Verna McGowan is reinventing herself once again. In a past lifetime, she worked at Levi Strauss following a degree in fashion buying and merchandising at the Fashion Institute of Technology; another career saw McGowan getting a clinical psychology degree from San Francisco State University and working with at-risk students. In her latest career, McGowan has become a chef, first cooking for expats in South Africa while she lived there for a few years, then opening a catering business after graduating from the California Culinary Academy and working as author Alice Walker’s personal chef for seven years.
Now, McGowan will start her own kitchen and cook for the public, opening Calypso Rose Kitchen at Emeryville’s Public Market on June 30. It’s the culmination of McGowan’s food experiences — from growing up in New York with a Caribbean and Southern upbringing, to learning about Guayanese cuisine from her mother-in-law and Puerto Rican food from friends. McGowan calls her new restaurant an expression of the recipes that have been passed down to her over generations. “It’s everything that I love that has meant something to me in my personal life, because food is connected with memory,” McGowan says. “Food is the connection that lingers on, that reminds me of people that I love tremendously.”
Calypso Rose Kitchen’s menu zigzags through those memories and serves almost as a biography of McGowan, with her longtime general manager and sous chef Mimi Garcia working alongside her. Diners can expect dishes like oxtail stew, based on the Guayanese pepperpot dish, which is traditionally served at Christmas and Easter. McGowan’s version is a mixture of beef, oxtail, and stew meat, cooked with cassareep, a spiced, molasses-like ingredient made from the cassava plant. Guyanese beef patties are also on the menu, learned from McGowan’s mother-in-law. Some Puerto Rican dishes will be available also, such as a sopa de pollo, arroz con pollo, black bean soup, and pernil, a dish featuring pork shoulder that’s slowly roasted until the meat falls off the bone.
There will also be a shrimp and chicken curry with roti sourced from a family member in New York, and Jamaican brown stew chicken that’s marinated overnight in a browning sauce, a dish that McGowan says give “classic island vibes.” Although there is a jerk chicken item on the menu, part of McGowan’s mission to show diners that there’s “tons” of Caribbean islands and that not all Caribbean food is the same. “In developing the menu, to me it was important that people have an experience of Caribbean cuisine outside of jerk chicken,” McGowan says.
Food has always been a huge part of McGowan’s life, she says. “It’s really a heartfelt expression of gratitude and love to share, and then honoring those people that are no longer with us,” she says. Calypso Rose Kitchen is the latest career for McGowan, but it’s one that’s closest to her heart. “What I’ve learned in this lifetime is that don’t tie yourself up in the numbers,” she says. “Do what moves your spirit; follow your heart and you’ll never, ever fail.”
Calypso Rose Kitchen (5959 Shellmound St, Emeryville) debuts June 30.