Tall and willowy, with fair skin and long copper-coloured hair, Fallon Seymour looks like a dead-ringer for 1990s Nicole Kidman. It’s no surprise, then, that the San Fernando native first arrived in New York City over 15 years ago as a model.
What might seem hard to believe she’s the owner and menu architect of popular Williamsburg, Brooklyn eatery Pearl’s. But make no mistake, she is 100 per cent Trini. Her accent is distinct, despite her years in the US, and like any good south girl, she understands the importance of chandon beni as a most important seasoning for flavourful food.
Even her outfit last Wednesday when she met with WMN reflected her roots – a red sweater, black belt, and red, white and black plaid trousers.
“I’m very proud of my country and I always want to represent that,” Seymour, 36, says. By happy coincidence, her mother, Anna Cabral, is also at the restaurant that day and is her number one cheerleader. “She’s always loved to cook. From a young age she was a foodie,” she laughs.
Pearl’s is a Caribbean-style restaurant, specialising in fried bake, jerk and roti. But that’s not all.
On the menu are plenty recognisable favourites: bake and shark, bake and shrimp, geera pork, jerk chicken, stewed fish, braised oxtail, curried goat, crab backs and pumpkin corn soup. Soon she’ll add flying fish, having just found a distributor. There’s Caribbean rum punch, made with Angostura rum, and Carib, Mackeson and Red Stripe available year-round.
“Down to the sauces – Seymour spent a long time in the kitchen perfecting these recipes to make sure they’d come out right from the squeeze bottles,” Cabral tells WMN of the signature tamarind, pepper, garlic and chandon beni sauces available as accoutrements to every meal.
The restaurant is the namesake of Seymour’s late grandmother – and Cabral’s mother – from whom she learnt to make her now-famous fried bake. “It’s the first thing I remember learning to cook from my grandmother from when I was three years old,” she says.
Seymour’s dream was always to open a Caribbean-style restaurant. She chose Williamsburg because it’s not the typical Caribbean neighbourhood and Pearl’s isn’t a typical Caribbean restaurant.
“There are so many (Trini restaurants) in Queens and Brooklyn. I just wanted to do something different, for example, the specialisation in bakes. But we’re not just Trini food. I don’t want to put us in a box, I want to offer oxtail and jerk, for example, but definitely Trini and I feel nowhere does bakes like how we do it.”
The recipe for her now-famous bakes is the same she learned on the countertop with Pearl over 30 years ago. And while she did work with a chef to fine-tune the menu, one thing she insisted on was that if it was Trini food it had to be cooked in the Trini style.
Seymour worked hard to create a “vibesy” atmosphere. The bar décor was specifically curated to resemble a jaunty beach bar. On the rainy fall day that this interview was scheduled, the restaurant stood out among its neighbours, painted a bright Caribbean blue with pink and green highlights, and signs advertising “curry crab, vibes and rum punch.”
Inside, overlooking the action, is a framed photograph of Pearl. The space is cosy but there’s a definite energy, partly from the soca music blasting from the speakers and zing from the bright neon sign proclaiming the restaurant’s name – and being totally Instagram-worthy in the process.
There are old-school radios – the kind you see old men in the park playing dominoes listening to cricket on – mounted on one wall, and on another, there’s a tenor pan (with sticks) that was part of the Invaders’ Panorama-winning ensemble a few years ago.
The real treat though is the backyard, the perfect place for an endless summer, with brightly coloured benches under giant beach umbrellas emblazoned with the region’s favourite beers. Hanging along the fence are the national flags of the Caribbean.
Adjoining Pearl’s is Clyde’s, hailed as New York’s first Trinidadian bar. Opened last year, it’s co-owned by Seymour and TT-born DJ and music producer Christopher Leacock, better known as Jillionaire, part of the group Major Lazer. Keeping on theme, Clyde’s is named after Leacock’s grandfather.
Pearl’s has only been opened for four years, but since then, it’s gained a reputation for Caribbean goodness. And it has the superstar clientele to back it up.
Kees Dieffenthaller, a south boy, is a long-time friend of Seymour’s, both having grown up in Palmiste. So, for the first anniversary, when she asked him to perform for a summer backyard party, he readily agreed. Another night, while Jillionaire performed a set at Clyde’s he handed the mic over to reggae superstar Sean Paul, who gave an impromptu concert. Bunji Garlin and Faye-Ann Lyons are regulars, and Tony-award winning actress Heather Headley chose Pearl’s as her preferred caterer for a dinner she hosted for her castmates during her stint performing on Broadway’s The Colour Purple. Pearl’s is also one of the first stops for rapper NAS – an investor in Sweet Chick, a restaurant chain owned and managed by Seymour’s husband, John – whenever he’s in New York.
Still, Seymour has had to contend with scepticism that she’s just the face of the place and not the driving force. “I think I get a lot of mixed reactions looking the way I look and with (my) skin colour as well.” She’s been accused of faking her accent, while others doubt her credibility as a Caribbean person to claim these kinds of recipes. “I never claimed to invent them but this is how I learnt from my gran.”
The naysayers are in the minority, though, and the restaurant continues to dazzle. And Seymour is proud of her heritage. One thing she wants Pearl’s to do is to highlight the diversity and deliciousness of Caribbean cuisine. Luckily, being in New York means it’s easy to find basic ingredients, although Anna still makes sure to bring up geera and amchar masala every time she visits.
Seymour also wants to ensure that her three daughters, nine-year-old twins and another just about to turn seven, have a healthy respect and understanding of their heritage as Americans with Trinidadian and Irish roots (her husband is Irish-American). The family visits TT annually, but more than that, she’s already begun to inculcate a love of food in her girls.
“The twins’ favourite food is crab and dumpling and the other one loves roti,” she laughs. They’ve even started helping out in the kitchen at home.
And what would Pearl think?
“My mother would have loved this,” says Cabral. “She would have been so proud of Seymour. We all are.”
Seymour has big hopes for Pearl’s but right now she’s taking it slowly, making sure to iron out any kinks and perfect the system so it can be replicated for consistency and standard, whether it’s for the food or the service. The restaurant business is hard, she readily admits, but so far, it’s been worth it.
“When people come to Pearl’s I want them to just feel like they in the Caribbean, on a beach, maybe eating a bake and shark and having a rum punch. I want everyone to have a good, homey Caribbean vibe and to know a lot of love went into making this happen.”