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The chef and culinary consultant grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, where callaloo is the name for both the green leafy vegetable and a dish especially popular in the Rastafarian community.
It takes just a handful of chefs to champion ingredients such as callaloo, he says. “And before you know it, it’s not just at local food markets, but it’s in grocery stores. We can shift from just eating spinach and kale and the things that we know about and start eating more biodiverse ingredients and biodiverse plants and vegetables.”
In his debut book, Yawd (Appetite by Random House), Forte gives “the humble leaves of the taro plant” an Afro-Caribbean-Italian spin in coconut and callaloo risotto, and callaloo carbonara.
“I want people to see these recipes and say, ‘Okay, I need callaloo. Where am I going to find callaloo?’” says Forte.
Though people may not know it, he adds, other vegetables commonly used in Afro-Caribbean cuisine, including okra and dasheen (taro), are also grown in Ontario. “One of the main reasons I love cooking with these ingredients is because of the biodiversity and what it does for the environment … I’m just happy to be in this position to be able to speak to those things.”
After studying culinary arts at Toronto’s George Brown College, Forte starred in TV shows such as Top Chef Canada and Chopped Canada, co-founded Toronto’s The Dirty Bird Chicken & Waffles, and owned AFI Caribbean Canteen.
Once his home base, “Toronto has kind of become my vacation,” says Forte, laughing.
Before COVID-19 hit, Forte was focused on private dining, which he was unable to continue due to restrictions. The first couple months of lockdown were difficult, Forte recalls. He needed interaction and landed on hosting a weekly series of online cooking classes.
“That was my only way of interacting with people and being able to do what I love,” says Forte.
The virtual classes were a hit, and Forte took the concept a step further, renting the kitchen of a temporarily closed Toronto bar to offer the dishes for takeout. He launched Yawd, an Afro-Caribbean pop-up restaurant, in November 2020 and demand continued to grow.
“We were doing like 400 covers (customers) in the span of 10 days, which is crazy,” says Forte. “So, I decided, ‘You know what, the best way to get all my dishes out to people is through a cookbook.’”
When Toronto started to shut down again during the city’s second wave, a friend suggested he go to Turks and Caicos for a few weeks. Weeks turned into months as Forte finished writing Yawd and applied to become a resident.
His new surroundings gave him a fresh perspective, says Forte. The tropical island setting is reflected throughout the book, in both his recipes and John Molina’s on-location photos.
“I got super inspired by being in Turks and Caicos. What’s better than having turquoise water and crystal-clear beaches, and an abundance of seafood around you? So, a lot of the seafood-focused recipes came from being there,” he says.
Cook this: Caribbean-spiced steamed fish from Yawd
Cook this: Crispy okra slaw from Yawd
Cook this: Plantain beignets from Yawd
The educational aspect of Yawd was especially important to Forte. A primer on the cuisine’s key spices, herbs, fruits and vegetables accompanies the more than 100 recipes for Afro-Caribbean comfort food
In the case of ackee — Jamaica’s potentially deadly national fruit — there is a dark history, explains Forte. When enslaved members of the Akan tribe arrived from Ghana, they brought native ackee seeds with them.
Like the lychee, ackee belongs to the soapberry family and contains toxins when unripe. If consumed, the amino acids in under-ripe ackee may cause Jamaican vomiting sickness, which can result in dangerously low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia).
“Once the enslaved Africans got into the kitchen on the plantation, they would incorporate those oils from the ackee into their food and they would poison the slave masters,” says Forte. “That’s how they would escape the plantation.”
(To avoid illness, wait for the red-skinned pod to open naturally, revealing the black seeds and edible fleshy arils within — or buy canned ackee, which is readily available in Canada.)
With saltfish (salted cod) as its partner, ackee is also Jamaica’s national dish. Saltfish, too, is a non-native food introduced by the English during the transatlantic slave trade. In Yawd, Forte pays homage to the dish with his ackee and saltfish fritters.
“I think it’s important for people to know those things, and understand why that’s Jamaica’s national dish,” says Forte.
In addition to the educational aspect, the book was also an opportunity to open up to his supporters, Forte adds.
From growing up in Kingston — surrounded by a family of outstanding cooks — to moving to New York City for high school and studying culinary arts in Toronto, working in, and then creating restaurants, he wanted to show them who he is as a person, not just a chef.
“I appreciate every single person that supports me,” he says. “They’re the ones that have been keeping me in business for all these years. So, I really wanted to take the time for them to get to know me.”
Throughout his career, preserving ancestral food and culture has been a driving force, Forte adds. Multiethnic chefs from around the world regularly message him, saying that his work helped them realize they could reconnect with their roots and take their own type of food to the next level.
Inspiring others to “cook the food that they enjoy, and that they want to cook” continues to propel him forward.
“And that’s what these recipes are. It’s not necessarily classic Caribbean cuisine. That’s why I say it’s modern. I’m Jamaican, of Jamaican descent, and it’s dishes that I grew up eating. And it’s dishes that I’ve created out of using those ingredients,” he says.
Forte highlights staples of Afro-Caribbean cuisine — callaloo, cassava, ground provisions (tubers), okra, oxtail, plantains, salted cod and Scotch bonnets — and incorporates the diverse influences and techniques he has picked up during his career.
After studying to become a professional chef, he gradually found the way back to his Jamaican culinary roots, Forte explains. He was trained to cook and think a certain way — to aspire to haute cuisine. It took time to see the food he grew up enjoying in a new light.
As he does today, encouraging others by cooking Afro-Caribbean food on a global stage, Forte was motivated to dig deeper by seeing Black chefs excel.
“Over time, I saw other chefs that look like me — in different cities in different countries when I travel — being their authentic selves and loving what they do. And saying, ‘This is the food I’m going to cook.’ So, that also inspired me.”
More than 205,000 Canadians left their jobs in foodservice since March 2020 — many of Forte’s friends were among them. He told himself that by the end of the pandemic, he would either be a better chef or not a chef at all.
As it turns out, Forte became even more committed. During the first wave, he ordered a stack of cookbooks and dedicated himself to learning new techniques. (The fermented garum fish sauce in Yawd is one result of this self-directed education.)
“In a time where most people have cracked and just said, ‘Forget it’ and found something else, I fell more in love with the industry,” says Forte.
“Because I missed not being able to do what I do. It’s like I just had the desire to cook and the desire to entertain and be around people and engage with people. So, that definitely told me that it’s a higher calling.”