With its network of warm brownstone canyons filled with verdant trees hugging the shores of asphalt streams, its fertile soil that seems to force creativity to thrive, its good food, good music, and cathedrals of bridges, to many, Brooklyn is paradise. Just ask Marty Markowitz, Walt Whitman, or Jay Z.
It is good, but it’s not really paradise. No place so shaped by human hands, sculpted with tools in miles and miles of brick, steel and concrete, and populated as densely as a hive can really soothe the soul in the way that we mean when we talk about paradise, can it? For a few, perhaps. For most, it’s something very close, but not quite.
This is the story of a few Brooklynites who forged friendships over flames while cooking together in restaurants, and plotted an escape from an almost-paradise to a real one. It’s the story of Pascale Boucicaut and Lamar Karamañites, two friends with Caribbean roots who, on a vacation seeking refuge from the Brooklyn winter, found themselves on a tropical beach, bathed in moonlight, hatching a dream to find their real home, and of Michael Roach and Leo Duncan, who recognized their own dreams in Pascale and Lamar’s, and signed on for the ride.
In just a few weeks, after two years of preparation, the four will leave Brooklyn, for the remote Caribbean island of Caraneros in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, where they’ll be opening Yemanja Caribe – their very own restaurant and hostel in the sand. We sat down with Pascale to revel, with perhaps a tiny, tiny twinge of envy, in her tale.
So Pascale, a lot of people fantasize about this sort of thing, but not many actually do it. How did it all happen?
A few years ago, I was cooking at a place called Smooch Café in Fort Greene, and that’s where I met Lamar. We became very good friends. She’s like my sister. Lamar is from Panama. She’s been living in Brooklyn for ten years, running her family business – they have a shipping company that moves freight between Panama and New York. She loves Panama and the Caribbean. I grew up in Jamaica, so I have a true love for that part of the world too. Finding ways to connect with and return to our roots was something that was really important to both of us, and it gave us a lot to talk about. [laughter.]
About two years ago, we took a trip to the Caribbean together. A vacation. Just for fun. We were in a beautiful spot on the east coast of Mexico. One night we were sitting with our feet in the sand, at the edge of the water, having a conversation about life – what we care about, what we wanted to do with our lives. I said, “I’ve always wanted to have my own restaurant.” Lamar said, “I’ve always wanted to open a hotel.”
And then there was this moonlight moment where we looked at each other and said, “Let’s just be crazy and do it. And let’s do it right here, in the Caribbean – the place that we love.”
And we were serious. From that moment on, we never really hesitated or looked back. When we got back to Brooklyn, we started working on a plan to make it happen right away. We began doing weekly events at Smooch, where we’d pick a different place in the Caribbean, and I’d cook food from that place. Lamar would make cocktails, we’d have music, and people would come and have fun. It was great! We saved the money we made from those events to put towards the project.
A few months later, we used the money we’d raised to make another trip – a big one – to find the perfect place to open our restaurant and hotel. We obviously didn’t have enough funds to travel everywhere in the Caribbean, so we decided to explore the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Panama.
Why Colombia and Panama?
We both wanted to be in a Spanish-speaking place in Latin America. We both love that culture. I’d experienced it while traveling, and I loved the idea of really living it. I developed my love of Spanish culture when a friend of mine and I ran away to Spain after we’d finished college. We wanted to learn how to cook, and how to eat. How to live, you know? We did that for a few months and had a whole lifetime’s worth of crazy food adventures.
We were based in Barcelona, and I decided that’s where I wanted to stay. I wanted to work in a restaurant, to spend as much time cooking as I could. Eventually I met a woman who was opening a kind of Mediterranean-Caribbean fusion restaurant in a neighborhood called El Raval. I loved the neighborhood. It was full of immigrants from Central America and many other places, and you could just feel the vitality in the streets that you get in neighborhoods like that in any city.
So I made this woman a menu. I cooked a lot of dishes for her, and she agreed to hire me to come cook for her when her restaurant opened. I was thrilled. I came back to the States to get a visa and prepare for the move, and while I was here doing that, the economy collapsed, and the plan to open the restaurant in Barcelona fell through.
I was so close to this dream. I was learning the language of food in Spain. I had learned to cook all day and to sit and eat with friends and family for hours and hours, and I thought, “This is it. This is the life I want to live.” And it was all actually happening, and then…it was just gone. That’s how I ended up in Brooklyn, actually. It was an accident but it turned out to be a happy one. [laughter.]
That whole experience really whet my appetite for Spanish culture. That love of Spanish cuisine and culture, combined with my own roots in Jamaica, made the Caribbean coast of Latin America seem like the perfect place to go. Where else could you find all of those things together? It all seemed to fit together in a strangely perfect way.
