The Verandah: Christian Sweeney expands his culinary footprint Loop Jamaica

The content originally appeared on: Jamaica News Loop News

Reinvention became an urgent necessity for Christian Sweeney when his concessionaire catering business took a nosedive with the onset of the COVID pandemic three years ago.

The businessman and executive chef, successfully operating two canteens for corporate entities Seprod and GraceKennedy back in 2020, was immediately impacted.

“The pandemic ravaged my business at the time due to the work from home order,” Sweeney recalled in an interview with Loop News.

He bemoaned that within just a two-week span, the fallout from loss of income generation and associated costs of running a culinary enterprise demanded fresh vision.

Pivoting, he signed on to become manager and head chef at Steak House on the Verandah, the terrace eatery located in the courtyard of the historic Devon House while also securing gigs in the local film industry as a caterer.

Good fortune smiled on Sweeney, as by the following year, the Burrowes family, who had opened Steak House, agreed to dispose of their personal interests in the business.

“I bought out the owners of the restaurant in November 2021 and have been on the up since then, improving recipes and bringing unique contemporary Jamaican flavours to our menu,” he told Loop Lifestyle during a lunchtime interview at the restaurant recently, which also happened to be on his 40th birthday.

In full-on celebratory mode, with a Mezcal and Campari cocktail mix close at hand, he shared that after 24 months at the helm, his medium- to long-term plans for Steak House will see “a rebrand of the business, which will expand the scope of the restaurant away from the label of a steakhouse, which in culinary terms is quite limiting. We [also are] hoping to open other restaurant concepts as the right opportunities and locations become available to us.”

With a gourmet fusion menu focus on incorporating and utilising Jamaican ingredients and traditions, Steakhouse’s offerings run the gamut from a crispy chicken cordon bleu stuffed with jerked sausage and grandma’s favourite Scotch bonnet tuna tartar to callaloo parmesan stuffed mushrooms. Pasta sauces are also Jamaican-inspired, with red herring, coconut Scotch bonnet and callaloo creams on order.

“We do Jamaican takes on traditional offerings,” Sweeney explained, “but we are much more than just a steakhouse as our menu offers a broad spectrum of different dishes using an array of fresh ingredients. All recipes have been moulded by my experiences in my career and personal life,” he told Loop Lifestyle

Business is good for the proprietor, given a perfectly balanced clientele of regulars and first-timers.

“We have a lot of repeat guests, and I believe it’s because of our unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction. New diners are usually impressed by the wide selection of the menu, and the high level of service we provide.

“We get a lot of overseas visitors, too, coming to Devon House and quite a few business travellers, families on vacation and returning residents. Our Oyster Nights on Fridays have been a great success and introduce first-time diners to our great offerings,” he divulged.

Christian Sweeney (right) with the restaurant’s executive chef Jermaine Erskine.

Keen on buying Jamaican, the restaurateur said 70 per cent of his stock is locally sourced.

“All our fresh seafood is locally harvested, and from time to time, we get freshly caught fish that’s used to make our ceviches. When I’m not busy, which is very rare, I go out, and catch my own fish.

“We were, on a couple occasions, lucky enough to serve fresh swordfish, which I caught. Our main suppliers are CPJ, Wray and Nephew, Everything Fresh, Wisynco, Coldfield, and, at times, we import our own product when local sources are out of stock,” he explained.

Sweeney, whose career pursuits in the food industry sprung from his boyhood enjoyment for both his mother and grandmother’s gifts of entertaining and their skilful hands in the kitchen, attended the Arts Institute of Fort Lauderdale, attaining an associate degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s in culinary management.

He amassed valuable experience as a line cook and wok chef, interning and working post-university at such Floridian restaurants as Sangos, Café Iguana, Shucks on the Water, and Foods of Paradise.

“When I returned to Jamaica, I worked in a management capacity for a foodservice company for about a year and decided to start my own business catering and consulting. The first few years were tough, but through persistent effort, I managed to make a mark on the landscape. I then got the opportunity to be the canteen operator at Seprod. Grace invited me on board shortly after,” he shared. 

The Steak House on the Verandah’s former executive chef Christian Sweeney assumed the reins of the restaurant from the previous operators, the Burrowes family, in November 2021.

In a bid to expand his restaurant’s customer base, Sweeney told Loop Lifestyle he’s added lunch specials, “which we needed to make more affordable and fast meals which could be had by a person who only has the lunch hour to come to have a great meal and get back to work on time. The options available are cost-effective, filling and downright delicious, the mantra behind it being I want to sell food that I myself would want to eat.” 

Looking ahead to the yuletide season, the restaurateur anticipates a busy, bustling period.

“We will be having a few Christmas-themed specials and specially created cocktails as well, plus we’ve booked a number of Christmas dinners for our corporate clients,” he revealed.

Quizzed as to how he sees himself professionally, Sweeney responded:

I have a personal belief that a restaurant experience is more than just great food, it should invoke a great memory which compels your return and you remember the name of the waitress or bartender because your time spent was so good. 

You should come back knowing anything you choose from the menu is prepared at a high benchmark; the team in the kitchen and front of house knows this and understands my expectations and the need to give our guests the best dining experience in Kingston.

Empowered by the legacy of the storied terrace, with late luminaries Norma Shirley and Colin Hylton having made their respective epicurean imprints, Sweeney feels the weight of history on his shoulders.

Assured consistency and flattering good word of mouth gives reason to believe he will be just fine, as he continues to chart a path of his own, with the restaurant set to be rebranded as The Verandah come January 2024. 

BY OMAR TOMLINSON