“Cooking done with care is an act of love,” writes author and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne. On the corner of Emma and Petronia streets in Key West, Amy and Shane La Beet are selling and serving love by the plateful.
The husband-and-wife team quietly opened the Pepper Pot Island Café in December after months of planning and a lifetime of cooking. Both were nourished and educated in the kitchens of their Trinidadian mothers and grandmothers, an inheritance they have passed on to their own children, Nalani and Raini. “They’ve learned the flavors and the very in-depth food history we have in the Caribbean. From different islands and different cultures, it all kind of meshes into what we call Trinidadian cuisine. There’s lots of different things we do that other people don’t,” said Shane.
Evidence of that history and singularity is found in the Pepper Pot’s menu and daily specials, with offerings like handmade roti, salt fish fritters, black cakes, curried goat, tamarind BBQ and Geera spiced pork. Of the latter, Shane explains, “It’s traditionally served in rum shops as what we call cutters, a snack you eat while you’re drinking. A rum shop is essentially a bar where you buy a bottle, and at some point you get hungry — hungry and drunk. We’ve turned the pork Geera into a sandwich as a twist on tradition.”
Borrowing from tradition and maintaining authenticity is of hallowed importance to the couple. “All of the spices that we use are exactly what we would use back home,” said Amy. The scent of those spices, and the curried goat in particular, have seduced many a passerby. “We’ve had people follow the smell down the street and straight in here.”
“Everything really started for us right here eight years ago when we did the Goombay festival, selling roti and curry outside of Blue Heaven. We came late and completely sold out,” said Amy. Bolstered by that success, the pair began bottling and selling their own line of hot sauces. Available for purchase online and in the restaurant, Pepper Pot Hot Sauce flavors include scotch bonnet, Key Lime habanero and tamarind.
Collaboration is natural for the La Beets, who have been together nearly two decades and whose braided story goes back even further. “His mom and my mom were best friends growing up in Trinidad before they went their separate ways.” The couple was first introduced years later by extended family members. “My joke is, it was an arranged marriage,” said Shane. Preordained or predestined, the arrangement works. “We love being in the kitchen together. He says ‘yes, chef’ when I tell him something,” laughed Amy.
The couple’s two children were a motivating force in bringing the Pepper Pot to life. “We put every single thing that we have, plus some, into this. I wanted something not just for me, but for them, to show them what you can accomplish by working hard and chasing your dreams,” said Amy. The La Beet kids are helping to build that dream, sharing the all-for-one, one-for-all approach to family business. “Nalani the 10-year-old is the general manager. She was doing homeschool when we first opened. She did her work in the corner and then after school she would go straight to the register and handle everything for me. Raini comes in when he’s able and helps me cook. It really is a family affair.”
That family feeling extends to the community they cherish and appreciate. “We live around the corner. I feel like a lot of the neighborhood people are happy to see us and to have something like this in this community. We feel safe here, like we are part of something,” said Amy.
“It’s the only place in the world that you can find such a mix of people; different cultures, different backgrounds, different sexual orientations and everyone’s part of the same community. That makes Key West really special and one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen. When all these weird people accept you, you gotta stay,” Shane added.
Locals not only accept, but celebrate the Pepper Pot. On the day of our interview, devotee and longtime Key Wester Rick Dery was enjoying a dhal bowl at the restaurant’s lunch counter. “We came here the day after they opened. I remember 30 years ago, when little restaurants like this were all over Bahama Village. It was a cool vibe then and it’s the same feeling in here now. These people are lovely and the food is spectacular.”
Those lovely people and their spectacular food can be found from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 730 Emma St.