There was a practical aspect to it too – there are a lot of people who do these long backpacking trips, spending a year or so traveling up or down the Latin American coast from Mexico to Argentina or Peru. We wanted to build something in a place that would appeal to those types of travelers as well as our friends from Brooklyn. [laughter.]
We spent a little over a month exploring the area. We made our base with Lamar’s family in Panama City, and made lots of excursions from there. Early in the trip, we took an overnight bus ride from Panama City to an area on the Caribbean coast called Bocas del Toro. It’s a collection of islands not far from the coast, and it’s one of the major travel destinations in Panama. Surfers and adventurers have been going to Bocas for a long time. It’s become known as a birder’s paradise, because there are huge areas of park reserves there. It’s become a little more ‘discovered’ in recent years, but nowhere remotely near to the extent to which a lot of places in the Carribean have been developed.
It’s still very remote. You can get there by taking a bus for eight hours from Panama City, or you can take a small plane from Costa Rica or Panama City. When you arrive at the coast, you take a little taxi boat out to the islands. The main island, with the biggest town in the region is called Isla Colon. The town itself is called Bocas. It’s about a thirty minute boat ride from the coast.
The boat ride to Isla Colon is amazing. You’re in this gorgeous, clear turquoise water, weaving your way through what seems like hundreds of perfect little uninhabited, wild, mountainous tropical islands covered with palm trees and ringed with spectacular deserted beaches. You just want to jump off and explore every one of them. Get lost in them. As we were on that boat, passing through those islands, I think we both thought right then, “This is the place.”
Eventually you arrive at Isla Colon, and Bocas town. Isla Colon is the only island in the region with roads. Bocas is the biggest town, but it’s not that big. It’s probably as big as the stretch of Fort Greene from the park to Washington Avenue. It’s the main tourist hub. There are a bunch of hostels and bed and breakfasts and bars. You can find traditional local food, but you can find pizza and falafel too. A lot of people who visit the area just stay there, and if you just stayed there, you might be a little disappointed. It’s not a bad place, it’s just a little touristy – not the kind of paradise you’re probably searching for if you’ve traveled all that way.
There are some really beautiful beaches on Isla Colon, but if you travel the length of the island, it’s pretty residential. It doesn’t feel wild. We knew that if we were going to do something on Isla Colon, we’d want it to be away from the main drag of town. But we wanted to explore the other islands too.
So we did. Another one of the main islands in Bocas is called Bastimentos. It’s about a ten minute boat ride from Isla Colon. It’s incredibly beautiful. No roads. It’s mountainous. The tallest point in all of Bocas is on Bastimentos. The local folklore says that when the world ends, all of the Caribbean will be underwater and everyone will go to the top of Bastimentos. The island is covered in jungle – rain forest. Most of the island is a national park. There are all kinds of hikes you can do through the jungle to waterfalls and lakes and that sort of thing. The far side of the island is dotted with the kinds of untouched tropical beaches that people dream about. There are indigenous communities that live in towns of shacks built on stilts out over the water. It is an amazing place to explore.
And it’s not just beautiful – it’s interesting. It’s populated primarily by black Panamanians that came from Jamaica to Panama many years ago to work for Chiquita Bananas, and even further back, to build the railroads. Being on Bastimentos brought back this flood of memories of being a kid in Jamaica – women in shacks in the woods with ovens, baking the most rustic, basic things like bulla bread and johnny cakes and all these things that I loved when I was little. They speak Spanish, but they also speak something called Guari Guari, which at its root is Jamaican Patois that has evolved in the years the community has been in Panama.
The cultural mix in the Bocas region in general is another reason it’s such an amazing place. There’s the Latino population, the indigenous community, the Jamaicans. There are Asians – a ton of people came from China and Korea to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A lot of them stayed. One of the oldest Chinatowns in North America is in Panama City. Even on a remote island with no roads like Bastimentos, there’s a little grocery store that’s run by a Chinese family. It seems crazy right? [laughter.] It’s so diverse, and that’s not something a lot of people expect when they think of Central America.
And that’s all connected to my love of food. Food is history. It opens up all those human connections and influences that reach far back in time and across the planet. You see it in music too. To experience all that in a place like Bocas is…incredible. Everything about it was just screaming to us, “This is the place.” We knew it right away.
The third major island in Bocas is called Caraneros, and that’s where we ended up finally finding the property that will become our restaurant and hotel, on a subsequent trip about a year ago. We’re finishing building it out now. Caraneros is about a two minute water taxi ride from Bocas town on Isla Colon. It’s about five minutes by boat from Bastimentos. Even though the islands are so close to each other, they’re all different. Each has its own character.
