One very Toronto dish: Poutine with jerk chicken made shawarma-style

A Jamaican chef takes a few lessons from Scarborough's shawarma spots and realizes the spinning grill is a great way to cook jerk chicken with wonderful texture and a full blast of flavour.

Suresh's pick: Chris Jerk at 2570 Birchmount Road in Scarborough

Chris Taylor has pioneered shawarma-style jerk chicken at his Scarborough restaurant. (Curry Leamen)

We can spend years talking about food and Scarborough and we won't be bored. Today's place is a back pocket favourite.

It's a place I've been visiting since it opened exactly seven years ago by a gentleman named Christopher Taylor, who is originally from Jamaica and came here when he was 13-years-old and had aspirations of becoming a chef. He attributes that to his mom and his aunts and grandma.

So he goes to school and works at banquet halls and restaurants and he talks about how he's so blown away by the obvious multiculturalism of our city — whether it's his neighbours or the peers in his kitchen or his cooking or the people that he was serving food to. And he said that he's always wanted to open a Jamaican restaurant. But after growing up in the city, that idea kind of morphed.

Ismaila Alfa: What do you mean by that?

Suresh Doss: So, OK, so when we think about Jamaican food, obviously it's mainly the ambassador dish that comes to mind: jerk chicken.

The idea of meat marinated with either dry or wet marinade and then slow-cooked over an open flame or grill, preferably with wood from the pimento tree. And typically, when you order your chicken in Toronto, it's served to you big bone and pieces of meat. Right?

That's literally the only way I've ever eaten it. You have your chicken, you have your rice and peas, that's how it's done.

And lots of gravy.

So Chris works at this Mediterranean restaurant a while back, and he became really adept at cooking meat on a spit, kind of like, you know, the way shawarma's made or tacos al pastor. You layer marinated meat like a cone and then slowly cook it on a spinning griller. And he says he had an epiphany. His words were: I realized that this would be a great way to cook chicken because it would bring another level of texture and keep the flavour on full blast. 

Plantains are always a tasty addition to a plate of jerk chicken. (Suresh Doss)

So as a result, you have jerk chicken cooked shawarma-style.

OK, I'm a little troubled with this. That's that's a little out there. I've got my my second Jamaican mom's voice in my mind saying lots of things here.

You can picture it though, right?

I can. I can. Yeah.

I mean, it's honestly, it's one of those dishes that once you've had it this way, you probably can't go back to the classic. I don't know, that's just me.

He does the homework. He makes his own sauce, marinates the meat overnight and he cooks exactly one spit, and he shaves the protein as it kind of crisps up to the heat. So you get these pieces of chicken that are incredibly tender with a very thin, rigid crust.

And that's just kind of the beginning. Chris is really engineered the menu at Chris Jerk to hit every palate.

So how do you order it?

There are no less than five ways you can enjoy this unique way to eat your chicken.

You can get it classically, like you like, rice and peas with lots of gravy, which is how I would recommend it. Or you can get it with the side of plantain, or you can have it with a salad. You can also get it in a wrap form, which really is kind of explosive with flavour and probably the most popular version.

Or you can order it poutine style.

Jerk chicken poutine. It's real and it's glorious. (Suresh Doss)

Sorry, poutine-style? With cheese curds and fries ...?

Player 3 enters the game right now.

So this is like she is cheese curds and fries and chicken cooked shawarma-style with lots and lots of gravy.

Ismaila, I know you're new to the city. I've watched those videos of you meeting up with locals and going for bike rides. If we were meeting up, look, this is where I would take you.

We're not a city known for poutine, but this is one fantastic poutine.

And this place is also a good way to understand how sometimes cultures can kind of seamlessly mix and integrate. We have incredibly talented people from all over the world here. And as they grow up in Canada, they're inspired by their surroundings and neighbours.

And in some cases like Chris Jerk, you know, it creates something new sometimes and different — in this case, Jamaican heritage kind of told through a Middle Eastern lens, finished with Canadian pride.

I don't know if you can hear the explosions going on in my mind right now. I'm in. You definitely have me intrigued here.

Finally, how is the restaurant faring during the pandemic?

So the good thing about Chris, this place, is that he's built a very loyal following because it's a very unique style of food since day one. And it's a very tightly-run operation, a family run operation. So, you know, if you go there, his wife, Aretha, is the one that's usually taking your order. And his two sisters, Leslie and Donna, are in the kitchen with them. And now his son, Chris Jr., is cooking.

Chris Jerk has survived the pandemic by running a lean operation that relies on family members chipping in. (Curry Leamen)

People from every walk of life, political affiliation visit this place for lunch. It's kind of cliche, but it's kind of like the united colours of Scarborough that line up at this restaurant every day to order this food.

OK, when's the best time of day to go to it?

I would say right as lunch starts — around eleven o'clock — is when you want to go. He cooks only one spit, so once he's done, it's done for the day.

And I wonder, I mean, more and more generally during this pandemic, you must be hearing a lot from from restaurant owners. What are your concerns for the restaurant industry of the city moving forward?

The problem is that now the whole idea of extending patio season is not going to last too long.

I'm hearing from owners every day that they're trying to go back to the delivery model and try to bring the restaurant experience home — so it's not just getting takeout. But how do they create that missing element? Whether it's with a playlist or plating the dishes or encouraging you to finish plating when you receive the food.

So there are a lot of different ideas being thrown around and you see some restaurants that are kind of like borrowing from the bodega model from New York, where they're converting their shops to beer and bottle shops with takeout sandwiches.

So there are a lot of great ideas. But I mean, you're going to see a lot of our favourite places close because there's just not enough support. And, you know, restaurants can't just survive on takeout alone.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

For more of Suresh's picks, check out the map below.


Suresh Doss is a Toronto-based food writer. He joins CBC Radio's Metro Morning as a weekly food columnist. Currently, Doss is the print editor for Foodism Toronto magazine and regularly contributes to Toronto Life, the Globe and Mail and Eater National. Doss regularly runs food tours throughout the GTA, aimed at highlighting its multicultural pockets.


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