Vol. 6, No. 5 | A Quick Q+A with Chef Scotley Innis
(I wasn’t planning on adding the audio from this interview. I only recorded it for my notes. However, I think it captures something that the written word can’t quite get. When I read the piece, I get inspired, but when I hear the audio, I smile and laugh. So, it’s not perfect and you’ll probably hear me eating gelato, but I hope you enjoy it. The interview below is slightly edited for brevity.)
“Ok, they finally fixed it,” he says as he steps into the walk-in freezer. He’s unloading the last of the groceries to prep for a staff tasting the following day. The “he” is Chef Scotley Innis. Any day now, his new restaurant The Continent will open in Atlanta. The final hurdle is the sign off on the liquor license. He’s staying busy by making some minor tweaks to the menu and operating his ghost kitchen Scotch Yard. I followed Scotley around for a few days and we finally had a chance to chat about everything from what to expect from the menu, what it’s like to open a restaurant in the pandemic and just food in general.
Shannon: What's your first food memory?
Scotley: As a child... I feel like my first food memory was going in the kitchen and smelling and watching my grandmother make breakfast in the morning with some callaloo and saltfish. You know what I mean...with some steam food. Distinctly, what got me into the whole chef business was my sister's mother. And every Saturday...poor man’s food still but...I always love when she made corn beef with white rice. And just seeing it simmer and bubble in the pot with some carrots, peppers, onions and I just distinctly always remember when she starts sauteing the peppers and onions, it just gives that certain aroma and it's just like, okay, we ‘bout to eat good. The peppers and onions and the garlic is like one of my all-time food memories, that I would never forget.
Shannon: If there's one dish that sums up The Continent, what would it be?
Scotley: Hmm. Let me see. (Deep long pause...I continue to eat (sample) gelato. Pause continues.)
Shannon: Okay…is there one dish that sums it up?
Scotley: I don’t feel like there's one dish that sums up...summarizes the whole continent. I feel like the whole menu kind of summarizes The Continent because you have dishes from every single corner of the world into one menu. I feel like with every single dish there’s one component or several components that might hit two or three different regions of the world. Then you go into a next course...or next dish which might touch another part of the world.
Shannon: How is The Continent different from Scotch Yard?
Scotley: Scotch Yard is more of a traditional kind of feel of Jamaican cuisine with a little twist. Where The Continent is more food from around the world and not focused on one region or one specific cuisine. Scotch Yard is all about the Jamaican ingredients, spices, flavors, dishes that you might have grown up on...but with a little kind of enhancement to it.
Shannon: What drives you to create?
Scotley: My mind drives me to create (laughter). The thing that kind of drives me to create... growing up in a Jamaican household...food played such an intricate part in our lives and just bringing family together. Also with me traveling around the world and going to some of the top restaurants in the world and seeing the creativity which other chefs bring to the table kind of motivates me to want to learn more and expand my creativity on life...not just life but different cultures because we all have a different ethnic background, but I feel like food brings everybody together. Growing up in New York City...it’s a big melting pot. I could go down the street and you might have a roti shop...you might have a Jamaican restaurant...you might have a Chinese restaurant all on one block...along with Italian and so on and so on. I guess another thing that helps me be creative is when I see a chef create a certain dish. It kind of drives me. It puts me in the mind state like...I need to step up my game. I want to be able to showcase my cooking skills on that level. I want to be known just like how that chef is known. It's a lot of parts that motivate me with food, but those are some of the major parts for me.
Shannon: What's your favorite thing to cook at home?
Scotley: Bully beef and rice and cabbage! (Laughter, more so me) Um, curry chicken. Curry chicken is...I feel like that was the first dish that I actually kind of mastered.
Shannon: How old were you when you learned how to make it?
Scotley: I was home alone and sh%$, so probably like, 10, 11 years old cooking curry chicken. Also because that's my oldest son's favorite dish. Perfect example... I cooked it yesterday. So...curry chicken is like my go-to dish. I just love curries. If it's green, red, yellow, but you know, I'm a bigger fan with the traditional yellow Jamaican curry. It has some of their fenugreek in there which kind of pulls away from say a Trinidadian curry. So curry chicken.
Shannon: What's it like opening a restaurant during the pandemic?
Scotley: Opening up a restaurant during a pandemic is kind of a...how can I say it. It's a risk. It's a big risk. But my motto when it came to cooking, whether I was on Hell’s Kitchen or whether I was just in any restaurant I was working at...my motto was go hard or go home. So if I can’t showcase myself in the most strenuous position, then I don't need to be doing it at all.
It wasn't my overall vision opening up a restaurant during a pandemic, but the pandemic taught me a lot, that I couldn’t just have all of my marbles in one jar. So knowing that restaurants failure rate is more on, the positive side of failing than actually succeeding…it kind of scared me in a way but I didn't feel like it deterred me away from my whole dream of opening and owning my own restaurant.
On the positive note...where everybody was kind of stuck and locked in their house, quarantine style. It kind of made people appreciate restaurants even more. So once we figure out how to get past this pandemic, I feel like the restaurant scene is going to blow up even more than what it really is now. People didn't appreciate before the pandemic how much restaurants played (a part) in people's daily lives as far as just meeting up with loved ones, celebrating anniversaries, dinners…. Food just brings people together. And it speaks a certain language that everybody is accustomed to. It speaks a worldwide language. It's the comfort zone for people.
So, I'm a big risk-taker. Whatever I always looked at it, like whatever didn't kill me only makes me stronger. So if I can get through a pandemic without owning a restaurant and now owning a restaurant during a pandemic, I have to do anything...by all means necessary…in order for it to be successful. Yeah, it wasn't my complete vision, but when it was brought to the table….I feel like I had to go for it because after I left being a chef at a restaurant, I was basically doing consulting work, pop-up dinners, and personal chef work...It's cool, but I'm a traditionally restaurant-trained chef so I missed it and I felt like this was the opportunity for me to get back into my groove without me losing myself as a chef.
Shannon: You mentioned success a couple of times, which is a good final question. How will you know, if this is a success? What will success look like for you?
Scotley: Success will look like being the top Afro Caribbean restaurant in Atlanta. Being in talks with the top restaurants in Atlanta in general not even just for a specific cuisine but when your name and your restaurant is being brought up with the Ford Fry restaurants or Fifth Group restaurants which are known in the city...that’s success to me. Along with accolades (laughter).
…And when we’re making f%$#^ money.
Shannon: I'm putting that in! Ok, that's it, that's all I got. Thank you. And thanks for the gelato...and the food.
Scotley: No problem.