Smile Politely

A heartfelt interview with Caribbean Grill owner Mike Harden

When I had the opportunity to visit the Caribbean Grill soft opening with my husband a few years back, I’d never visited their popular CG food truck. I soon learned this was a huge oversight on my part as a local foodie. At the brick and mortar soft opening, I discovered their jerk chicken, so fall-apart tender it amazed me, and it was so spicy I could hardly stand it, yet I could not stop eating it (sauce can also be served on the side). Served alongside the juicy chicken was a beautifully spiced side of rice ’n peas. I’ve never been a fan of rice ’n peas, but I have to readily admit that I’m an official rice ’n peas convert after trying them at CG. The aromatic spices that rose from the fluffy rice and savory peas was truly a savory delight. I remember washing the whole feast down with a fruity island punch which made my taste buds very happy. In addition to sampling all of the scrumptious food, I also had the honor of meeting the owner Mike Harden and his lovely wife and family.

You can read our 2019 interview with Mike Harden here and our recent reviews here and here.

Smile Politely: What is your job and position at Caribbean Grill?

Mike Harden: First, let me give thanks for the opportunity to share Caribbean Grill’s story with your readers. The work that Smile Politely does with your platform is impactful and is especially vital for food service businesses, now more than ever!

I am the owner, executive chef and general manager for Caribbean Grill, since the very beginning.

SP: How did you get started here in Champaign-Urbana?

Harden: Many people don’t realize that Caribbean Grill has been in business for more than a decade. Ten plus years of serving jerk chicken to the C-U community! Our start was with the Taste of C-U festival in 2010. Caribbean Grill was just a concept I was trying out at that time, with no clear intention on what would come next. The response at the festival was overwhelmingly positive, which led us to participate in the Sweet Corn Festival that year as well. After those two events, we began to do catering on a small scale, then on a larger scale. Followed by a once weekly carryout lunch service in 2012, launching our food truck in 2015, and then opening our current restaurant location in 2017.

Jerk Chicken with a crispy dark skin served with baked mac and cheese and spicy 'n peas. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

Photo by Rebecca Wells.

SP: What is your favorite item on the CG menu?

Harden: Favorite item on the menu? That is a loaded question. There are probably a number of favorites I have that are off the menu. Our staff is usually the beneficiary of my recipe testing, but on occasion, some of those items do make it on the menu as a special promotion. Off menu, I’d have to say our jerk chicken tacos with Mexican-style street corn is one of my personal favorites. It’s an amazing flavor fusion of two cultural cuisines I love. On the menu, our Friday special oxtails with rice ‘n peas, Baked Mac ‘n cheese, steamed cabbage, and fried plantains is one of my favorite meals. I know, it sounds like a lot, but that’s because it is.

Jerk chicken $5 Flavor Box with rice'n peas and baked to perfection mac 'n cheese, jerk sauce on the side. Photo from Caribbean Grill's website.

Photo from Caribbean Grill’s website.

SP: What in your opinion is the key to a good jerk sauce?

Harden: The key to any good recipe or dish is love. You have to care about what you’re doing. If you don’t care, you will take shortcuts, use cheap or artificial ingredients, or just not execute the process well. That shows up in the finished dish you are preparing. So whether it’s jerk sauce or curry chicken or anything else on our menu, our team cares about the recipes we produce every day, and we put love into our work, which I believe also shows in the finished product.

Tender yellow chicken curry meal served with green beans and baked mac and cheese. Photo from Caribbean Grill's website.

Photo from Caribbean Grill’s website.

SP: Who and/or what Inspired you to start cooking?

Harden: One of my earliest memories of choosing a career was me saying I wanted to be a chef. I use to make pretend “recipes” as a kid (that would turn out awful), but I took them very seriously. Aside from that, I have exceptionally good cooks throughout my family. Both of my parents, my sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts: everyone can cook.

