned from my mother in law about the Jamaican style of cooking. At a church I belonged to I was the personal chef to the Bishop and his family for 3 or 4 years. My brother in law is also a chef in Atlanta. I got to understudy with him to learn more about cooking and catering. Even now I run things by him for his advice. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the kitchen learning how to operate the machinery and how to cook for larger crowds.
14. Do you offer catering through the truck?
Yes! We cater at office parties and for lunches. When we arrived in Jacksonville we were catering, even before we got the truck.
15. What attracted you to a food truck as a business?
Trevor: I came out of the mechanical field where I was a diesel mechanic for about twenty years. It was a great living but every day I’d go to work and I was more passionate about cooking then I was about mechanics. I set up a catering business in South Florida but it always had to be second place to my regular job. When I saw the food trucks I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I loved the idea of being mobile and having a restaurant on wheels. To have a successful restaurant you need good food and a good location. I knew I could serve great food and being mobile let me have my pick of locations. A food truck was also a much easier endeavor finance-wise.
16. Avis, do you work on the truck?
Avis: I get to count the money, that’s my forte! I do help on the truck with the planning and setting up but I still have a career in the nursing field as a Vice President at a Medical Services company.
17. When did Taste of the Islands launch?
We launched in November  but it’s been a loooong journey!
18. Why did it take so long?
Avis: we wanted to launch the truck when Trevor was able to do it full time. That meant doing our research and being in the right place financially so that we could pursue this dream in our own way.
19. Do you have regular locations yet?
Some. We’re doing the Baptist Outpatient location in San Marco on Tuesdays. We’re also doing Hemming Plaza on a rotation every other Thursday. Our “home” is at the Airport Industrial Park (map). Most of the days when we’re not booked somewhere else we’ll be at the Park. Then we have the Culture Groove every 4th Saturday of a month. That’s more of a late afternoon and early evening event.
20. What’s Culture Groove?
It’s a special event we hold on the 4th Saturday of every month at the Airport Industrial Park from 4 to 8pm. With Culture Groove we’re trying to showcase the culture of the Islands to Jacksonville. We have the truck, music, a tent and a flat screen TV on the truck playing concert music and scenes from the Islands. We bring out really authentic foods like curried goat and roasted fish. In the Islands there's a lot of that - just setting up a place to groove and listen to some good music. For people who can’t go to the Islands now we’re bringing the experience of the Islands through authentic tastes, foods and music.
If you visit Jamaica and drive into the country you’ll often find people on the side of the road with a grill, selling food. The smells and the music all go into the whole experience. That’s the experience we’re trying to capture with the Culture Groove.
We are really promoting Culture Groove because we think it’s a very positive thing where you can bring your kids and enjoy another culture in a fun atmosphere. Culture Groove will start in April 2014.
21. What are your plans for Taste of the Islands?
We’re focused on building an audience here in Jacksonville. We’ve had some interest in franchising the truck with some people in South Florida, so that may happen later in the year. We’d also love to see some of our food in the supermarkets here. That’s a project we’re also working on. We’re just in the early research stages.
22. Anything else?
Avis: Just that we’d like to emphasize that we’re a family business. We have many people from our family involved. Our son and nephew help us with the design of our printed material and our niece helps with our social media. My sister in law, brother in law, and other nieces play a big part in the food truck whenever they can and we also get a whole lot of support from our families in the Islands.
We want to bring a good, consistent and delicious product to the Jacksonville market. We hope people can come out to meet us and try our unique food.