The long lines that lasted for hours signaled a new restaurant in Washington, D.C. was getting notice. Cane on H Street captured the hearts of diners and food critics when it opened in April of 2019. Last September, Peter and Jeanine Prime nabbed Best New Restaurant of the Year at the annual RAMMY Awards ceremony.
“The response that we have been getting for Cane has truly been humbling. It’s just recognition of our concept,” says Peter, chef and co-owner. His sister Jeanine’s 11-year-old son Evan Prescod delivered the acceptance speech at the mostly virtual Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s gala held at the city’s convention center with masks and social-distancing.
Chef Prime appreciates the significance of food writers and industry professionals choosing Cane over four other critically-acclaimed restaurants, including Anju and Rooster & Owl. “From the time I became a chef and started to think about my own restaurant, I always thought we have amazing food. If we could put it together with a taste of our Trinidadian liming culture, I just felt like it would be a great experience.”
Tiny Place, Big Heart
The tiny, 33-seat Cane delivers one of the most treasured experiences shared by the people of Trinidad and Tobago. The Primes grew up on Trinidad, the larger of the two islands. They wanted diners in the D.C. area to enjoy the tradition of liming. That is, hanging out with family or friends for the sole purpose of relaxing and having fun together, especially with the addition of food and drinks. “That’s how I like to eat. That’s how I like to hang out. I thought it would be great to have friends who would come by, and we eat the food we love regularly in a cool environment,” Prime says.
The restaurant celebrates the Trinidadian street food the two siblings ate as children. “We’ve had lots of Trinidadian guests tell us, ‘I finally have a place where I can introduce my colleagues to the food I grew up with,”’ says co-owner Jeanine.
The intimacy of Cane’s close quarters invited interaction between guests before the coronavirus pandemic struck. “Trinidadians would tell those who weren’t familiar with the dishes about the food and the culture. There were just natural conversations,” she says. “We had some communal tables. That just really embodied the spirit of how Trinidadians break bread together and socialize. It was nice to see that happening rather spontaneously.”
Guests could get a sense of what sharing meals is like in Trinidad’s rum shops and home kitchens. A recycled sugar cane wall, polished woods and painted shutters provide a warm island setting. The siblings wanted a place that vibrated with the spirit of their native island. “We were really happy to see that vision come to life. That is what we had hoped for, and to see that realized, it’s really central to the whole concept,” Jeanine says.
Food From Home
The Primes did not always recognize the value of Trinidad’s cuisine. Their mother was an excellent cook who prepared Caribbean and American dishes. Cane’s co-owners really began to appreciate the food from home when they moved to the U.S. and began to miss island flavors. “I think there is always something exotic about food from other parts of the world. You tend to take for granted the food that is all around you,” says Jeanine.
Her brother admits he did. “It just all seemed so boring. Mom made it every day, peas and rice. It was delicious, but when I wanted to cook, I wanted to do spaghetti or something different like lasagna,” Peter says.
Now, the partners get excited about sharing the foods they took for granted. Chef Prime’s menu reflects the culinary influences passed on by the enslaved Africans who cut sugar cane and the indentured Indian workers who arrived with the British.
French, Spanish and Chinese cuisines also contribute to the multicultural nature of Trinidad’s food. “They’ve all sort of evolved and become this uniquely Trinidadian version of themselves. They kept their unique identities but evolved the unique Trinidadian flair,” says the chef.
The most popular dishes offer a variety of flavors representing Trinidadian cuisine. The hot jerk chicken wings smoked with pimento wood, the Tiffin boxes of meat and vegetable curries, the fried snapper with pickled peppers and the grilled oxtails are favorites of patrons and local restaurant critics.
Then there is the appetizer of fry bread wrapped around curried chickpeas with a spicy relish. A painting reproduced from a photo of former President Barack Obama during a state visit to Trinidad shows him eating the street food snack called doubles. Chef Prime looks at people’s faces to gauge reaction to his cooking. “We see it every day, how much people enjoy the restaurant and getting the critical acclaim just kind of confirms some of what we’ve seen. It’s humbling and gratifying.”