Caraneros is the smallest of the main islands. It’s quiet and peaceful. Tranquil. It’s between the action and adventure of Bastimentos and the tourist scene and bars of Bocas town. It’s not an island that many people visit because there aren’t any ‘attractions.’ It’s a place to live, or to stay. It’s just a short boat ride from the other islands, but it’s quiet. It’s peaceful. There are no roads or cars. Not really even many paths. If you want to go somewhere you just walk across the sand until you get there.
There’s a small town on the island that’s mostly inhabited by an indigenous people called the Guaymi. Guyami is actually just the name of the language they speak. They refer to themselves as the Ngöbe–Buglé, but everyone else calls them the Guaymi. On Caraneros their village is a collection of little houses built on stilts out over the water, like the villages on Bastimentos. On another part of the island there’s a small strip of houses that supposedly belong to Americans. For some reason, I’ve never seen anyone in any of them. I’m not sure what the story is there. Further up on the other side of the island there are a few private homes, some bungalows you can rent. There’s a soccer field. Not much else.
The property we ended up finding on Caraneros felt perfect. It used to be a hostel, so it already had a structure we could use to begin the hotel, but it hadn’t been run as a business in years. It’s visible from the hustle and bustle of the main town across the water. If you’re sitting at any of the crowded restaurants or bars on the waterfront in Bocas town, you’ll look out and see our place nestled peacefully in the palm trees across the water.
When we were looking at it with the landlord, we said, “It’s perfect, we could turn this into something really nice. The only problem is that a restaurant and bar is a key part of our plan. What can we do?”
He pointed across a little sandy lot and said, “Look over there. See that building under construction, on stilts, over the water? It’s going to be a restaurant. I’m building it. You can rent it from me.” [laughter.]
It was perfect. And now today, a year after we found it, we’re putting the finishing touches on the place and are about to actually move there and do this. I still find it all kind of amazing.
What was going on during that time, between your first trip to Bocas when you realized that was the place, and now, when you’re finishing raising money and getting ready to move down? And who all is involved in the project at this point? Who’s going?
A lot was going on. [laughter.] After that first trip to scout locations, we were excited. We had fallen in love with Bocas, and we knew that’s where we wanted to do this. When we came back to Brooklyn, we got to work. We knew we needed a plan, and that we would need investors.
Right after that trip I started working as the pastry chef at Saraghina in Bed-Stuy. I became good friends with the owner and his family. I told them about our plan to open a restaurant and hotel in Bocas. They were like, “Oh, Bocas! We love Bocas!” I said, “You mean, you actually know the place?”
It turned out that the owner’s wife is a set designer. Before they moved to Brooklyn from Italy, she worked on the Italian version of ‘Survivor.’ Ten years ago, they did a season of the show in Bocas, and they lived there during that time. [laughter.] It was just another signal that, “Yes. You are on the right path. Stay on it!”
They wanted to help, so they put us in touch with a friend who helped us put together a formal business plan. That was a huge step forward. We started spreading the word, looking for investors. And that was really both the most exciting and the most frustrating time. We knew we had to raise money for this to become real. Everyone we spoke with was like, “This is fantastic! I love it! Great plan!” But then they’d say, “Unfortunately the economy is a mess and my business isn’t doing very well right now. Come back and talk to me again in the spring.”
That’s just how it goes. We realized we were going to have to be creative. We held some big fundraising parties. Hosted dinners. And in doing these events, we met Leo – Leo Duncan – about a year ago. He was really interested in the project. He said he had always dreamed of doing something like this, and that he had saved some money and was interested in investing. But he didn’t just want to be an investor. “I want to go with you,” he said. “I might not stay forever, but I want to go with you. I want to live in this place, and help build this restaurant and hostel, and help to run it.”
We liked Leo. We spent time with him. We could see him becoming a part of the team. He’s a great guy. He understood and respected what we wanted to do. And he had the perfect kind of experience to bring to the table. He had experience working as a host and a bartender – working the front of the house in fine dining restaurants in Manhattan. Lamar runs her family business – she’s great at planning and managing the business side of things. I’m all about the food. It made sense to bring in someone with his skills and experience, and it really gave us a big push forward. Shortly after Leo came onboard, we made another trip back to Bocas and that’s when we found the property.
The last member of the team is Mike, and that’s where the Kaz An Nou connection comes in. My first actual job cooking was at Kif, a Moroccan restaurant in Fort Greene. A guy named Sebastien Aubert was managing the restaurant then, and he was good to me. He showed me a lot of tricks – what to pay attention to, how it all works. He eventually left to open his own place, Kaz An Nou. It’s a French-Caribbean restaurant in Prospect Heights. As soon as he told us about his plan, I knew I’d like to work with him.
