A chef can hint at his way in the kitchen with the way he tells a story.
It's after hours at the first location of Lee's Kitchen in Raleigh. The nearby buffet line is shut down for the night, wiped clean with the lights off. Still, the aromas of oxtail stewed in coconut milk and soft strips of cabbage soaking in buttery broth linger in the air.
When Peter Ellison, one of the place's dual chefs and owners, begins to tell a story, he first studies your face, as if cataloging the anecdote's details and reordering them for your needs. He breaks into a smile. His eyes squint. And the pace of his voice—with the subtle Jamaican accent that nods to his youth in the hills of Westmoreland, a region ripe with cho cho fruit and cool breezes—quickens into a lilt.
"The turkey wing? I've never cooked a turkey wing in my life, man," he says. "That thing looked tough and crazy. But when you taste it, it was like, 'What did you put inside this?' That mmmph."
He's talking turkey wings with fellow chef and owner Charles Burgess and manager Paula Pierce. The bright green marks of Jamaica's flag stick out like a badge on the upper left corner of his tight black T-shirt. He claps his hands.
"That's what you're trying to get with him," Burgess says, laughing. "That mmmph."
"When I tasted that turkey wing, I sat down and thought, 'I've got to figure this out,'" continues Ellison. "The candied yam, the mac and cheese, everything else you know—but that turkey wing."
Since opening Lee's Kitchen in early 2007 under the slogan "A taste of Jamaica with a touch of soul," Ellison and Burgess have applied this same enthusiasm and energy to building a small empire of their home-style cuisine. Between this takeout location on Capital Boulevard, another sit-down spot on Raleigh Boulevard and a blazing yellow food truck that seems omnipresent (they were serving in Holly Springs and Fayetteville on this same Saturday), Ellison and Burgess have earned a loyal following. At an event like Raleigh's CaribMask or Durham's Jerk Fest, lines for their oxtail stew have been known to snake for far more than one block.
Ellison came to the United States straight out of high school, landing in Raleigh a quarter-century ago. Like many immigrants looking for a fresh start, he began cooking out of his home. He developed a steady stream of customers, including famed track and field stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.
"After training, they'd come over, just sit on the floor and eat," he says. "They had Mercedes in front of my house, these nice cars. My neighbor thought I was selling drugs."
In 2001, Ellison even catered the video shoot for "Raise Up," the hit for North Carolina rapper Petey Pablo. The party might have been as big as 100 people, he remembers. "I cooked for all of those people out of my house," he says.
At least Ellison was used to cooking for a large group. As the oldest boy in his family, he was in charge of preparing the family's large Sunday meal and breakfast every morning before school.
"You get up and you cook—banana, you make some dumpling, you steam some fish," he says. "That's breakfast—a heavy, solid meal."
Meanwhile, as a kid in Brooklyn, Burgess began developing his talent in home economics classes. He sold baked goods like sugar cookies and cherry shortbread at school and learned his mother's techniques for baked macaroni and cheese. Burgess has an easy Brooklyn accent, softened by the influence of his Raleigh-born mother. His tone is commanding, but his words never rush, instead easing into detail the way molasses moves off a spoon. He wears a white chef's coat, buttoned and pressed flat against his chest.
"I put on this uniform every day," he explains. "When I'm off, I dress like this. Because you never know what will come up."
Ellison and Burgess met while cooking at an earlier version of Lee's Kitchen. They began comparing each other's stovetop styles at work. When the original owner closed up shop in 2006, the two men bought the business and opened to a quickly growing clientele hungry for Jamaican flavors. They expanded the menu by adding Burgess' unique style of soul food, and they learned and developed each other's repertoires.
"It's little things, like timing and texture," Burgess says of the process. "I remember when I got his oxtail down. He said, 'Yeaahhhh, mon.' That was it."
"On a daily basis in Jamaica, you eat oxtail," Ellison explains. "I never had no burger until I got to America."
The Lee's locations collectively go through 1,200 pounds of oxtail each week. The tar-black stew sticks to the rice and beans. Delicately cut, the tail marinates overnight in coconut milk and a blend of spices neither chef will reveal. The meat is dense and bony, forcing you to pick through it with your fingers. When I ate it in the Lee's parking lot on a hot Saturday afternoon, I let my driver's seat down, plucked the bone from the Styrofoam and bit at the murky meat, a crumpled napkin tucked into my collar. The man parked next to me stared on with admiration and disgust.
It was shameless.
"You don't let it fall off the bone in the pot," says Burgess. "You let it fall off the bone in your mouth."
That's not the only highlight, either. The curried chicken is warmly scented by thyme, with twigs and tiny leaves enveloped in the brilliant yellow marinade. Their brown stew chicken is baked with a glaze of brown sugar, which caramelizes into a sticky, crispy skin. And Lee's jerk chicken is spicy, with a charred dry rub that Pierce suggests newcomers try without sauce.
"This will make you sweat," she says as she hands me a plate. "It'll open up your sinuses and scorch your lips."
They've started to pass along these techniques, too. On weekends, Omar Davis runs the truck with Pierce. He moved from Jamaica less than a year ago and has been working at Lee's for half of that tenure. At 28, he is learning the ways of business so that he can open his own. He toiled as a cook in Jamaica to help his younger brother go to college, but with a waning middle class and no concept of credit, Jamaica makes for a tough future.
"You go to college, but then you can't get a job," he says. "It's a waste of time. You are trying to move forward, but you go backwards instead. You get frustrated and feel like you can't go on."
On a Saturday afternoon, between waves of customers at Raleigh's African American Cultural Festival, where the truck has been slinging oxtail stew and coco bread, I ask Ellison why he came here. The fryer is hot with sweet plantains blackening into a caramel. The air inside the truck is clingy. It's hot, hard work. He meets my question with a quick laugh and a sigh. "The land of opportunity," he says.
"You've got to work hard. And I'm not 20 years old anymore," he continues, his 2-year-old daughter, Mila, nearby. "But I put on this uniform every day. We do whatever it takes to make it work."
Victoria Bouloubasis is a freelance food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.