by Alaina Mabaso
Most of us know what it’s like to open a kitchen cupboard and narrowly avoid a cascade of old Tupperware containers. But Mt. Airy chef Marva Haye can’t relate.
Because her Caribbean cuisine leftovers are in such high demand, “I cannot keep Tupperware in the house,” said this native of Savanna La Mar, Jamaica. The shortage is due to her culinary skills: friends and family pack the house every time she cooks, and since Haye can’t bear to send their portions home in tin foil, it means that any plastic containers she buys have walked away by the end of the week, bearing the coveted leftovers far and wide.
Haye, who is 50-ish, has lived in the U.S. since her parents came to West Philadelphia when she was a teenager. She’s called Mt. Airy home for over 20 years, but her speech still has the beguiling lilt of the islands. An alumna of St. Joseph’s University, she faced a major choice while working as a paralegal; would she go on to law school, or would she pursue cooking, her true lifelong passion?
Though she didn’t cook at home as a child, Marva became fascinated with her childhood neighbor’s large oven, which produced a parade of delectable treats. Now, while she still works as a paralegal, she has been pursuing her own Caribbean catering business for over 15 years.
“If you’re curious about our food, you have to eat it as it is,” she says, looking askance at Caribbean establishments that would compromise their true taste for the relatively timid American palate.
Ask her how she makes her famous Calypso Shrimp, one of her most popular appetizers, and she’ll raise a graceful eyebrow. Rosemary is involved, but the rest of the recipe is a closely guarded secret.
As for the spice she brings to some of her dishes, she plucks a small, rosy Scotch Bonnet pepper from her fridge and holds it reverently by the slender stem. The Scotch Bonnet, renowned for the sweet heat it brings to traditional Caribbean dishes, is much spicier than the jalapeno. Be sure to remove the seeds before cooking it if you value your tongue.
To research a possible audience for her food in the Philadelphia area, Haye began teaching Caribbean cooking courses at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree in 1991 and at Temple University the following year. Good attendance and excellent reviews from her students convinced her that there was a home for her cuisine in the neighborhood.
In the fall of 1995 Haye debuted Negril Caribbean Cuisine in the Manayunk Farmers Market with much support from her beloved mother. But personal and professional challenges loomed. Sales in Manayunk were not what she had expected, and Haye made the difficult decision to close the following year. Meanwhile, her parents returned to Jamaica when it became apparent that her mother, who has always been a pillar of love and support for Haye, was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
But despite these setbacks, Marva continued to get calls from people looking for more of her food. With the help of her sister Sandra and her brothers Landie and Fred, Negril Caribbean Cuisine was re-born as Mt. Airy’s only Caribbean catering and event service.
Now, “transforming” weddings and other special events into “island flings” is a specialty of Haye’s business, as she provides not only traditional fare but warm and wild Caribbean-flavored music, flowers and décor.
Her ample menu has grown to include many dishes whose recipes and names she’s devised herself over the years, including the Calypso Shrimp, spicy Kaya Wings, Reggae Ribs, Marley’s Rasta Pasta, and in other nods to the Jamaican legend, Stir It Up Rice and the Caribbean pumpkin-infused Simmer Down Rice.
“When I can’t sleep, I come up with these names,” Haye said. Other menu favorites include authentic oxtail and beans, grilled salmon, jerk chicken and pork, and conch fritters. She has recently begun offering homemade ready-to-heat dinners, tailored to family size, from the full range of her menu.
Haye is also dedicated to helping others through her work. “For a small business, we do a lot of community service,” she said. This includes New Year’s Eve and Easter dinners for the Ronald McDonald House each year; years of advocacy on behalf of the homeless, and providing food and event help at little or no cost for local churches’ fundraisers. Her latest is coming up on May 19 at the Church of Saint Asaph in Bala Cynwyd, where she has provided the food for their spring fundraiser for the past seven years.
While she loves the Mt. Airy community for its welcoming diversity, she travels to Jamaica six times a year to be with her parents and walk the long white sands of Negril Beach, where she sketched her logo of an orange sun settling into the deep blue sea. “I feel like I belong there,” she said of the beach, where she goes to reflect on every major decision of her life.
Her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: “Be authentic.” She has watched countless businesses come and go after founders stop focusing on authenticity and quality once they’ve built up their clientele.
“The stuff I sell is the stuff I eat,” she said. “Quality is non-negotiable.” Repeat customers have proven the allure of her cuisine: “Once people taste it, they come back for more.”
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