When he was working on opening the place, a guy named Michael Roach contacted him. Mike had worked as a producer in the music industry, and he wanted to start over. He wanted to work in a restaurant. They met. Sebastien said, “Well you have no experience, but I can use you for a month or two, to help finish the work we need to do to open.” Mike has been there ever since. [laughter.] Mike is always there, and he does everything. He cooks. He manages. If Sebastien isn’t there, Mike is in charge.
After Lamar and I returned from our first trip to the Caribbean, two years ago, when we had finished the first draft of our business plan, I told Lamar, “We have to take this to Sebastien. His restaurant is the restaurant that inspires me. We need to get his advice.” So we went to dinner. Sebastien sat down with us. We showed him our plan and talked and talked for what seemed like forever.
Mike was working. I didn’t know him very well then. He later told us he was listening intently to the whole conversation. He said he was thinking, “This is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.” Soon enough I started cooking at Kaz An Nou, and that’s where I’ve been cooking ever since. One night we were cooking together and everyone was talking about the Bocas project. Someone jokingly said, “Mike, you should go with these guys.” He said, “I would love to do that.” I said, “You should come with us,” thinking there was no way on Earth he would do it, because he’s got two little kids. He said, “OK. I will.” I said, “You know I’m not kidding.” He was like, “Neither am I.”
Still to this day, I can’t believe he and his family are actually coming. His partner Reaghan, and their two kids Liam and Sofia are moving down in a few weeks with the rest of us. It’s unbelievably great, because I love working with someone in the kitchen. Mike and I know each other. We know we can work together. Learning about food and cooking is something that never ends. There’s a lot I do know, but much, much more that I don’t. Having somebody like Mike, who I trust, who I have spent many nights cooking with, working and learning and exploring in the kitchen with me in Bocas will be perfect. It’s like an unexpected gift.
So what’s the current status of things?
We signed the lease. It starts this month. The exterior of the restaurant is all built. It’s 750 square feet, and built on stilts out over the water. So when it’s done you’ll be sitting there looking at the fish swim by. [laughter.]
We are raising money now to finish construction of the restaurant – to reconfigure it so it’s all open-air, to do the plumbing and electricity. Since we want to customize the building, and do everything exactly the way we want it done, we’re going to be paying for all the work as it happens, and the landlord will reimburse us for all those costs in the form of rent reductions each month once we open. Be we need to raise about ten thousand dollars to get the work done. We will.
The hostel is already there. It sleeps a total of eighteen – twelve in a few rooms in the main structure and six more in bungalows on the property. Lamar is going down soon to get that part of it ready to go. It doesn’t need construction work right now – it just needs to be cleaned and painted and furnished. The plan is for her to get the hostel open as soon as she can to start bringing in some money to pay the lease.
We don’t have to pay rent on the restaurant part of it until it’s ready to open, so Leo, Mike and I will be here for a few more weeks, to finish the fund raising and get everything organized for the big move.
What’s your dream for the finished restaurant and accommodations? How do you see it all coming together?
The restaurant will be open on all sides, and will have a big open kitchen. Anywhere you sit you’ll be looking out at that beautiful water and stunning views across to the other islands. The food is going to be pan-Caribbean. The whole inspiration for doing this was this sense of the Caribbean as a whole, as a place to celebrate, a place Lamar and I loved. The food will be influenced by the food of the islands and of the Central and South American coasts. There will be lots of fresh fish, because the locals catch fish all day. We’ll have rum and beer. No wine. Wine is not a Caribbean thing. We’ll have lots of live music. We want to create a really easy, comfortable place with great food, music and drinks, that people can use as a base to explore the area, or where they can just hang out.
The property is pretty big. We’ll hang hammocks. We have a friend who’s a farmer. She’s going to come down and help us start a large garden to supply the restaurant. We’ll grow tomatoes, herbs, vegetables. We’ll plant yucca, papaya.
We’re fortunate because we have a lot of friends here who want to come down, hang out, and help us get everything built in exchange for rice, beans, beer and a hammock to sleep in. [laughter.]
Do you have a name picked out?
Oh yes. It’s called Yemanja. Yemanja is a sort of folk symbol of the Caribbean. She’s a goddess that’s worshiped all over the Caribbean and Brazil, who has been rendered for a long time as a mermaid. She comes from the Yoruba religion in West Africa, brought across the ocean by African slaves. She represents motherhood, and the sea, and to many who live there, she’s come to represent the spirit of the Caribbean. For us, it was the perfect name.
Yemanja Caribe is opening shortly on the island of Caraneros, in Bocas del Toro, Panama. They’re running a Kickstarter campaign until September 21st. Donations get equal or greater value in dinner, drinks, and accomodations at Yemanja.
All photos from Bocas are from Pascale and Lamar’s trips to the islands.