By Liz Balmaseda – Palm Beach Post Food Editor
“Althea returned with a tray. Fried plantains. Rice and black beans. Oxtail stew. And a whole steamed and spiced grouper… We dug in. The oxtail was simply incredible. So was the grouper. So were the second and third Red Stripes.” Alex Cross in James Patterson’s 2015 book “Cross Justice”
Rain may be pouring outside, splattering upon the Jog Road traffic in Greenacres, but there’s something the citizens of Yelp.com nation can count on without fail:
The Jamaican sun always shines inside Althea Drummond’s restaurant.
It catches the island colors of her tables at Kersmon Caribbean Restaurant, illuminates every one of her “celebration” dishes and, most remarkable of all, it seems to emanate from the restaurant owner herself.
Althea, as she is known to the vast, global lot that is her customer base, is her native land’s most ebullient ambassador. She’s the restaurateur who refuses to call you anything as impersonal as “ma’am” or “sir.” Tell her your name and she will memorize it, then fondly drop it like sugar stirred into ginger beer.
Once you’ve met her, you’ll understand why her tiny restaurant, one of a handful of popular spots tucked into a busy suburban strip mall, consistently ranks as the No. 1 restaurant in all of Palm Beach County, according to Yelp, the online dining guide. And it was the only restaurant in the county to earn a spot on Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the U.S.” list last year.
To her regulars and fans, Althea Drummond is more than your average restaurant cook – she’s a legend. No exaggeration. Beyond the online world of restaurant ratings and recommendations, the Negril native has been immortalized in Palm Beacher James Patterson’s 2015 Alex Cross novel, “Cross Justice.”
Her character earned a few dialogue lines with Alex Cross himself. But it’s the Yelp universe that has brought the world to her doorstep, and for that she is grateful.
“Yelp, Yelp, Yelp!” Althea cheers, palms cast to the ceiling. “We opened the year with Yelp. When we opened our doors New Year’s Day, our first customers of the year were from Hong Kong. Again, Yelp!”
They have names, these Yelpers, and Althea knows them all. She talks about her customers with no preamble, as if everyone who has ever been to her establishment knows one another.
“Leslie and Harris, her son, were right here last night from New York. Friday, I had nine people from Utah,” Althea says. “Amanda and her husband honeymooned in Jamaica more than two years ago, and…”
“Amanda and her husband. They sat right at that table,” she said without missing a beat. “They had escovitch fish on their honeymoon.”
Then there was the lovely couple from Germany who came in on a rainy night. “She wrote the most beautiful thing in my guestbook,” Althea recalls.
And there was the judge who came in one night and declared: “Althea, your jerk chicken is illegal. It broke the law.” She repeats the line exactly the same way three times.
It’s a weekday afternoon, just after lunch service, and Althea has swept her sidewalk of crumbs, tidied up her dining room and settled upon one of the metal stools by the restaurant’s small bar for a small break. The music is cranked up so that it flows into her hidden kitchen, and its volume forces her to pitch her voice over the reggae-fied version of Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
She is regal in an emerald satin blouse, smoke-blue eyelids and glossy lips. She may have been cooking all morning, simmering oxtail, sautéing cabbage, pressing jerk seasoning onto chicken skin, but whatever evidence that might have existed of that work was left in the kitchen with her chef apron.
It’s second nature, the work, the cooking and presentation. She was about 11 years old when she stepped into the kitchen of her family home in Negril with the step-grandmother she calls “my third grandmother.”
“She was a cook of cooks,” she says of Miss Nancy, her step-grandmother. “Her nickname was Cookie.”
Theirs was not a cooking lesson in the style of today’s foodie kids who step into the kitchen by choice. There was no such choice for Althea, the eldest of three sisters. It was her duty to learn the ways of the kitchen, just as it was her duty to take care of the school uniforms for herself and her sisters.
“On Saturdays I would wash our school uniforms. On Sunday, I would press them. It was very important work. It was important to go to school looking spotless,” says Althea.
