For Shereen of Back-a-yard, it all began when she was a young girl in Jamaica cooking with her stepmother. Her stepmother was a successful caterer and young Shereen would often help prepare and cook (much to her school friends delight when it meant they too could have some of the delicious food). ‘Sometimes the teacher would ask my stepmom ‘does she really cook it?’ but in Jamaica as a girl, your parents always have you in the kitchen to teach you how to cook.’ The cultural significance of food is one that has guided Shereen throughout her career and as she says, her journey, which began in Jamaica ‘has followed [her] to the U.K and keeps going and going and going!’ And going it has; in fact the day before our interview Shereen had just catered an event for young black entrepreneurs throwing a staff party after gaining success in their business. ‘I was grateful to be the chosen caterer for that event it was really lovely!’
Based in Nottingham, Sheeren has noticed an increase in the popularity of Jamaican cuisine over the years but is proud that ‘[her] story is kind of different from others.’ For Sheeren, authentic Jamaican cuisine means so much more than simply calling something ‘jerk’ and relying on the selling power of the word. ‘I find that some of the shops just do it to trade, just as another source of income and because the name ‘jerk’ sells itself people don’t question whether it’s authentic.’ So what stands Shereen and Back-a-Yard apart; her deep rooted passion, refusal to compromise on quality and attention to detail. As she confidently puts it, she could give the Colonel himself a run for his money if he were to taste her blend of 12 herbs and spices! This authenticity keeps Sheeren and her business rooted in the tradition of simple, yet flavourful food that doesn’t rely on modern corner-cutting conveniences. ‘When I was growing up in Jamaica I remember when my Grandmother cooked chicken, sometimes all they put on the chicken was a bit of fresh thyme, scallion from the garden and scotch bonnet. They would put it on the meat with a bit of salt and garlic and you would smell the flavour bursting out.’ These rich flavours come from simple, but fresh ingredients, something that Shereen is passionate about maintaining. ‘They didn’t have the heap of artificial seasoning that you can find in the shop now, so now I question if I never saw my grandmother using these things, why am I using it?’
Simple by no means equals basic and Shereen credits the use of fresh herbs and spices as an integral factor in the high quality of both her food and Jamaican food as a whole. As Shereen observes, ‘Jamaican food should be on top of the market by now.’ Due to this she is a firm believer in the importance of elevating the status of Jamaican food within the food industry. Small wonder then that in the battle of convenience versus tradition, she stands firmly with tradition, but that is not to say that Shereen is stuck in the past. Her love for travelling the country and catering a wide variety of events is something Shereen loves most about her job; a far cry from static market stalls of the past. Nevertheless, for Shereen innovation doesn’t automatically mean popularity and she is mindful that the growing popularity of Jamaican cuisine leaves it vulnerable to be prepared inauthentically by those just seeking a profit. ‘I’m really surprised by some of the shops I see selling Jamaican food now. It’s like they just put up a sign to say ‘oh we sell jerk chicken now,’ but actually they just put some sauce on and it’s done.’ This mindless profiteering is something that Shereen is keen to avoid and why she wholeheartedly pours her passion, love for feeding others and attention to detail into everything that she does.
Shereen isn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd and her inherent dedication to authentic, fresh flavours ensures that she does just that. However, this is not the only area in which Shereen stands out. 2022 was a difficult year for many within the hospitality industry and has necessitated further creativity and quick thinking from the already resilient independent hospitality industry. Nevertheless, 2022 proved to be an incredibly successful year for Shereen. ‘2022 was a successful year for me and when I say that I mean because of all the events I did. One of the biggest successes was a fair in Nottingham for 10 days straight! Gosh it was tiring; we were glad when the last day came. But at the end we walked away from it, not smiling, but laughing. It felt like a real achievement and I would say that previous years were good but they didn’t feel like such great achievements.’ The success has bolstered Shereen’s confidence for the year ahead and has incited big plans for Back-a-Yard in the future. Good thing that NCASS is on hand then to simplify the compliance side of her business and allow Shereen to focus on what she does best. ‘I find [my membership] very helpful because it helps with all the things I just don’t have the time to do! Also when I’m at events and they see that I’m with NCASS it’s like they relax because they know I’m complaint.’
From childhood days as her stepmother’s Sous Chef to an adulthood as Head Chef of her own kitchen, Shereen’s journey has seen her go from strength to strength. Her dedication to authenticity keeps her business rooted in tradition whilst still leaving room for growth. Her aspiration for Jamaican cuisine to be viewed with the reverence that it deserves (along with her genuine love for what she does) means that Shereen pours her heart and soul into her business. This palpable passion ensures that every event, every function and every customer enjoys the very best of what Shereen and Back-a-Yard have to offer.