Courtesy Photo / The Jerk Shack
Jamaica-born restauranteur Nicola Blaque strives to balance life and work.
The Alamo City’s post-pandemic culinary landscape may be in constant flux, but this much is certain: Caribbean food has arrived in San Antonio, and it’s not going anywhere.
Perhaps more than any other restaurateur, Nicola Blaque — chef-owner of Jerk Shack and Mi Roti — has helped create that foothold. With the support of her husband Cornelius Massey and executive chef Lionel “Butch” Blache, Blaque has broadened local culinary horizons with bold flavors and island culinary traditions.
It’s no mean feat that she and her crew helped create a Caribbean craving amid the pandemic. The crisis brought on numerous local restaurant closures — including one of her own. The flagship West Side location of Blaque’s award-winning Jerk Shack permanently closed in September, a move she said was unavoidable.
“I just don’t think that area is ready for a business like mine,” the Jamaica-born chef told the Current
. “We were doing food that no one does over there, so we struggled with our pricing. We put a lot of effort into our food, and our spices cost a lot. And it required a lot of labor. I needed to charge a certain price point, but in that area, I just couldn’t do it.”
Blaque said slow dinner traffic also influenced her decision. The spot, located at 117 Matyear St., did gangbusters on Friday and Saturday and had a solid lunch crowd, but it got little business on weekday evenings.
As part of the closure, Blaque is transferring the Jerk Shack concept to a new location in far Northwest San Antonio near SeaWorld. However, opening it has been an uphill battle. Pandemic-related construction delays pushed the opening back by several months, and she now expects it to begin serving in December.
After the original Jerk Shack’s 2018 opening, Blaque was tapped by the Pearl to develop a new concept for its Bottling Department food hall. That eatery — dubbed Mi Roti, after a flatbread frequently used in Jamaican street food — has received rave reviews since opening last July.
No stranger to the pressure
But the restaurants aren’t the only thing Blaque is juggling. In the past 14 months, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef’s family has grown by not one, but two, kids.
“My son was only about a month old when they broke ground on the new Jerk Shack location, but shortly after that, I became pregnant again,” Blaque said. “It threw everything off, and it became a scenario that made me think, ‘How am I going to do this with two kids?’”
Women in the foodservice industry — especially women of color — often feel cultural pressures to take care of all things inside the home, regardless of their rigorous work schedules. Blaque is no stranger to that pressure, she added.
“I have two babies, you know, and I don’t want to take time from them. But I do struggle with having to drop things [at work] so that I can care for them,” she said. “I can only afford to put out very serious fires [at the restaurants], and that’s not something I’m used to. I’m used to going full-force at everything and doing everything myself, and having the kids really changed my perspective.”
Blaque says she often reminds herself that she’s not the first mom to take on multiple culinary concepts and make it all work. She said a driving factor for her success is knowing young women are looking to her as an example of how a female chef can have it all.
Being a role model is important, Blaque said, because San Antonio has a dearth of female chefs leading the way. However, she runs into more female chef-owners at events, which gives her hope that the community is growing.
“When I see female chef-owners, it’s so exciting, because it’s letting these line cooks and line-level kitchen employees know that there is more,” Blaque said. “There are just so many amazing things happening in the city right now that weren’t there just a few years ago. I can still be a mom, I can still be a wife and I can still have all of this.”
Blaque’s “all of this” will soon encompass yet another location of the Jerk Shack, this one at Hemisfair downtown. That location — inside the Schultze House, one of the complex’s historically recreated homes — is expected to open in summer 2022. It will be the first Jerk Shack to include a full bar.
“It’s all about organization. You have to be organized if you want to go full throttle into being a working mom with multiple businesses,” Blaque said.
“In all reality, I had small dreams. I just wanted to serve good jerk chicken, and I wanted to serve it my way. And it’s just crazy to see how many people’s lives that little dream has touched.”
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