Stirrin’ it up right
Creating a little piece of Jamaica on Portage Avenue
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/07/2019 (1106 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Faith in God has long played a part in the lives of Keisha Powell-Ewers and Sean Ewers, a married couple originally from Jamaica, presently the owners of K & S Island Grill, an authentic Jamaican eatery at 2069 Portage Ave.
Their individual faith came into play the day they met 16 years ago in Mandeville, Keisha’s hometown, when Keisha informed Sean, from nearby Black River, if he was interested in her romantically, she would only agree to go out with him if he was a Christian.
Three days later he showed up at her church unannounced, whispering, “I bet you didn’t think I was going to come,” while sliding into a pew next to her.
It was also a factor in 2012 when Sean, not 100 per cent sure he wanted to move to Winnipeg where Keisha, a Red Seal chef, had a job waiting for her, turned to The Bible for advice, and was comforted by the words, “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find.”
Their faith played a part again last November when, on her way to the Headingley Correction Centre where she was volunteering in the prison ministry program, Keisha said a silent prayer as she passed business after business along Portage Avenue, asking God to help her and Sean find a suitable space for a restaurant of their own one day.
“That night when I got home, I took out my iPad and started looking up vacancies,” Keisha says, seated in a booth next to her husband, with a poster-size shot of their fellow countryman, music legend Bob Marley, hanging on a back wall.
“I spotted a listing for this place and made an appointment to see it the next day, without knowing where it was exactly. Except when I pulled up that morning and saw it was located at the corner of Portage (Avenue) and Mandeville (Street), the same name as the town I grew up in, I knew it was meant to be, that this was a gift from God.”
• • •
Before meeting Sean, Keisha studied hospitality management, majoring in food preparation. After they got married the couple opened a small restaurant in Mandeville, nothing fancy, they say almost in unison.
In 2008, Keisha learned about a program run by the Jamaican government that afforded residents of her country the opportunity to further their education abroad. After checking out various schools online she applied to Red River College’s culinary arts program. She was overjoyed when she was accepted in time for the 2009 fall semester.
It wasn’t an easy decision to pick up and move to Winnipeg, she admits. Not only was she leaving Sean behind, she would also be apart from their children Eshoi and Kishaun.
“It was definitely a sacrifice but one we thought would be well worth it in the end,” she says.
Sean laughs remembering his first experience with minus-degree temperatures, that day he arrived in Winnipeg in December 2009 to spend the holidays with Keisha.
“She told me it was cold here but I thought maybe she meant cold like back home in the morning, when it’s only 10 degrees (Celsius) and the grass is covered in dew,” he says, chuckling again when it’s pointed out there is a big, big difference between a lawn covered in dew and one blanketed by four feet of snow.
“I was OK when I came out of the airport, maybe my blood was still warm from Jamaica because I was only wearing a blazer, but when we got downtown and started walking to the immigration office where Keisha had an appointment, it hit me,” he goes on.
“All of a sudden I couldn’t feel my ears, my toes, my fingers…I said if we don’t find somewhere to warm up I am going to die. I still have the gloves I bought at the dollar store we went into. I keep them as a reminder of my first experience with a Winnipeg winter.”
While Keisha was studying at Red River, she heard about the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, an initiative aimed at, according to the program’s website, “internationally trained and experienced workers who have the skills needed” to receive permanent resident visas to settle and work in Manitoba.
She filled out the necessary paperwork in 2010. Approximately 18 months later, following a lengthy family discussion, she, Sean, Kishaun and Eshoi were packing their things, to move to Canada permanently.
During her time at Red River College, Keisha worked as a chef at a restaurant situated inside McPhillips Station Casino. She returned to that position when they arrived in Winnipeg.
In time, Keisha and Sean founded an events management company, offering catering and decorating services for weddings, anniversary parties and other special occasions.
Parents of four, their youngest children, Gabrielle, 7, and Sean-Joseph, 3, were born in Winnipeg. The couple was still operating that events business when Keisha went to inspect the aforementioned vacant property on Portage Avenue, the former home of Star Grill.
Keisha and Sean signed their lease in late November 2018. They hosted their grand opening three weeks later, once Sean was finished repainting the walls green and yellow to match the colours of the Jamaican flag.
While they were understandably nervous on Day 1 they were confident in what they had to offer: Jamaican favourites such as jerk chicken, oxtail and grilled shrimp together with their unique spin on dishes from their adopted homeland, Exhibit A being jerk poutine.
“For sure, there’s nothing like that back home, I didn’t even know what poutine was till I moved here,” Sean says, offering a visitor a sample. “We also serve jerk salmon, a jerk burger and jerk linguine. Besides oxtail, (jerk linguine) is probably the most popular thing on the menu.”
Know that old adage about how you can tell a Chinese restaurant is good if people who appear to be of Chinese descent are eating there? Same thing with K & S Island Grill; the minute word got out Keisha and Sean were open for business, ex-pat Jamaicans living in Winnipeg began descending on their locale in droves.
Perhaps the best compliment they’ve ever received, Keisha says, is when a table of four remarked their fare reminded them of Sunday supper at their grandmother’s “back home.”
“There are a number of Caribbean restaurants in the city but what sets Jamaican food apart is the spices we use, every island’s recipes are a little bit different in that regard,” Sean explains, mentioning he’s been pleasantly surprised how hardy native Winnipeggers are when it comes to eating spicy food, in particular a fellow last week who wanted his Red Stripe barbecue wings to measure “11 out of 10” on the scorch-o-meter.
Now that they’ve been here seven years, Winnipeg definitely feels like home, they say. They’ve visited other cities in Canada, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal for starters, but travelling to those burgs only reinforced their belief they made the right decision when they chose Winnipeg — more specifically East Kildonan — as the place they wanted to raise their kids.
“I had never even heard of Winnipeg when I was growing up but when we go back to Jamaica now to see friends and family I can’t stop talking about it,” Sean says. “My friends tell me it’s cold there, you can keep it, but I tell them as cold as it gets, the reception we’ve received is twice as warm.”
Before we forget, here’s one more question related to Keisha and Sean’s faith in God: was He the one who suggested they dub their restaurant K & S, instead of the other way around?
“Ha, if you’re the man, you never put your name first,” Sean says, playfully rubbing his wife’s shoulders. “Ladies first, all the time. She’s the boss.”
In case you’re interested, Jamaica’s Independence Day, which marks the day the island nation gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, falls on Aug. 6. To honour the occasion, K & S Island Grill will be serving a traditional meal, ackee and saltfish, mannish water (goat soup), jerk chicken and festival dumplings, in addition to their regular fixings. For more information, go to their website.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.