Badass Women of Detroit's Hospitality Industry: Chef Reniel Billups
by Courtney Burk of Spoonful of Ink
Photos by Paul Patton
I met with Chef Reniel Billups who runs Irie Occasions Catering and is in the process of opening a restaurant, Flavors of Jamaica. Her company currently offers Authentic Jamaican foods as well as what she refers to as creative cuisines representing all cultures with a Caribbean flare at popups. She also hosts a semi- permanent feature at Brooklyn Street Local every Saturday, many private events and catering.
How did you find your footing in the restaurant industry? Did you always know you wanted to open a restaurant?
I’ve always loved food and I came from a family on both sides that did a lot of cooking. I’ve always been surrounded by cooks, so it’s something that was birthed in me in a way, though it took a little while to get here. Originally, I went to school to be a nurse, and half way through school, I realized that I didn’t like blood. I’ve done everything you can think of – I went into the business program twice and I even tried to be a real estate broker. In my world, everyone thinks you’re not professional unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, or a professional of that caliber. It's funny that even those who were in the food industry professionally themselves wanted me to do something else— go figure! I kept following everyone else’s suggested paths, but I didn’t have the passion to make them a career like I did with food.
I was always cooking and hosting dinner parties at our house once we finally got a place to host said dinner parties. It was a rough beginning. Like everyone else, we had a past and we didn’t always operate on the right side of the tracks. We decided for our own peace of mind and the love of our daughter that we needed to make a change for the better. That change meant walking away from everything and everyone that was not heading in the direction we were trying to go. It meant walking away from certain luxuries and money. So we moved to my husband’s hometown in North Carolina to a single-wide trailer where the rust went up one side and down the other like a boat. The bottom of the refrigerator was a cupboard, the freezer was barely a chilled refrigerator. We cooked on a hot plate because we had no stove. When I finally got a place where I could host a dinner party, we hosted all the time.
People started asking me to cook for them, and it became something I was doing often. I heard about a job at the Coast Guard base where they were looking for someone to be a cook. At that time I needed a job, so I went over there and got slammed in the face. The manager turned me down for the position and said they were looking for someone with more experience. Instead, she offered me a dishwashing position, and I took it because I needed the money. One day, the person they had hired for the cook position was a no-call-no-show and I had to jump in and help. Within three months of being there, I was promoted to Cook 2. I was cooking for upwards of 750 servicemen and women, as well as civilians on a daily basis. I then went into the school system, where I cooked and prepped for several schools daily. I just kept going. I continued following this culinary path and here I am.
Though it took a while for everyone to accept that I was aspiring to be a chef, it flows so naturally now. Everyone in my family claims they’re the best cook in the world, so I will never make a claim as to who the best cook is. I picked up a bit of cooking from my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunts, my grandmother. WhenI recreate family recipes, I always add my own touch to it so no one can tell me who I learned it from. I learned it from everybody.
Where is Flavors of Jamaica going to be located and what kind of food or ambiance is it going to offer?
Our restaurant is located in Pontiac. Depending on what site you look at, some maps say it’s Waterford, but it's located on Telegraph and Elizabeth Lake Road.
Caribbean restaurants, Jamaican restaurants in particular, have an image – you walk in and everyone is harsh. I don’t believe this image is accurate. You just have to understand the people— straight to the point, no sugar coating, but all love. Still, there’s a viral video that depicts a gentleman doing his chanting before he enters a Jamaican restaurant because he didn’t want to get his head bitten off. He said he walked in, ordered his food, and the server asked "you want plantains?" and he said no. Suddenly he decided to change his mind and had to pray before he mentioned to the server that he was changing his mind. We don’t want that vibe.
For us, we want it to be a comfortable, loving, and inviting environment where you feel free in changing your mind. We are looking to have a vibe where you feel happy when you come in— it’s the whole experience. We’re going to do traditional Jamaican food in addition to nontraditional offerings with many vegan and vegetarian options so everyone feels welcome. We're going to have live music, karaoke, and every Saturday morning we’re going to offer a Caribbean brunch. I’m excited— we haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m excited to begin putting my own decorative touch to the restaurant.
There’s a popular game in Jamaica called ludi. It’s almost like the game Trouble. We’re having some custom tables made where guests can sit and play ludi or dominoes and have enough room to enjoy their meal at the same table while playing. We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and never feel rushed away. Come eat, listen to music, play and relax – that’s the vibes we’re going for.
That sounds amazing— like the closest one can get to being on a beach while still being within four walls. Flavors of Jamaica will also include brunch, correct? What will some of those offerings look like?
