In the music video for Drake and Rihanna's "Work," there is a woman cooking jerk chicken. Among the gyrating bodies and clouds of marijuana, she is in the kitchen, smiling and wining her waist while using a pair of tongs to turn the spice-rubbed thighs and legs nestled in the coals. That woman is Lily Pottinger, chef and co-owner of Toronto jerk spot The Real Jerk.
I'm visiting Toronto for the film festival and staying on the West side, but can't resist making the pilgrimage to the the East end to eat some of that jerk. Ed Pottinger, who opened the restaurant with his wife Lily in 1984, greets me with a sunshine-y smile.
Despite how it looks in the "Work" video, The Real Jerk is a sit-down restaurant, not a club. That said, Ed and Lily did once own a nightclub in downtown Toronto. The Jerk Pit hosted live music in the 1980s and 90s, including calypso bands, reggae singers, and—wait for it—Bobby Brown, who is rumoured to have learned dancehall move The Bogle from his visit.
"There's a lot of history, a lot of people," Ed tells me. "Drake and Rihanna are not the first."
The Real Jerk has existed in several iterations, following a couple of extremely public court cases. They've been in this location on Gerrard Street for three years, although Ed has been running restaurants since before he got to Toronto.
"I first started a jerk place in Jamaica when I was younger," he says. "It was the thing to do, so I found a location that I liked."
I remark that it takes a lot of confidence to start an entire restaurant because it was "the thing to do."
Ed chuckles. "No, the confidence," he emphasises, "was in calling it 'The Real Jerk'. Thirty-odd years ago, there's only Steve Martin—if you know who Steve Martin is?"
I confirm that I am familiar with the 1979 film The Jerk.
"That was the only jerk anybody knew," Ed continues. "I was the jerk—I was the one who took care of that part of that business. When we first opened we were very humble, I had no money, plastic forks, plastic cups, paper plates. I helped my wife, I cooked, she cooked, I did the bar and the floor. We were basically a greasy spoon in a tough part of Toronto, a tough neighbourhood not too far from here. We didn't have money so I told my wife, 'We have time, and we have personality.' But we started really poor, really."
After several years of struggling along, Ed and Lily met a young artist named Paula Monk ("a white Australian, by the way") who agreed to create some artwork for the restaurant as part of its refurbishment.
"Once we fixed it up, we got a review like that" Ed says, snapping his fingers. "After the first good review, there were lines around the block. "If you look around, there's all kinds of people here. I remember a TV station came down, and they were like, 'How do you get this crossover business? White people—how do you get them in here?!'"
But The Real Jerk's food is "legit."
"I don't tone it down and we don't try and serve to 'white people,'" Ed contests. This is jerk made the real way, by young men who learned their trade in Boston Beach, a town in the Jamaican parish of Portland, which is famous for jerk. "The food is the way it is, the way I eat it. It's home-style."
Before we order, Ed jokes that we haven't come all the way from London just to "try" his food, and that we better be hungry. Plates piled high with sticky fried plantain arrive at the table. We eat it with melt-in-the-mouth oxtail stew with rice and peas and coleslaw and salad dressed in a tamarind vinaigrette. The jerk chicken is smoky—not salty—and even better than promised. Ed sends over rum cocktails too, one tall and frothy that tastes of banana, and another with a sugary maraschino cherry balanced on its foamy head.
I wonder if The Real Jerk got more tourists after the "Work" video came out?
"Good question. We're busier, of course," says Ed. "People walk in with their suitcases. They're coming straight here, straight off the plane."
I apologise for asking about Drake, but Ed is happy to oblige me.
"Everything has a little story to it, right?" he says with a wink.
While sitting in a restaurant in Boston, Jamaica with his mother and some friends, Ed got a phone call from the restaurant. Someone had asked about doing a music video shoot at The Real Jerk. He and Lily used to hire out the space as a set, but stopped doing it because he didn't feel comfortable inconveniencing his customers.
"Those who come from 20 miles away on that day with their mother, or their kids, or to celebrate a birthday, and we're closed—I feel like I've betrayed them, you know what I mean?" he explains. "I said, 'No, I'm not interested.'"
Ed had an inkling that the mystery artist might have been Drake. The rapper had dropped by the restaurant for take-out in the past.
"I think he used to come from the gym because I'd see him in his track pants," Ed remembers. "Anyway, I got two calls on Monday and another call on Tuesday saying, 'They gotta know today, because Friday is the shoot day.' And it's Drake and Rihanna."
According to Ed, it was Toronto-based filmmaker Director X's idea, not Drake's.
"When [Drake] came on the Friday he was all excited because he thought we were gonna cater the food," he says with a snort. "We weren't because they had another caterer. Drake was real disappointed, but we did make him his roti—his favourite."
When I ask what it was like to see his restaurant in the video, Ed tells me his jaw dropped.
"The last shot they did was the first scene. At six or seven in the morning they shot the sign. Seven-hundred and eighty million views later, how can I complain?"
As if on cue, Drake's "Controlla" starts playing over The Real Jerk's speakers.