I am supposed to remain unbiased. As a journalist, I am supposed to remain behind the story, simply offering a megaphone to those who would like their voices heard.
But when we’re talking about food, I can’t help myself.
And when you smell the food cooking in Flames Caribbean Kitchen on Notre Dame Avenue, next door to Leslie’s Charbroil & Grill, you’ll understand why I am breaking the fourth wall to share my sensory experience with you.
It hits you in the parking lot, but the scent is so complex it’s hard to identify it – even though your mouth is still watering. As you enter, there are shiny, steel, bar-height bench tables that line the outside of the room, and a warm and friendly face behind the counter.
Also, two pictures of Danny Glover on the wall, each one with a woman hugging him. Well, Nickesha Simpson is hugging Mr. Glover. Her sister-in-law? She is clutching Mr. Glover.
Simpson is the owner of Flames Caribbean Kitchen, and immediately tells the story with a laugh.
In 2017, Danny Glover was in town shooting a film. His team contacted Simpson to see if the restaurant would cook for Mr. Glover while he was in town – for an entire week. After a sample meal, he fell in love and ate all he could. Before he left town, he stopped in to see who was behind the culinary delights.
Simpson says she heard her sister-in-law talking to someone in the back, a man. She wondered what was going on and heard “I’m here to speak to a manager.” To which her sister-in-law replied: “Of course. Don’t I know you? Aren’t you someone?”
When Simpson laid eyes upon their visitor, she exclaimed, “Danny Glover!”
Her sister-in-law? She just screamed. Top of her lungs, full out screams.
The clutching in the photo is she and he laughing at their interaction. Also maybe Simpson’s sister-in-law getting as much as she can while it’s there.
It was in 2014 that Nickesha Simpson visited Sudbury for the first time, to see a friend, and was troubled when she saw the somewhat lacking variety of restaurants here. “What, no Caribbean food?”
She was working on her Master’s Degree in Child and Youth work from Ryerson University (which she finished in 2015), when she was bit by the restaurant bug. She knew it would be a risk, knew it would be a tough sell, but she did it anyway.
“I mean, I don't really know anything about the restaurant business. But I know how to cook. I know food,” says Simpson.
They looked first downtown, but realised that they would have to keep their expenses very low at first – while they sold the idea to northerners – and changed their requirements. “My partner said, ‘If you can find a place where we can work and live, we'll move to Sudbury.’ And I just went online one night, and I found this place. We came up the next day.”
She did her research. She spoke to strangers at grocery stores, she went to a few bars – and got completely disheartened when a bouncer at one told her a few similar restaurants had been here, but none of them lasted – but pushed ahead nonetheless.
They opened in October 2015. “Our first day was an amazing grand opening,” she said. “And then after that, it kind of fizzled down. And the first year was rough. Yeah. First year or first two years, I would say.”
It was sourcing ingredients, Baptiste would drive to Toronto every week for the restaurant; and it was trying to convince Sudburians to give the cuisine a try. “I thought to myself, well, maybe the name of the restaurant, maybe we weren't thinking about maybe the flames, they think we get very spicy. So a whole bunch of things are going through my mind.”
But happily, they are now celebrating their fifth anniversary. Not quite the way they expected – the pandemic has been as hard on them, as it has many. Not only the closing, but as they do so much scratch cooking there were not many ingredients that would keep, and that was wasted food, and money.
It’s a love of cooking and food that keep her going though, and it started with family. She loved to bake, but hated to decorate, so she began with the basics for her two younger brothers: “We make cookies and box cakes like nobody's business. And then we used to do marble cake. It was a mess. But it was good.”
But when her mother began to work night shifts, she took over cooking. And burning. “I burnt rice one day watching the Young and the Restless,” she said. “And she was like ‘no, no, no.’ And to this day, that's how I am when I'm cooking. I don't leave the kitchen.”
She learned how to cook from her mother, who she admires for her ability to quickly learn a recipe and then add her own flair, and her grandmother, whose pork was so famous even the Prime Minister of Jamaica came to eat. “People used to travel from all over the islands every weekend. Because she used to have like a little stall outside of her house (in Jamaica) and she would cook for everybody.”
When I ask about spice mixes, she details the turmeric and four different curry spices in her curry dishes. When it comes to Jerk Seasoning, she stops and notes the length of the list: “Girl, we'll be here for a while.”
So what’s her favourite dish to cook? “I like cooking dinner for my kids, stuff that's not in the restaurant, because I feel like that's something just for them. Because a lot of times I’m here, I'm busy all day. I tell them to eat Jerk Chicken or something from the restaurant. But like when I have a couple of minutes or an hour or so when I can just like make something that I know they would like, I enjoy that.”
To eat, she loves seafood, especially Ackee and Saltfish – a restaurant item. The salting of fish is a food preservation technique that was revolutionary to the area, and the colonizers took it with them.
It’s a bit different for her husband though, who is from Grenada. While Ackee and saltfish is the national dish of Jamaica, where she was born, in Grenada, the consumption of the Ackee fruit is a very different story. “Because it is very poisonous, you have to know how to cook it – it has to be completely opened before you consume it. So in Grenada, there was a lot of deaths. Generations later, they still don't eat Ackee; and that is Jamaica's national dish.”
What about popular in Grenada, and at the restaurant, but not in Jamaica? Macaroni Pie. Even Callaloo, a Caribbean vegetable dish, has as many different styles as there are people. The Jamaican version and the Grenadian version, for instance: “Completely different.”
And now, here is the part where I really take over.
One of the biggest hurdles for the business has been a reluctance to try the food. Caribbean food does have a reputation for being very spicy, and its spice that not everyone can handle. Trying something new for lunch or dinner, especially when feeding your family – or at a time when it is difficult to afford or pick up food – is not always the first choice.
So I’m here to tell you: it is worth a try.
First – the spice. As a very, very Caucasian person whose tolerance for heat could be described as “Karen Level,” I am here to tell you it is only as hot as you want it. Only one dish – yes one – is spicy at all, and that’s the jerk chicken. And to be honest, the most I got was a slight warming, which was never unpleasant, and it was quickly refreshed by one of the Caribbean style drinks I was offered.
Everything else on the menu is only as hot as you’d like to be, and that comes from adding their hot sauce. When asked about heat levels, Simpson always asks: “Well, what do you consider spicy?” For a peek into the flavor of her hot sauce, now on sale at the restaurant, she notes that if Frank’s Red Hot sauce is a 2, her sauce is a 10.
I didn’t try the hot sauce.
I did try everything else though, and I took some home.
The depth of flavor achieved, using spices that we tend to relegate only to sweet or savory dishes, is why Caribbean food tastes so complex. There are so many flavours, and mixed with the slow cooked meat, it is a very interesting combination.
And if you are interested in plant-based vegan Caribbean food, visit in about a month, when Simpson believes she'll have her new recipes on the menu. “I have to get it perfect,” she says.
So if you have ever driven past their Notre Dame location, considered it, but worried about the heat, let me tell you: don’t be.
I mean, it has to be good. I gave up my professionalism to tell you about it.
Flames Caribbean Kitchen is located at 661 Notre Dame Ave. Phone 705-677-0572.
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com