In the islands, of course we eat meat, but in Jamaica, breakfast items are traditionally vegetarian and vegan based. Some common items are Ackee (it’s a fruit that’s cooked like a vegetable and when done so it resembles scrambled eggs), Callaloo (a common vegetable dish and it’s in the family of spinach), Cornmeal porridge, Banana porridge and Peanut porridge are all delicious and will be offered. Porridge is great, delicious and has tons of milk, coconut milk, butter, cinnamon, sugar and Vanilla. It's just a great bowl of hot goodness that will pair well with our Journey cakes too. Journey cakes or Johnny cakes are typically paired with Escoviche fish, that’s fish that’s fried really hard and has been allowed to marinate in a pickled Habanero marinade.
I’m also planning on doing some infused things like Ackee Quiche, Bammy or Cassava cake which almost looks like a pancake but it’s made with Cassava, and roasted Breadfruit. Breadfruit is a fruit, but when roasted it takes on the texture and flavor of bread – so different things like that and mixing it up while introducing guests to other offerings from Jamacia will be the standard. I also want when someone comes to eat, they can get a traditional Jamaican recipe, but for those that would like to get introduced to this cuisine a little slower or if there’s younger kids looking for different options, our menu will accommodate everyone.
I love the local food community because of how much you learn about food and through food the introduction to other cultures. That being said, at the Fruits of Our Labor Dinner Series you created the Journey Cake appetizer. There’s some history and stories passed down as to how those cakes came to be. Could you explain that a little bit?
This is what I’ve been told. During the diaspora, this was one of the dishes people used during travel. Carbs load you up and make you full and this specific dish doesn’t go bad, whether it’s fried or boiled. From what I was told, this was a dish that was prepared using the fresh grounded flour. As they were traveling along the back mountains to get from point A to point B, these were one of the dishes they could prepare, hang onto and eat as they traveled with no preparation or need for preservatives. It’s a Journey cake because you can take it on your journey. It’s often called Johnnycake, which could have changed due to mispronunciation. I share that story but I share it lightly since I haven’t done a lot of research myself but it was a story passed down to me from my grandmother and my father.
And the rum cake you created for dessert. Is that something that was often around your house during the holidays, similar to fruitcake?
Rum cake is a popular dish during the holidays, and typically, it has way too much wine and way too much rum. For the Fruits of Our Labor dinner, I tamed down the amount of liquor from traditional recipes a lot. If you go to any Caribbean household during Christmas or especially Easter, you will find that particular cake. It’s not refrigerated and if it starts to seem like it’s getting a little dry they dump more wine or rum on top – that’s how the moisture is kept in it. It’s a drunken cake and I tweaked the recipe a little bit because the version in the islands is a little more dense, so I cheat and add a bit of baking powder to mine.
You’re a member of Foodlab Detroit, participated in the conversation of the Fruits of Our Labor Dinner Series, and you also host popups in the city under your brand, Irie Occasions. You have a semi permanent one that happens every Saturday at Brooklyn Street Local. How has that helped prepare you and your team for opening a restaurant?
We’re open from 5 – 10pm at Brooklyn Street Local. It really helped with preparing us for the restaurant. We’ll continue hosting these popups until closer to opening. I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way there. It helped to train my staff in dealing with different people and personalities. I must add it will be hard saying goodbye to Brooklyn Street Local. Deveri, the owner there has become like family. She is an amazingly beautiful soul and very giving of herself and her facility and for that I will be eternally grateful.
There, we offer traditional Jamaican cuisine and most of what we’re offering is going to be on our brick and mortar menu. We always have at least three vegan options and thankfully it’s delicious enough that both vegans and carnivores really enjoy those menu selections. We just introduced, Brownstewed Lions Mane Mushrooms. I’m so grateful for the Mushroom Factory for making Lions Mane available all year long. Needless to say it was a hit and will be a permanent part of our menu. It's amazing working with the local farmers. It is important to us that we keep the menu as farm to table as possible. We want our food to not only feed the community but assist in the sustainability of the community. We want to offer organically grown and responsibly sourced foods. Farm to table is most definitely authentic to the Jamaican culture so It just all flows. That’s why I enjoyed the Fruits of Our Labor Dinner series so much.
I try to be very conscious of our menu selections as I spent eight years as a vegan myself. I blame my family – I went to Jamaica for a family reunion and they made me feel horrible because they cooked food and I was picking around it all. And before you knew it, I ate some fish, and before I left the island I had chicken and beef again as well. So, I like to make sure there’s a good variety for our customers.
