Queenie Mcleod, chef and owner of Queens Island Cuisine, discovered her love for cooking at an early age. Born in Jamaica and raised by her grandmother, she made her first full meal — fried chicken with rice and peas — when she was nine years old.
“My grandmother was so proud of me,” she says, seated on a crate in her food truck, where spices permeate the air. “My mom and dad were stateside, so she called them and bragged on how I made dinner for the whole family. I can remember the food being real flavorful, but my rice was a little soft.”
In 2006, Mcleod reunited with her parents in Asheville. A little over a decade later, at 21, she started cooking and selling Jamaican dishes out of her home. Soon, she was preparing around 80 orders a day while also working as a phlebotomist at Mission Hospital.
“I was juggling both at the same time,” she says. “I had to choose one, and I chose cooking.”
Mcleod debuted Queens Island Cuisine at last year’s annual Goombay Festival. “[Owning a food truck] is constant maneuvering and pivoting — and figuring out what works,” she says. “I’m still trying to find my footing.”
In this month’s “Fresh Dish” feature, we speak with Mcleod about her business, notable dishes and why it’s worth road-tripping to New York City for authentic Jamaican cuisine.
Xpress: What is a current dish on your menu that you feel is not getting the attention that it deserves?
Whole fish, such as Jamaican escovitch fish. Most people around here usually go for filleted fish. When they see red snapper on the menu, they ask if it has a lot of bone in it. I think that’s part of the reason it doesn’t get that much love.
But if you know about it, you’re probably going to order it. My seasoned and fried red snapper is paired with an escovitch sauce, which is vinegar-based with a little sugar, habaneros and carrots — you can make it as hot or mild as you like. It comes with rice, cabbage and plantain.
They love red snapper back home, and I love it, too. You learn how to eat it off the bone, and you eat everything. It can also be served steamed with callaloo, carrots and okra. That’s my favorite.
What’s a good seasonal ingredient underrepresented in home cooking?
Actually, callaloo. It’s a Jamaican green — I would compare it to American collard greens, but it doesn’t have that bitterness. It’s grown here seasonally in the late spring and during the summertime, but in Jamaica it’s year-round.
You can do so much with callaloo. In Jamaica, you can have it for breakfast with some fried dumplings. And with steamed fish, you can use it as a stuffing.
I have a gentleman that comes from Atlanta that brings it in. You can possibly find it at Tienda Hispana Dona Juanita in East Asheville. They have all the Jamaican stuff.
Outside of your own, what’s a local dish that you’ve tried in the last month that completely blew you away, and why?
This year so far, I’ve had two things that my tongue just can’t forget.
One was some pork sauce I had in Florida.
The other was local and it was at Gypsy Queen Cuisine. Owner and chef Suzy Phillips invited me to do a tasting of everything on her menu. It was fun, and the food was flavorful and delicious. I’ve never had that type of food before, but you can taste the intent in it, the passion — like grandma’s cooking, you can taste the love, just everything! The spices that she used were very unique.
My favorite, though, was the lamb kibbe wrap. The lamb was perfectly cooked, and when you bite into it … your tongue tingles, your nose gets the aromas … it touches all the senses!
What’s a favorite food destination within driving distance of Asheville that readers should add to their list?
It has to be New York. It’s a little far, but you can drive there in less than a day.
When I travel, I try to check out the local stuff. I follow a lot of foodie people online to see what they’re talking about. And I go to those places.
My favorite areas to visit are the Jamaican neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. I walk from restaurant to restaurant, just trying stuff. It makes me feel like I’m at home. You can find roasted breadfruit. You can find everything and anything Jamaican.
What cuisine would you like to see represented more in Asheville?
I’d like to be able to do more authentic Jamaican dishes. I haven’t been to a restaurant that has chicken feet, but that’s the kind of thing I would like to have on my menu. The demographic in Asheville doesn’t really allow that. But I would really love to introduce people to things like curried chicken feet or stewed kidney — the stuff that we really eat daily.
We don’t eat oxtail every day or jerk chicken. But those are the two most popular things I sell.
Who would you like to see us dish with next month?
Suzy of Gypsy Queen. When I had my grand opening, she reached out to me a week before and she helped me with everything, including getting on the truck and serving. Katie Button was my mentor and introduced me to Suzy, and we really hit it off right away. I just love her.
For more information on Queens Island Cuisine’s hours and locations, visit avl.mx/cyr.