Cane’s co-owner believes the acclaim for Kwame Onwuachi’s now closed Kith & Kin helped Caribbean food gain more respect. So did the social justice movement. Rave reviews for the Primes’ H Street restaurant have helped them survive the pandemic restrictions on indoor dining.
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Washingtonian magazine placed Cane #10 on its list of 100 Very Best Restaurants in 2020. “I definitely think the reviews and exposure helps. Obviously, it gets our name out there to people who may not have heard of us. We are appreciative of that.”
The Washingtonian’s reviewer said the long wait to get into the no-reservations Cane is worth it. But in December, with dining-in no longer an option, a local pastry chef told Eater DC that takeout from Cane was his best restaurant meal of 2020.
“There was a moment in the pandemic that I felt homesick. So we ordered Cane. It truly restored my spirits and gave me strength for another day,” said Paola Velez, pastry chef at Maydan, Compass Rose and La Bodega.
The number of people eating Cane’s offerings increased after the co-owners made the switch to mostly pickup and delivery orders. Many are the same patrons who waited in line to get seats when the restaurant provided indoor dining service. “Our regulars stayed regular, and they went out of their way to take care of the front of the house staff,” Peter says.
The restaurant managed to hold onto its 11 employees, who play a vital role in Cane providing exceptional Trini food and friendly service. “Our staff is a big part of that and so, being able to continue to keep them employed was important to us. It is a big driver in the decisions that we made as we pivoted to takeout and delivery,” Jeanine adds. “It’s nice to see when people come to pick up their food, they are still enjoying that rapport with the front of the house staff and still enjoying that Cane hospitality.”
The to-go operation does come with new challenges, from adjusting the menu items to keeping costs in check. “Our margins are tighter. The delivery companies take a sizable portion of the revenue. It’s forced us to streamline our operations more. That includes offering more value meals. “We offer a jerk chicken family meal and also a snapper family meal. People are looking for takeout for the whole family as everyone is home.”
Cane is allowed to sell alcoholic beverages to-go, so the co-owners are figuring out ways to keep providing customers with fresh juices and top-quality Caribbean rums. “We are trying to fully ramp back up our rum cocktails, which were a very important part of the Cane experience. We had several signature cocktails, including Peter’s signature rum punch,” Jeanine explains.
Cane survived the pandemic’s impact on operations and revenue partly through support from the city’s restaurant community. The owners participated in the Power of 10. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang launched the local initiative to raise $10,000 a week to give ten full-time jobs to laid-off restaurant workers. The money also provided free meals to first responders, hospital employees and struggling community residents. The initiative expanded into a national program that collaborates with the World Central Kitchen and other industry efforts to feed tens of thousands of people. “That was instrumental in keeping us afloat, especially in the early days when everything shut down,” Cane’s chef says.
Peter and his sister see the large numbers of D.C. area residents working remotely and staying home as the perfect time to try food from different cultures. They are exploring more takeout options and want others to do the same. “If you haven’t had a chance to come to Cane, this is a great opportunity for you to get takeout. Cane’s food is delicious. Give it a try,” he says.
Cooking with Class
The restaurateur first started making delectable dishes layered with flavor and spice in his mother’s kitchen. “I definitely credit my mom with my palate and love of cooking. She’s always been a busy professional, but she loves to entertain and cook. I think she is one of the best cooks I know,” he says.
Chef Prime earned a hospitality management degree while attending college in the U.S. He later graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. He has worked with top chefs at some of D.C.’s highest-rated restaurants, including Poste Modern Brasserie, Citronelle and Equinox. “I wanted to get as much experience as I could and learn as much as I could from highly-regarded chefs in the city. I was learning technique and learning the restaurant business, but I’ve always wanted to express my own food informed by my own palate,” he says.