My greatest inspiration though, comes from my grandmothers, both from Arkansas, both coming to Chicago during the Great Migration and both amazing cooks in their own right. It was my maternal grandmother who would have the greatest influence on me. She was the head cook at the church we grew up in, so every event, she was in the kitchen and cooking in high volume but still maintaining that made-from-scratch high quality. Always seasoned but never salty. Satisfying, filling comfort food. I grew up spending a lot of time with her in and out of the kitchen, while my parents worked, so I was able to see the impact that food — specifically her recipes & flavors — had on the people around us. She was known as the “Queen” of many, many dishes.

SP: Is there a big difference in comfort/soul food on the mainland versus the Islands?

Harden: In terms of flavor profile, yes, there is a distinct difference between Caribbean and American comfort food. In terms of intention, both are exactly the same. I believe that soul food is universal, really. Literally every culture around the world uses the exact same ingredients — rice, beans, stewed or grilled meats, flours, breads, produce — to produce vastly different versions of basically the same recipes. It’s provincial food, and it’s all a matter of perspective, geography, and access. The intention remains the same though; to feed your family in order to survive. Most often this has to be done with little resources of money, time, and ingredients, yet somehow, we make it work, so that we can work and carry on. Food that doesn’t just feed your belly but feeds your soul to enable you to carry on. That’s what soul food is, and everyone everywhere needs that.

Beef Jerk meatballs on a bed of rice 'n peas with a side of mac 'n cheese and a piece of golden fried plantain from Caribbean Grill. Photo from Caribbean Grill's website.

Photo from Caribbean Grill’s website.

SP: If you could meet one chef and have dinner with them, who would it be and why?

Harden: There are so many amazing chefs in the world, both past and present. I feel I have the greatest connection to the chefs that truly cook for the people. Beyond culinary skill, there is so much to be learned about life from people that operate in that space. What I would really love to do is a culinary world tour and just sit in the home kitchens of grandmothers or at the stalls and carts of street food vendors, and just be inspired by their drive, work ethic, and execution. Comfort and street foods are often overlooked or considered simple, but there exists so much more complexity and nuance beyond just the amazing food.

Jerk chicken burrito meal- made with rice 'n peas, jerk chicken, cheese, lettuce, sour cream & pico de gallo rolled in a large flour tortilla. Photo from Caribbean Grill's website.

Photo from Caribbean Grill’s website.

SP: How are you and your team doing during the pandemic?

Harden: Sigh. Working through the pandemic has been exhausting. As a business, we were fortunate to not have had to fully close during this time, but we are also not at 100% operational capacity. We’ve been impacted with reduced business hours, working with a limited staff, and increased safety measures — not to mention the physical, mental, and emotional stress of working continuously through a pandemic. I mean, it really is unprecedented.

I don’t believe most people realize the challenge and sacrifice that food service workers face on a daily basis to bring a bit of normal to the public, in the absolute most abnormal circumstance imaginable. We don’t have the ability to work from home, but we still have spouses, kids, and other loved ones that we also have to consider, along with ourselves. My team and I have all been blessed to remain healthy and are certainly looking forward to being on the other side of this crazy time!

Jerk chicken served with a side of steamed cabbage, rice 'n peas and a golden fried plantain slice from Caribbean Grill. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

Photo by Rebecca Wells.

SP: Have you felt support from the community during this difficult time in the restaurant industry?

Harden: Without a doubt. From the economic crisis that COVID-19 has brought about, to the Black Lives Matter Movement, we have seen first hand the humanity and empathy that members of the C-U community embody. The sense of gratefulness from many of our guests for us continuing to serve has been heart warming. There are moments of frustration, of course, when some guests carry on as if there isn’t a global pandemic occurring and expect business as usual, but those instances are not about us and definitely do not outweigh the level of support, patience, and understanding we do receive from the majority of our guests who choose to enjoy a meal with us each day. It is a choice for people to eat at Caribbean Grill. When they do, we are grateful.

Large Chilled Cup of rosey red Island Fruit Punch alongside another large cup, this one containing sweet mango tea. Photo by Rebecca Wells.

Photo by Rebecca Wells.

SP: What is the one ingredient you can’t live without?

Harden: There is only one secret ingredient that goes in everything we do: love.

Caribbean Grill Restaurant
2135 South Neil St
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Top image by Matt Macomber. 

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