A Caribbean Kitchen in Dublin Inspired by His Nan’s Cooking

Lil Portie began life in a way that lots of great ideas do these days. Having returned to Ireland after a long period abroad, Nick Reynold’s pop-up was a means to test the waters with a new venture. Having briefly tried-out out a city-centre location, its since found a permanent home in Rathmines, a neighborhood that suits its relaxed and homely vibe. Lil Portie has been praised for its inventive spin on traditional Caribbean fare, but there’s also something very down to earth and sincere about it. This is food that the personality and experiences of its creator have clearly found their way into.

Nick has dubbed Lil Portie a ‘Caribbean Kitchen’ because the influences in his cooking and ingredients are wide and varied, reflecting both his Jamaican roots and years of travelling.

Roots

Recipes and styles of cooking are often passed down through the generations. Nick says he automatically took to the mindful nature of cooking as a kid – that ability to switch off and be completely present and focused on what you’re doing, but he credits his introduction to authentic Jamaican cooking to his Nan, who now lives in Leytonstone, East London;

‘The name Lil Portie came from my Nan. She’s from Port Antonio in Jamaica. A ‘Portie’ is kinda like what being a ‘Dub’ is to someone from Dublin – it’s what people from that part are called. The mother sauce that I use in my cooking is an echo of my Nan’s sauce. Her recipes came back to Ireland from London with me over the years. I’d arrive back from England with a bag full of hot sauce, so I started mixing it into my own recipes’

‘One time she cooked us some Jamaican crayfish that she brought back to London in her suitcase somehow. I didn’t ask too many questions about how they got onto my plate! She used to make the most incredible pumpkin & leek soup too, and I’ve never tasted better rice and peas. I’ve tested out my cooking on my cousins in England, and they say it’s really good but it’ll never be quite as good as hers. I think I’m getting close though! The key is to get those subtleties just right, like not breaking up the Scotch Bonnet pepper – that was one of her rules. It makes the sauce too spicy.’

 

Argentina

Although it’s fairly new in restaurant years to the Dublin food scene, Lil Portie has actually been a long time in the making. Another culinary influence woven into the menu comes from Nick’s time in Argentina, where he moved in 2011;

I was at that disillusioned age when I was finding it hard to envision my future. I really wanted to live somewhere else for a while but Australia wasn’t for me because of the time limit of it, so I decided to go to Argentina for 2 months. Within the first 48 hours I decided it was where I wanted to live. It’s just an incredible place. Buenos Aires almost feels like it was built on nostalgia. It’s like a lost European city in the middle of South America. It’s got this energy to it that’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been. When I came back to Ireland I worked 12 hour shifts in bars or wherever I could for about 4 months, just so I could go back. I didn’t have any Spanish and didn’t really know anybody there when I left but I ended up staying for 6 years.’

The First Beginning

Nick was 26 when his cooking career began to take shape in his new home, and the opportunity which paved the way for Lil Portie came along;

‘When you ask how Lil Portie really began, this is a very important part of the story. It was one of the biggest sagas of my life. I did a whole host of jobs when I first arrived because I didn’t have much Spanish – English Teacher, Barman, Tour Guide, Personal Trainer. Then I met an English guy at a party. We became friends and started living together. We set-up an event production company. It took a while to get it off the ground because you have to gain lot of trust first, especially in that part of that world. We started doing events. We’d rent a mansion and put on Murder Mystery nights set around a banquet table. We started a Sunday event called Sunday Reception with classical music, and we did an event called A Quiet Night Out where all the food and entertainment was inspired by Irish mythology. It was around then that I started cooking for large groups of people.’

‘After 3 years of events, we started to work out of a beautiful 120-year-old mansion and got to know the manager there, an English guy about the same age as us. We made it into a members club because Argentina didn’t have one at the time. We started with a night of disco and soul – again there wasn’t really anything like that going on over there at the time. The first 5 months were crazy. It was one of those ‘be careful what you wish for’ moments, but I was prepared to throw everything I had into it. I used to get in there at 7am on Tuesday and wouldn’t sleep until Thursday. I might get 6 hours sleep and then get up and do it all over again.’

 

Back to Ireland

In 2016 Nico and his small team were managing and catering for a thriving members bar, but the pressure had started to mount. It was around this time that he decided to return home;

 ‘I’d been involved in the member’s club for 18 months at that stage but I hadn’t been home 3 years. I went back to Ireland for the summer and started doing some consultancy and events for different places. I was building up to go back to Argentina, because I had built a life and had friends over there, but after a while I realised that it had been the right time to leave. I came out of that mansion a different person. I’d lost weight. I was constantly irritable. I was unrecognisable to my friends personality-wise, but it was valuable experience. It takes those moments to realise you’re not made of glass. You can get through to the other side.’

Lil Portie 

Back on home soil Nick wasted no time getting his next idea up and running. In Argentina he had taken an interest in their cooking techniques, and was introduced to different types of South American food by the Colombians and Venezuelans around him. He saw similarities between Caribbean and South American cooking and starting experimenting with recipes that merged the two;

 ‘I started Lil Portie two weeks after I got back. I thought ‘What can I do right now that I know how to do and that I like doing?’ I had all the experience from the events company set-up which had been done on very little money. I had the Argentinian grilling experience, and had learnt to smoke meats over charcoal. I had developed my Jamaican mother sauce and my own recipes. So I decided to try out a pop-up – because I wanted to be thoughtful about things and bide my time. I didn’t want to overextend myself and get into a position where I couldn’t manage. I considered my space and resources carefully, and tailored the menu to suit them.’

Nick takes great care in sourcing authentic ingredients for the menu. He spends a lot of time with the African community on Moore Street, ‘that’s why I have this hair as well, because there’s only so many times I can walk around over there and turn down their offers to do my hair!’

‘Jamaican food is so interesting because it has so many influences. The influences are mostly African, mainly from Ghana and Nigeria, but there’s European and even some Chinese elements too. I did one of those ancestry tests recently and I have all of that blood in me, so the recipes are an echo of my West African roots, but there’s Spanish, Kenyan and Italian in there too.’

 ‘I love to cook plantain because there’s so much you can do with it. I actually have a plantain dessert on the menu at the moment. I’m also a big fan of jack fruit too. It’s a great meat substitute, but it’s hard to find it here. I tried to buy some off an Indian guy on Moore Street recently and he was trying to send me to Centra for it, which was confusing. It turns out he thought I was looking for Grapefruit! The Indians eat jack fruit sweet and raw but I prefer to serve it salty. It takes about 3 weeks to mature and get to that point, so I have to find them when they’re at that exact stage!’

 

Embracing the Mistakes

It’s been an eventful journey to get to this point, but Nick seems not to have let the challenging times, or indeed the sudden success of Lil Portie phase him;

‘I’ve enjoyed the process building up to this but it has not been easy. There have been sleepless nights, because sometimes you only have one shot to make an impression in this business.’

That impression has definitely been made, from the personalised responses to reservation requests on Facebook, to Nick’s enthusiasm for being out and about amongst his customers, sharing in their experience, Lil Portie feels like the sort of welcoming place his Nan would surely approve of;

‘You get there eventually by making mistakes and I value those mistakes because it’s helped me improve. Making mistakes is also a great way to learn how to cook! Sometimes we start out with a goal in our heads that feels so unattainable that we don’t know where to start. We lie to ourselves all the time about stuff we think we can’t do. My attitude is just to give things a shot, because how far can you fall really?’

Photos: CJ Nash Photography

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Visit the Lil Portie website and view the menu here

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