The first time I had back alley jerk chicken, the fire department showed up.
Eager to impress my editor-in-chief during my very first week on the job, I opted to bring her to Buck15's Monday night jerk chicken barbecue for her first meal in Montreal. Buck15 has become a growing fixture in Montreal's St-Henri neighbourhood, home to well-known culinary heavyweights like Joe Beef, Nora Gray, and Tuck Shop.
The alleyway behind Buck15 was filled with pungent smoke and about two dozen customers waiting patiently—on a Monday—for Roy Riettie's very authentic and very delicious Jamaican jerk chicken. Among those waiting was a disproportionately high number of kitchen and front-of-house staff who had gathered on their day off.
And somewhere between the thick smoke and dancehall beats, hunky firemen began pouring into the alleyway. Not because of any fire hazard, but because of a disgruntled neighbour who took issue with the reggae music, great food, and generally good vibes rising from below.
"This is amazing. You have to write about this!" my boss exclaimed. And so I did.
A few weeks later I caught up with Buck15 owner Roy Riettie to talk about his increasingly famous jerk chicken and his unlikely transformation from financier to Jamaican food ambassador in Montreal.
MUNCHIES: Why is your restaurant called Buck15? Roy Riettie: When I first moved to Canada I had lost everything, literally. In the markets, in a lawsuit—a lot of crazy stuff. And when I got here with my wife and two kids, first I secured a place to live then I bought a blow-up mattress and some groceries and I only had a dollar and fifteen cents left in my pocket. That's one of the reasons I called it Buck15.
How did you end up cooking? I was in finance a few years ago and when that fell through and imploded in 2009, I had to start over. I'd never really cooked before in my life, my wife did all the cooking at home. But when I moved to Montreal, I went through this kind of "start-over" stage. I had to do whatever it took to get off of my feet—from cleaning pharmacies to working in the stockroom of Lululemon. Eventually I saved enough money to start a coffee shop.
You learned to cook while you were going through this insane period in your life and raising kids? It was almost like a rebirth. When I got to Canada, it was a very depressing time where I had to reinvent myself and find myself. After my night shift I would come home and look after the kids. Usually, I would watch [Garde Manger and Le Bremner owner] Chuck Hughes' Chuck's Day Off in the morning. And because I was looking after the kids I'd have to fix breakfast. So I'd watch his show and try to make it.
So Chuck Hughes was a big culinary inspiration for you? He totally inspired me to start cooking. When I opened Buck15, he walked in for a coffee. When I turned around and saw him right in front of me—I've met tons of celebrities—I was almost speechless. Immediately, I told him like "Yo, you're my hero. Like, I love you. You actually saved my life. You're the reason why we're here." So he's actually one of my favourite guys in the city. I know his guys at Bremner enjoyed the jerk chicken but hopefully one day he'll come by.
Why do you think that your food is such a big hit with local chefs and restaurant people? Honestly, I didn't expect that. I kind of wanted it to happen, so I started doing it on Monday nights because I know that a lot of restaurants are closed and I hoped that the people who worked there would try and support it. And the fact that they come regularly made us really enjoy it. It grabbed their attention because what good chef doesn't like street food? All good cooking comes from the street or at home.
How would you describe Buck15? We've made a name for ourselves by serving good quality food. We use good ingredients, good stuff, and a good vibe. And now with the jerk chicken, it might springboard into another food experience.
Why did you decide to start making jerk chicken behind your restaurant? Because we have an alleyway, it was a good chance to do a barbecue and to see what type of response it would get. I wanted to bring a Jamaican flavour to St-Henri.
Why do you think it's been so popular? I'm trying to do it as authentically as possible—people like authenticity. Also, St-Henri is very welcoming to new projects, especially the food industry. I'm getting a lot of support from other restaurant owners in the neighbourhood, so word of mouth is going around very organically. It's something that people look forward to on a Monday, they come back every week with friends. It's becoming a neighbourhood thing. The feedback from them is very encouraging. It was popular right off the bat.
You put a lot of love into your jerk chicken. Can you walk us through the prep? Sure. I don't rush anything. I get free-range chickens from a local butcher and butterfly them, then they marinate for three days. It takes a long time to prep. I do that two or three days before I serve it. It takes a couple days to prepare. I use a store-bought jerk spice as a base, then I add a bunch of dry seasonings because the green onions and the thyme here in North America don't taste or smell like what they have in Jamaica. I also chop up a ton of scotch bonnet pepper and throw it in, so much that it burns my skin sometimes.
What do you serve it with? Typically in Jamaica, because it's so spicy, they apply a sweet sauce to it just to cut the spice. It's basically a barbecue sauce made with vinegar, maple syrup, water, and ketchup. That's also why we add the bread. The coleslaw is my wife's recipe, it cools it down. It's got a bit of coconut and raisins in it and complements all the heat of the chicken.
Where did you learn how to make jerk chicken? I lived in Kingston. You have two types of areas. There's uptown and downtown. When you meet a local Jamaican you ask, "Did you grow up uptown or downtown?" I kind of grew up uptown but there was always a strong influence from the downtown. It allowed me to have a great childhood. It was a mix of both lifestyles and foods. Uptown is the richer society and downtown the poorer one. In every culture, the best foods usually start in the poor areas and it gravitates uptown.
Thanks for talking with us, Roy.
WATCH: How-To: Make Back-Alley Ribs with Matty Matheson