If a space can be described as sultry and seductive then Ripe Kitchen and Bar definitely qualifies. It is the house that restaurateur and executive chef Nigel Spence built on an industrialized expanse of street in Mt. Vernon, New York.
Ripe transports you to Jamaica – so much so – that you almost feel the caress of the trade winds, smell the fragrance of flowers in bloom and you fully expect to hear cicadas and raindrops on a zinc roof whenever it rains. (I assure you, you can’t … unless you’ve had one of the restaurant’s more potent libations).
The interior is lit almost exclusively by candlelight and features art work from some of Jamaica’s most prominent artists. There is no white tablecloth service to be had which is the way the boss wanted it; unpretentious, inclusive, intimate and the kind of place that makes you forget that Ripe boasts an address in an urban area, and that you actually have things to do and a home to go to afterwards. Simply, leaving is usually a hardship for patrons on most nights.
It is fair then, to say that Ripe is a candid reflection of the man himself.
In a time when almost everyone has a gimmick, Spence’s preference for shirts emblazoned with colorful depictions of flora and fauna (oftentimes both) that truly defy description, is a trademark. He honestly adores them. He keeps a low profile and likes to shun much of the attention that now comes his way after high profile appearances on the Food Network, CBS, ABC, Living Today (Martha Stewart Radio) and amid positive reviews from print giants, the New York Times and the Westchester Magazine among them, but someone needs to tell him that the shirts are a dead giveaway.
His official biography confides that Spence left Kingston, Jamaica to make his home in the United States when he was just 11 and paints a picture of a young boy who upon arrival is bereft of the warm sunshine, balmy breezes and cool vibes of his island home. So, what does he do? If you know Nigel Spence the answer comes quickly … the first chance he got, he made a place that – as has been widely reported in the press – is his interpretation of a “little sunshine in a cement world”.
Nigel Spence is quite clearly a chef who does not hide behind or rely solely on artfully presented plates of food. His arsenal is far more impressive than that. One of the most important areas where Spence and his chefs excel is that they understand the fine line between innovation and authenticity. While they prepare foods in unexpectedly creative ways (think pairings and technique), the true flavors of his principal ingredients have not been sacrificed merely for originality sake. It is a gift to be able to balance the two and this Spence does handily while redefining the vocabulary of Caribbean fare.