MANHATTAN — Nestle Brunache is a teacher by trade, but a restauranteur by a blessing. And who does he thank for that? God, and the community in Prospect Heights that comes to the table at BK9 Kitchen and Bar.
Their support has allowed Brunache to serve up his Caribbean heritage, and spice up the public’s dining experience.
Sour orange marinated pork griot, cod and cassava cake with mango chow, and oxtail empanadas with beet yogurt are just a few of the savory dishes BK9 Kitchen and Bar is serving up to the community that inspired them.
Growing up in East Flatbush and Crown Heights, Brunache and his business partner Casimir Gary were inspired by the diversity of the Caribbean they felt on every sidewalk, every stoop, and every street.
And that’s a recipe that started cooking decades ago. In the 1950s and 60s, there was an influx of Caribbean immigrants into Kings County, especially into the neighborhoods of East New York, Flatbush, Crown Heights, and Park Slope.
“The neighborhood always had that West Indian vibe where you could go to Flatbush Avenue and get a beef patty or go to somewhere else and get an appetizer, or go to another restaurant and get a Haitian cuisine meal,” Brunache explained.
When residents hailing from Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, and a dozen other countries came to the U.S., they brought along nutmeg, ginger, curry powder, cinnamon, allspice, and jerk seasoning, making Brunache’s childhood all the more flavorful, and his restaurant all the more appetizing.
When they left Brooklyn for university, Bruanche and Gary — who are both of Haitian-American descent — worked at country clubs as college students. While the work gave them money, it also gave them a new realization about their relationship with food back home.
“My partner is an attorney by profession. So we’re all college-educated, and going to college made us broaden our horizon,” Brunache said. “You see how things are presented and properly in order.”
“Sometimes the people in the West Indian community, they focus on the food. They don’t really focus on the ambiance. Inside is not a place where you can wear a suit or take your wife or take your girlfriend on a date night,” he explained. “Although the food was good and tasty and spicy and it hits your palate, the ambiance wasn’t that great.”
Their solution? A restaurant where the scenery is as good as the food, showcasing the flavor of their local community and its diverse heritage.
“We saw that the service that we gave when we came home and to local restaurants, we weren’t receiving that service,” Brunache explained, “and we always said that we could probably give better service if we had our own restaurant.”
“Whether it was Jamaican or Trinidadian or Haitian, or even some Spanish cuisine from the Caribbean, we came up with the idea to open a restaurant honoring some of the food that we love,” he said.
“The flavor, the spice, the color, the texture of the meat, the hardiness of the food,” are what set Caribbean cuisine apart from anything else, he explains. Steak, chicken, beef, or ox will often be married with mango, pineapple, or coconut.
While BK9’s jerk chicken is among their best dishes, fried pork with plantain and black rice is popular, too. An unexpected favorite among their traditional Caribbean fare is “crispy snapper.”
However, if people are not in the mood for Caribbean food, Brunache points out “they can always have a decent rib eye or salmon. They can have scallops, they can have a salad” with a sauce or ingredient that’s Caribbean-inspired.
The menu and backdrop have become one of singer, rapper, and songwriter Lizzo’s favorite spots in Brooklyn, a family-friendly food stop for television personality Gail King, and actress Taraji Henson has been known to stop by for a meal.
Celebrities aside, it’s always been the long-timers, newcomers, young professionals, and faithful who come by, support the restaurant, and keep their dream alive in the days of social distancing, outdoor dining, and COVID restrictions. For Gary, a parishioner of St. Augustine’s Church in Prospect Heights, the food they serve pays homage to a meal amongst family after Christmas Eve Midnight Mass — flavorful and wholesome.
“We understand the points of view for all our heritage, and to keep the faith,” Brunache explained. That faith is what drives BK9 and pushes the momentum forward for black business owners, especially during Black History Month.
“It makes us feel proud to be black business owners and of Caribbean descent,” he said, adding that around 3 percent of businesses in New York City are black-owned.
“We’re very proud this Black History Month, to show people that, yes, a black man could get his friends to get together to open a restaurant and do it at a high, effective rate.”