We even plan on having a full separate menu for vegans so they don’t have to look through menu items with meat. I’ve actually been in the taste-testing phase of the restaurant so my family has been doing a lot of eating and giving feedback for me. My hope is to have a full menu together by the end of this month.
That’s amazing. If you’re ever looking for additional pallets to taste test on just let me know! But how is catering in and around the city going while you’re also balancing the craziness that is opening a restaurant?
Catering is going well for us. Though I will say, because I am a small company, many people feel inclined to reach out at the last minute for a lot of events and we’re always trying to accommodate every event, pop up and build out as best as we can.
I do have a very small staff and I am so grateful for them. They work so well for and with me. Several of them also own their own business, so we all collaborate and it makes for a great support team.
When we do open the restaurant, I’ll have more opportunity to do a bigger push for catering. At the moment, I’m using a licensed commercial kitchen but it is shared – which means I have to work with not only my availability, but everyone else’s that is a part of that space as well.
That’s actually one of the main reasons that pushed me the most to opening my own restaurant. I’ve had some instances with double bookings, or I have a customer that calls me at the last minute – and though I don’t have anything happening that day and would be happy to work the event, the kitchen is booked and then I have to call around to figure out what can be done.
I believe I read that you were able to hire your daughter on full-time recently, congratulations to both of you on that feat!
We’re a family owned business and it started with my husband, my daughter and I cramming late night hour popups after popups, trying to get our name out there and developing our brand. My daughter, bless her heart, she’s definitely my right hand. My husband who works a full time job, is a photographer and my support system. I wouldn’t be able to pursue this passion without them. We entered the Eastern Market Nourish Challenge recently and walked away the victors. That was a proud family moment for me. We prepared a shaved Beef Quesadilla on Roti bread with a homemade four Cheese blend, fresh Arugula. Spicy Chimchurri sauce and topped it with a Turnip and Scallion infused Aioli, Turnip Slaw and Peas Sprouts. My daughter and I were making Quesadillas on the fly. My husband came along with his camera to take some pictures. Well, as we were making Quesadillas, the line became so long until we were struggling to keep up with the demand. My husband never got a picture from the event. He put the camera down and jumped in to help us and we served until the event was over and there was just a trickle of people left. We almost missed the announcement that we had won. I was so proud because once again my family had my back and we pulled it off together. Needless to say, we are quite a close knit family.
So, how did you and your family find yourselves in the city, and more specifically in Michigan?
I lived in New York until ’97 and I met my boyfriend (now husband) there. We later moved to North Carolina together (that’s where my husband is from originally). He was working for Ford Motor Company in Norfolk Virginia and once they closed that plant, he accepted a position in Michigan. We didn’t know of any family in Michigan at that time nevertheless, we moved here on Martin Luther King Day – right in the dead of winter. The snow was rolling across the street like tumbleweeds and I just remember looking at him and asking "where on earth did you move us to?! " That’s how we ended up here in Michigan. My husband ended up leaving Ford and we stayed. To this day, I have no idea why we stayed but I grew to love the city and I do think that influenced our lack of a decision to move from Michigan.
You run a family owned business and your cooking is inspired from various family members – it’s no wonder you can taste passion and love in every dish. Is there a specific moment do you think that really shaped who you are as a chef?
I think back to when my husband and I got married in that trailer with the hot plate. Our pastor at the time actually paid for our wedding certificate because we couldn’t afford it. I wore a blue skirt and a white button up shirt that I purchased from the thrift store. My husband wore a blue pinstripe suit someone gave to him that was five times too big. We called a cab to take us to the church and it never showed up, so my neighbor rushed and drove us to the Church. It was a very small ceremony, we didn’t even exchange rings because we couldn’t afford them at the time – my husband literally tied a blade of grass around my finger when he proposed to me. That should paint the picture of our financial situation back then. At the end of our Wedding ceremony, I wanted everyone to eat, so I cooked dinner for everyone on the hot plate. Family and friends came over and they didn’t make us feel uncomfortable. They sat on the carpet and everyone ate what I prepared. By the way, for our honeymoon we took the neighborhood kids to see the first toy story and then came back home and I fed them from that same hot plate. We spread blankets on the grass and told them we were having a picnic. It was our lack of furniture but they didn’t know and didn’t care. It’s just always been in me to cook and I never really understood that could be a career. It’s my way of giving a piece of me. So, even if I wasn’t a restaurateur or caterer, I would still be trying to feed people all the time.