The way she describes her duties, they became something of a devotion. She brings that same sense of devotion to her dishes at Kersmon, from the seasoning of her foods to their display upon her vintage plates.
Everything has its process. Take the fresh ginger beer she makes.
“The ginger has to be peeled, then the ginger has to be chopped, then ground. Then, because Dr. Oz says ginger opens your airways, people come in and want more and more ginger beer. We go through about 20 pounds of ginger a week,” she says.
The oxtail has a process as well. She prepares more than 60 pounds of oxtail a week.
And if you are a vegan, you will not get a tangle of pasta with tomato sauce. You will get a vibrant dish of colorful, nicely seasoned veggies, rice, peas, maybe plantains. You will be served with that vintage dinnerware that looks like it came from your mother’s well-maintained china cabinet.
You will be greeted as family, served as family, doted over as family. Your name will be remembered and referenced in fondness. (How does she remember? “I just try. I do the best I can,” she says.) And even if you travel far, you always will have a spot at the table here.
“I can fully say when you come here, you come to my home. You are physically in my house. The way I cook it here, I cook it in my house. The way I served it here, I serve it in my house,” she says.
This is how Althea has done it for more than nine years, since she opened Kersmon on a busy patch of Jog Road. After five years in this country, she was ready to take her small, home-based catering enterprise to another level. The woman who studied culinary science and opened her first restaurant in Kingston at age 23, decided it was time to make her American dream official. She named her restaurant by combining the names of two of her nieces.
She opened for business on Jan. 18, 2007. Gradually, the world took note, first through UrbanSpoon.com (now called zomato.com), then via TripAdvisor.com. But the earth tilted when she caught the eye of Yelpers in 2012.
“I’ve had customers from every state in this country. From Saudi Arabia, Guam, Nepal. All over,” says Althea, whose Jamaican clientele makes up just 10 percent of her business.
Now, her customers’ handwritten testimonials fill some 20 guest books she keeps at the restaurant.
A place like Kersmon is made for the multinational culinary movement that is Yelp.
“Yelpers love finding these little hidden gems,” says Blue Arauz, Yelp’s community manager for Broward and Palm Beach. “The traditional Yelper is a bit of an urban adventurer. Yelpers like good food and try to find good food. They stay away from the chain restaurants – they want to go to a local spot that they can’t find anywhere else. They love finding these little hidden gems.”
In addition to being No. 1 in Palm Beach County, Althea’s restaurant is No. 4 in Yelp’s combined Broward-Palm Beach market, notes Arauz, who is known to fellow Yelpers simply as “Blue A.”
Yelp is how three Palm Beach County friends found Kersmon last week. Althea was leafing through her favorite guest books when they wandered in. She spotted their silhouettes in the afternoon sun that streamed through her doorway.
“Hello, my new ones, welcome! Please sit wherever your hearts desire!” she called out as she scurried over to the trio of young men.
Soon, she was placing before them the last three Mexican Cokes in her beverage fridge and chatting them up. While she stepped away to the kitchen to prepare their orders, one of the young men said he had found the restaurant on Yelp.
“I’ve been trying to get someone to come out here with me, and here we are,” said Garrett Lorman, who drove to the eatery from his Boynton Beach home.
“We were talking it up on our way here,” said his friend Armando del Pozo of Wellington.
The trio didn’t let their lack of experience with Jamaican food stop them from trying a place they expected would be excellent.
“Yelp’s pretty efficient,” said Vlad Grach of Lake Worth.
In no time, Althea was filling their tabletop with family-style dishes, like peas and rice and jerk chicken. Oh, and the most welcoming dish of all:
“Okay, my three new ones, I bring you the celebration dish – curried goat!” she said, adding as might a culinary tour guide: “No wedding in Jamaica is complete without curried goat!”
Wafts of steam curled up from Althea’s dishes and filled the small restaurant with island aromas as the young trio quietly enjoyed their lunch. (It was “really good,” they agreed.)
Althea did not know their names — yet. Soon enough, they’ll roll off her tongue.