BED-STUY, BROOKLYN — For Jamaican Chef Desmond Clarke, the news that New Yorkers would need to stay in their homes to stop the spread of the coronavirus earlier this year came with an unusual feeling: comfort.
The Bed-Stuy resident, who first came to New York City in 1998, had already been rendered to his home for months, thanks to an ankle monitor that let him stay with his family during a pending asylum case with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The pandemic — though it brought its own challenges for the Clarke family — at least meant that Desmond wasn’t alone, he said.
“It actually makes it easier knowing everybody is home,” Clarke said. “I don’t feel like I’m restricted anymore because at least now, I’m used to it.”
Another bright spot was that Clarke had a head start on figuring out how to make his job work from home.
The chef — who’s cooked in Jamaican restaurants in New York City since 2002 — started a from-home catering business called Jamali Caribbean Soul Food in October.
The business, named for his Jamaican culture and his wife’s Malian roots, has become a source of hope amid a particularly tough year, Clarke said.
“I’m not used to being home, but at least I’m doing something that makes me happy,” he said. “My son is excited watching me cook every day. I get to do something I love doing.”
Clarke returned to Brooklyn with the electric monitoring system in October, after spending eight months in a California detention center.
Monitoring systems are a method used for immigrants who aren’t a flight risk or who have family in the United States to stay at home while waiting out their court dates. ICE has confirmed Clarke’s status with Patch.
For Clarke, the monitor, and a $15,000 bond, had been a compromise to get back to his family after returning to the United States months shy of a waiting period for his citizenship, he said.
The father of three had decided to risk breaking his agreement with immigration officials to stay out of the country for two years so he could get back to his family, he said. His wife, Mina, had been assaulted at her job and was struggling to care for their 4-year-old son.
Clarke has since been approved for citizenship through marriage in a separate case, but still needs to wait out the asylum status now that he’s already applied, he explained.
That wait could be even longer now that courts are slowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“They don’t give much information,” Clarke said. “Everything is at someone’s discretion.”
In the meantime, he and Mina have thrown themselves into the catering business, offering restaurant-quality meals to those who, now more than ever, are eating at home.
“So far the reviews have been totally positive,” Clarke said. “As a chef you do this for the people — so even if I have two customers I’m still happy at the end of the day.”
Clarke’s meals, inspired by his family’s heritage, include everything from jerk salmon, to oxtails to pepper shrimp. A vegetarian himself, he also specializes in meat-free dishes like vegetarian stews and pastas.
The meals are made with the help of vegetables and herbs grown in his at-home garden and ingredients bought from local shops and Brooklyn fishermen.
Clarke cooks the meals at home and offers pick up or delivery to nearby neighborhoods for a fee.
Customers can also have him come to their home to cook a multi-course meal, including rum punch.
“That’s my passion — introducing people to my culture through my food,” he said. “That’s why I do it.”
Find out more about Jamali Caribbean Soul Food here.