It was 4:55 p.m., five minutes before I was supposed to start my first stage, or mini culinary internship. I sat in my car in the parking lot of the wildly colorful building, having a mild panic attack.
I was at Caribe Restaurant + Cantina in Eureka Springs, or just Caribe, as the locals call it. It’s Fleur Delicious Weekend, the city’s annual celebration of food and fun with a French twist. And Caribe’s owner, KJ, was as laid back (and pleasantly wound up) as all get out, I could already tell from our email and Facebook conversations. So what was the problem, already? Just.go.in.and.COOK.
You see, ever since that terrible, awful, amazing class in culinary school called Food Production IV, where we did restaurant service every week, I’ve had this same paralyzing fear: What if I don’t really know how to cook? What if I’ve just skidded by so far, and they’re gonna find me out? I’ll have to go back into PR. And that’s not happening.
Anyway, I finally mustered the courage to step into the building, and I asked the server for KJ. She’s in the kitchen. Of course.
KJ Zumwalt is a fireball, if you haven’t heard. But if you’re from Eureka, you’ve heard. She’s a presence, one that I picked up on right away. She’s here to work like all heck putting out the restaurant’s stunningly beautiful Caribbean-style fare, strutting her stuff while she does it, and having a good time doing it.
No time for a lot of pleasantries, or even to show me how to do the dish she’d pre-assigned me, a lovely crab cake number. Orders had already started rolling in, and they were just about out of their famous guacamole.
“KEEGAN!” she hollered, with a mix of urgency and family sweetness. Keegan was the adorable sous chef/salad guy, the only other soul in the kitchen besides KJ when interlopers like me aren’t around. “Keegan! I need that guacamole like yesterday, baby.”
I stood awkwardly while Keegan slung salads and salsa platters from previous tickets. He managed to get out a bowl of ingredients to be prepped for the guac, and KJ had an idea.
“Hey, Christie’s got knife skills. Put her on it.”
So here I am, about 90 seconds in the door, and I’m making one of their most famous dishes. No pressure. Lemme just put up my hair and wash my hands right quick.
Despite my earlier doubts, I did remember how to use a knife and dispatch a couple dozen avocados, several onions, a handful of serrano peppers, lime juice and some other stuff. (Hey, I’m not giving you the recipe!) She told me what seasonings to work in. Done. Plated. And it was beautiful.
KJ started to show me a few of the entrees she was preparing, telling me stories about herself and the restaurant as she went. Another of her famous starters, the salsa platter, came from a rather unusual muse — Oysters Rockefeller plates.
A few years back, KJ and her partner, Panama-born Clary Perez, ran the restaurant in downtown Eureka, an entirely different experience (and real estate price point) than her current digs further down Highway 62. When they first started renting the rather expensive downtown space, the previous tenant’s dishes were part of the deal. The heavy, white dishes were shaped for holding Oysters Rockefeller. Six oysters, to be exact.
Guess how many salsas went into their salsa platter? Yup. With a dollop of sour cream in the middle and a basket of freshly-made corn chips and spicy wheat crisps.
Clary later passed away, and KJ moved from front-of-the-house operations to the kitchen, turning out all the dishes the community had grown to love. (Read Kat Robinson’s touching story about this part of KJ’s journey over at Tie Dye Travels. I didn’t know she had written this when I first connected with KJ for a stage; it was a great introduction to the restaurant and its history.)
KJ’s passion for her community continues to draw her in and hold her up, as evidenced by the very night I was there to cook with her. She had agreed to offer specials as part of Fleur Delicious, then host a large gathering that evening after normal service hours for a music event. This included feeding a good number of those involved in the project for free.
“We do a lot of charity events and dinners. You have to support your people, the community,” she said. “I’m totally into that. I’m not just doing this for the money.”
To be continued…