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LET'S EAT: Newmarket clamours for Irie I Bistro's jerk chicken

'Jerk chicken is not supposed to make your lips fall off your face or your face change colour,” says Mark Forbes, who owns the Jamaican food bistro with brother Dwayne
Irie I Bistro owners Dwayne (left) and Mark Forbes (far right) stand with Shawn Pryce, head cashier, and Damar Griffiths, kitchen support. The pair are among a number of staff members who work to bring the taste of Jamaica and the islands to Newmarket.

Mark Forbes has a mission: to change what people think of Jamaican food, in particular the Caribbean nation’s famous jerk chicken.

“Jerk chicken is not supposed to make your lips fall off your face or your face change colour,” said Forbes, who owns Irie I Bistro on Yonge Street in Newmarket with his younger brother, Dwayne. “We’ve got to change that (perception).”

Jerk chicken is traditionally made with salt and pepper – grinded habanero peppers, seeds and all. 

Forbes said he is of the belief that you can always add more spice to a dish, but you can’t take it away once it’s in there. So, while their house-made pepper is on the table ready to be used for those who like things hot, their dishes are light on the spice – just like it’s supposed to be.

“What we do in Jamaica is we have salt and pepper on the side, and you can always add it. I like to feel my lips.”

And not all dishes need pepper, he said.

“Pork needs pepper. Oxtail doesn’t need pepper – it has a unique flavour on its own. Goat needs pepper.”

The Forbes brothers opened Irie I Bistro four years ago. As they were getting the keys, restaurants everywhere closed because of COVID-19.

What surprised them was the support they got from the Newmarket community, the same support they still get today.

People came up to them during the lockdown and said, “You are going to be OK, we are here to support you,” Forbes said. “It’s the culture of Canadians. Canadians are more family orientated; they believe in supporting…”

Everything is made from scratch at Irie I Bistro, which makes “bistro classics with a modern twist…alongside traditional Jamaican specialties and national dishes showcasing the Islands finest,” said the website, including jerk chicken and pork, roti and brown stew chicken. And curry goat, not curried goat, Forbes laughed. 

“When grew up that’s what we called it. It’s a phrase as opposed to the action we take. It’s just a name and not a style of cooking. Like fry chicken.”

The bistro offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as catering. Breakfast is busy as neighbouring high school kids flood the restaurant in the morning, bringing laughter, noise and chaos, which Mark said he loves. The bistro offers a student special as he remembers being their age and not having enough to eat. 

Forbes was born in Jamaica and lived with his grandmother and sisters, who did all the cooking. If he would have attempted to make something, his grandmother wouldn’t have eaten it, he laughed. He got his start in the restaurant business as a bus boy, washing dishes in a Jamaican hotel before being promoted to line cook. Eventually he moved to the Bahamas with his mother before coming to Canada about 20 years ago.

He learned cooking from his cousin and mentor, Robert Stewart, who died two years ago, but not before Stewart shared his knowledge. Forbes said his cousin was similar in personality to that of TV’s Chef Gordon Ramsay: tough.

Forbes remembered how he just “couldn’t cook rice for the life of me.” Forbes said he would try to cook it, but fail, going through bags of rice in the process. One day, he thought he got it, calling his cousin: “’Robbie, I got it.’ He picked it up and threw it in the garbage,” Forbes said. “He could not teach me how to measure. I had to learn how to gauge. When you are cooking Jamaican food, it’s not a formula. You can not measure it. You got to use your eyes and feel it.”

But you also must be consistent, Forbes said, especially in a restaurant where a dish one day, needs to be the same flavour the next day. That consistency is what sets them apart, Forbes said, and what keeps people coming back. That and Irie l Bistro’s jerk chicken and oxtail stew. 

Forbes said he is passionate about everything he does and is always trying to improve.

“We need to improve every day. We never feel we are there. Improvement is always needed.”