Interview by Dalia Colón
Andrew Ashmeade is the proud owner of four Tampa restaurants that feature flavors of the Caribbean.
Between Mardi Gras and Easter is Carnival, a season of street parties, parades, vibrant costumes and feasts celebrated by Catholic countries all over the world.
What to drink for the occasion? For many Caribbean nations, Carnival season is also rum punch season.
“Rum is the fuel of Carnival,” says Andrew Ashmeade, owner of the Jerk Hut. The Jamaican restaurant has four Tampa locations and was named one of Tampa Bay’s 25 most iconic restaurants by Tampa Bay Times food critic Helen Freund.
Countries celebrate Carnival on different dates. For example, Brazil, Spain and Trindad mark the occasion in late February or early March. Jamaica’s festivities aren’t until April. But that doesn’t prevent Jamaicans from getting the party started early, Ashmeade says.
“Once the season of Carnival starts, everybody is in that Carnival vibe until the last Carnival happens,” he says.
That’s a lot of rum punch.
But keeping the party going is easy when you use this rhyme that holds the recipe for Caribbean-style rum punch:
One of sour
Two of sweet
Three of strong
Four of weak
Sour can be lime juice, a pre-made sour mix or any other tart liquid. For sweet, think strawberry syrup, grenadine and the like. Strong is where the rum comes in, be it a strong rum or one flavored with coconut or fruit. And weak can be juice or water. The proportions hold true regardless of how much liquid you use, from a shot glass to a gallon.
The result, Ashmeade says, is “happiness and good vibes in a glass.” One sip, and you’ll feel transported to the islands. “That’s the magic of the rum punch,” he says.
Ashmeade grew up far from the beach, in a small highland town in Jamaica better known for Blue Mountain Coffee than for cocktails. At 17, he came to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida, and he never left.
“When I decided to do the whole Jerk Hut thing, I was a student at USF. And there [weren’t] many places to go [for Caribbean food]. So my dream was to put something together that represented our culture,” Ashmeade recalls. Jerk Hut’s flagship restaurant is on Fowler Avenue, about two miles west of USF’s main campus. Other locations are in downtown Tampa, South Tampa and Seminole Heights.
Jerk Hut specializes in traditional Jamaican foods, such as jerk chicken, oxtails, curry shrimp, beef patties and fried sweet plantains.
“People flock to Jerk Hut to soak up some of those vibes. It’s like going to Jamaica without the TSA or the luggage fees or anything,” Ashmeade says. “You just step right off Fowler Avenue and boom, [you’re] right there in Jamaica.”
Many Caribbean countries enjoy similar cuisine, so customers from various island nations frequent Jerk Hut for a taste of home.
“We’re so much alike that it’s kind of like one Caribbean for us,” Ashmeade says. “One love.”