The opportunity to show off Caribbean food came when Peter started making barbecue his way at Old Engine 12’s Spark. The response validated his belief that he should move ahead with the dream he and Jeanine shared for more than a decade.
The joy he feels in a hectic restaurant kitchen resonates with his soul. “I like the creative process. I like coming up with dishes or making a dish my own by trying to make it better and really delicious. “I’m glad that I was able to do this with my sister.”
With a master’s degree in business administration and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Cornell, Jeanine had up until now, spent most of her career in research and advisory firms, advising corporate clients on talent management. But she is just as happy with their decision to open Cane. “Peter has such a gift for bringing joy to people with his food. It’s beautiful to see and watch. The way people connect over good food, it’s really powerful.”
All in the Family
But she is not the only family member impressed with the chef’s culinary talents. The siblings’ parents, Peter and Glenda Prime, dined at Cane before the pandemic started. “She was amazed to see how many people were there and the reactions to the food. There were really some cool moments.
Jeanine remembers how proud their parents were as they dined with friends. They ordered a Tiffin box, the oxtails and the snapper. She also recalls how much her son Evan likes his uncle’s cooking. “He’s a very picky eater. He’s always asking me to make Trinidadian food at home. All his teachers know about the restaurant,” she says.
Peter’s own sons, 7-year-old Judah and 2-year-old Micah have also eaten at Cane. “Judah’s class came in just before the pandemic. He really loved it. All the kids ate snapper, kids who had never had Caribbean food before.”
The co-owners were surprised by how the kids handled the heat from the jerk chicken and other spicy dishes. Jeanine got a kick out of the toddler Micah’s reaction to the scorching wings. “He’d take a bite and have to put it down, but then he’d just want to go back in there.” It also tickled Micah’s dad. “Yes, he would cry and eat more wings. I’ve seen some adults do that too,” says Peter with a laugh.
As restaurant partners, both siblings acknowledge the support from spouses that made their dream possible, Jeanine’s husband Andru Prescod and Peter’s wife, Mary. The family support will be just as crucial as Cane’s owners plan their next steps. “There are a lot of opportunities to improve and rethink stuff. But right now, there are also a lot of unknowns. It can be kind of scary for a lot of restaurants in the interim,” says Chef Prime.
Facing the Future
“We still want to get back to that in-house dining experience and create that liming experience that we talked about,” says sister Jeanine. “We’re thinking next about bigger places, outdoor spaces and how we can do that safely.” Building on the Cane concept might also involve exploring different formats for sharing Trinidadian cuisine and culture with the community.
Her brother wants restaurant-goers to think about what eating out means to them and what they are willing to do to support restaurants and their employees. “Are we willing to make changes in the way we eat out as a country?“ says Peter. “We all have to begin thinking about that because the current model is not sustainable. Some of the changes may mean eating differently, and thinking about food and service differently.”
Peter is hopeful even as he views the restaurant industry’s future through a different lens. He sees outdoor dining in high demand because some people may never feel comfortable eating indoors, especially in tightly packed dining rooms. He and other restaurateurs are looking for creative alternatives. “I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful. I’m ready to build it better. Just for the record, optimism does negate the anxious part. Some of it is stressful and scary, but I do think it will all work out.”
Jeanine concurs and recognizes the benefit of letting the children in the Prime households witness the evolution of a Black-owned business that could become their legacy.
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“If they are interested, I think it would be great and fun for them to be a part of something now and us creating something new,” says Peter. “I’m definitely not going to choose the restaurant life for them unless they are really passionate about it.”
“Evan is a little bit older, and I see him reflecting on what it means to be an entrepreneur,” says Jeanine. “I see that he is not only proud of that; he’s learning from it and asking questions about the business.”
Most of all, Jeanine wants the younger generations to recognize the benefits of owning a restaurant celebrating Trinidadian food and culture in a way that brings people together. “Making the world a little happier, a little more joyous is not a bad payoff.”