Chef Scotley Innis talks food, creativity + his new Continent Restaurant and Cigar Lounge

Chef Scotley Innis at work in the kitchen (Photo by Shannon Evans)

On April 1, a fresh culinary destination — the Buford Highway-based, Afro-Caribbean and Asian-inspired Continent Restaurant and Cigar Lounge — opens for business, with famed chef/owner Scotley Innis at the helm. Back in February, however, food writer and “experience curator” Shannon Evans chatted with Innis (a former Hell’s Kitchen contestant) about the new venture for her subscription-based newsletter Holy Sip. So, to mark the Continent’s opening, Slo*Mo is presenting a snippet of that wide-ranging conversation. To read and listen to audio of the entire interview, subscribe to her dope newsletter. In the meantime, check out our exclusive excerpt below.  

Shannon Evans: What’s your first food memory?

Scotley Innis: As a child … I feel like my first food memory was going in the kitchen and smelling and watching my grandmother make breakfast in the morning with some callaloo and saltfish. You know what I mean … ? Distinctly, what got me into the whole chef business was my sister’s mother. And every Saturday … poor man’s food still but … I always loved when she made corned beef with white rice. And just seeing it simmer and bubble in the pot with some carrots, peppers, onions. And I just distinctly always remember when she starts sauteing the peppers and onions, it just gives that certain aroma and it’s just like: OK, we ‘bout to eat good. The peppers and onions and the garlic is like one of my all-time food memories that I would never forget.

What drives you to create?

My mind drives me to create (laughter). The thing that kind of drives me to create … growing up in a Jamaican household … food played such an intricate part in our lives and just bringing family together. Also, with me traveling around the world and going to some of the top restaurants in the world and seeing the creativity which other chefs bring to the table kind of motivates me to want to learn more and expand my creativity on life … not just life but different cultures because we all have a different ethnic backgrounds, but I feel like food brings everybody together.

Growing up in New York City … it’s a big melting pot. I could go down the street, and you might have a roti shop … you might have a Jamaican restaurant … you might have a Chinese restaurant all on one block … along with Italian and so on and so on. I guess another thing that helps me be creative is when I see a chef create a certain dish. It kind of drives me. It puts me in the mind state like … I need to step up my game. I want to be able to showcase my cooking skills on that level. I want to be known just like how that chef is known. It’s a lot of parts that motivate me with food, but those are some of the major parts for me.

What’s your favorite thing to cook at home?

Bully beef and rice and cabbage (laughter, more so me)! Um, curry chicken. Curry chicken is … I feel like that was the first dish that I actually kind of mastered.

How old were you when you learned how to make it?

I was home alone and sh%$, so probably like 10, 11 years old cooking curry chicken. Also because that’s my oldest son’s favorite dish. Perfect example … I cooked it yesterday. So … curry chicken is like my go-to dish. I just love curries. If it’s green, red, yellow, but you know, I’m a bigger fan with the traditional yellow Jamaican curry. It has some of their fenugreek in there, which kind of pulls away from, say, a Trinidadian curry. So curry chicken.

What’s it like opening a restaurant during the pandemic?

Opening up a restaurant during a pandemic is kind of a … how can I say it? It’s a risk. It’s a big risk. But my motto when it came to cooking, whether I was on Hell’s Kitchen or whether I was just in any restaurant I was working at … my motto was go hard or go home. So if I can’t showcase myself in the most strenuous position, then I don’t need to be doing it at all.

It wasn’t my overall vision opening up a restaurant during a pandemic, but the pandemic taught me a lot, that I couldn’t just have all of my marbles in one jar. So knowing that restaurants’ failure rate is more on the positive side of failing than actually succeeding … it kind of scared me in a way, but I didn’t feel like it deterred me away from my whole dream of opening and owning my own restaurant.

On the positive note … where everybody was kind of stuck and locked in their house, quarantine-style, it kind of made people appreciate restaurants even more. So once we figure out how to get past this pandemic, I feel like the restaurant scene is going to blow up even more than what it really is now. People didn’t appreciate before the pandemic how much restaurants played (a part) in people’s daily lives as far as just meeting up with loved ones, celebrating anniversaries, dinners. … Food just brings people together. And it speaks a certain language that everybody is accustomed to. It speaks a worldwide language. 

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