Lisa Lawrence, a Jamaican native and chef at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, helped introduce the Jamaican Dinner at Aerie Restaurant & Lounge in October 2016. Now, the Northern Michigan event sells out.
Lisa has one very important rule for working in the kitchen.
“Whatever you’re doing, you have to do it from the heart,” she says. “For me, that means cooking with love and lots of flavor.”
Lisa’s culinary career began in grade school when she’d test out new recipes without even knowing the names of all the ingredients she was using. Like a pianist who plays by ear before learning to read music, Lisa had a knack for finding the right flavor long before she had any formal training.
“When I was a child, I always watched how my mom cooked,” Lisa says, smiling. “I’d taste the food and would add a little extra spice when she wasn’t looking. I think I always wanted to be a chef.”
That love for the culinary arts stuck with her through her early years and into high school. But when the cooking classes Lisa wanted to take were full, she changed gears, opting to learn about clothing and textiles instead. Then, in college, she completed a nursing program, seeming to get further and further away from her childhood dream.
“After I graduated, I started working in the infirmary looking after elderly patients,” she says. “I’d applied at the culinary school at the HEART College of Hospitality Services a long time before, but hadn’t heard anything. Then, in the middle of my new job, I got the call that I’d been accepted to their program. I was so excited, I practically ran there.”
The HEART College is known for training hospitality professionals across multiple disciplines, including Lisa’s alma mater in the Culinary Institute of America program. The year-long program provided Lisa with six months of training followed by six months of practical experience in a hotel environment.
During her studies, Lisa discovered that cooking is a learning process and one that continues throughout her career. There’s always a new recipe to try or a new technique to master. That included one of her first lessons at the Culinary Institute—making omelets.
“I’d never made an omelet before and had no idea how to flip one without everything falling apart,” she says, shaking her head. “That first time there were plenty of splatters and splashes. But now, I can flip like crazy—I can even make an omelet on a flat top grill.”
With omelet mastery under her belt, Lisa completed her training and began working at resorts and restaurants throughout Jamaica. She had nearly a decade of experience before an interview led her to Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
“I’ve been coming to the resort for six years now,” she says. “Going back and forth between Michigan and Jamaica is a wonderful experience. I get to work with different people from different backgrounds which gives me the motivation to keep trying new things.”
One of those new things was introduced in October of 2016—the first Jamaican Dinner at Aerie Restaurant & Lounge. Lisa and several of her Jamaican colleagues created a special menu that celebrated the culture and cuisine of their home country. The inaugural event kicked off a successful legacy, selling out 200 reservations year after year.
“When it comes to food, it’s good to change it up a little bit,” Lisa says. “It’s nice to be on a property like this where you can show off your cooking specialty and give guests something to talk about. Last year, one couple told me they flew in from Florida just for the dinner, which was amazing to hear.”
If she’s planning to wow someone with a meal—whether in the states or in Jamaica—Lisa has a few go-to dishes. Jerk chicken and jerk pork (both on the Jamaican Dinner menu) are at the top of the list, representing the spices and seasonings that Jamaican cooking is known for. But her signature dessert is a bit of a surprise.
“Jamaicans love fruitcake, which is very different than it is in America,” she says. “It’s lighter and more flavorful. We soak our fruit for up to a month in rum and red wine before making the cake so all the juices and flavors combine. It’s delicious.”
When asked what she would choose if she could only eat one thing for the rest of her life, Lisa looks terrified … then laughs.
“I love fish,” she says. “Sometimes I fry it, or I steam it, or I bake it. There are so many different ways to prepare it. I don’t think I’d ever get bored.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the entrees on the Jamaican Dinner menu is red snapper with coconut rundown sauce, peppers, onions and fried plantains. Below, Lisa shares her recipe for those of us just starting to experiment with Jamaican dishes. It’s quick and easy, and all the ingredients can be found at the grocery store.
Red Snapper with Coconut Rundown Sauce
Prep time: 15 minutes // Cooking time: 20 minutes
For the fish
- 2–3 snapper filets (or a similar mild fish, like sea bass)
- ¼ cup vinegar
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ a medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- Pimento to taste
- 1 tablespoon butter per filet
- Combine vinegar and lime juice. Rinse fish with mixture. Pat dry and place skin down on a piece of buttered aluminum foil.
- In a food processor, combine olive oil, onion, garlic, thyme and pimento. Pulse until finely blended, then spread mixture over fish. Add butter on top, then fold foil until sealed.
- Bake at 350°, steam or grill fish until white and flaky, about 10–15 minutes depending on your method. If grilling, be sure to flip for 5–7 minutes on each side.
Lisa’s tip: Add julienned veggies (she recommends carrots and onion) along with your favorite starch (like potatoes, butternut squash or pumpkin) inside the foil pouch before cooking for extra flavor.
For the sauce
- 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
- ½ a medium onion, finely diced
- 2 scallions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 14-ounce can coconut milk
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1 teaspoon ground cayenne
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a saucepan, heat olive oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté onion until transparent and tender, about 3–5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute more.
- Add coconut milk, followed by thyme, cayenne and then salt and black pepper to taste.
- Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10–15 minutes, or until sauce has thickened.
Lisa’s tip: Serve the fish and coconut rundown sauce over Jamaican rice and peas—another classic dish—for a colorful and flavorful meal.