The story of how Drum Pan Chicken spread its wings
By Elise Yap
When I was about 10, my cousin Jimmy, who grew up as one of my brothers, and I were tired of being among the few kids taking sandwiches to school for lunch. We wanted to buy patties and sugar buns like other children AND we wanted pocket money. I knew my parents couldn’t afford it so I decided to get creative.
At that time, my mom Gloria owned a family-type bar in Harbour View that did a steady business with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole playing softly in the background.
One Friday evening, I bought, cut up and seasoned two chickens and made seasoned rice and coleslaw. Bold as brass, without parental permission, Jimmy, who was almost 12, and I took my father’s hibachi to the back of the bar where we grilled and sold dinners to mom’s patrons.
We sold out that Friday and Saturday night and every week after that. People in the neighbourhood and people who frequented the Harbour View Drive-In would smell the meat grilling and come to investigate. Our little business blossomed.
In a few months, my dad had to make us a larger grill – about 72 by 30 inches. It had three sections, one for pork, chicken and steak. Jimmy and I were selling close to 100 dinners Friday and Saturday nights, earning more than some adults.
A year or two after we started, Kam, my mom’s brother and Jimmy’s dad, returned from China with a wife in tow and Jimmy had to go live with them. But I kept going and my dad pitched in to cook. The money contributed to the family’s well-being and I started to save for university.
Daddy got ill a few years later and the prognosis was that he might not survive. I was only 16 but I chose not to return to Campion College for my second year of 6th form because I knew it was up to me to keep the family business running. Having grown up working in all our family businesses from the time I was 7, it seemed the natural thing to do.
My father survived but I had a disastrous falling out with him when I turned 17. I moved out and went to live at a good friend’s family house and shortly after on my own when I got a job as a computer programmer at NCR.
My dad carried on grilling but the trays on the grill that held the charcoal disintegrated from time to time due to the intense heat. The last time they collapsed, he got out his small welding plant and fashioned three drum pan grills (one each for chicken, beef and pork) from 100-gallon oil drums he had in the backyard.
When his health declined and he could no longer stand for long hours in front of the intense heat, he hired a young man called Les to help him cook. Continuing health issues eventually forced my father to quit. That’s when Les, who lived on Whitehall Avenue near Red Hills Road, Kingston, asked his permission to take one of the drum pans home to start his own business.
The rest is history. That area of Kingston became the mecca for “pan chicken”.
Elise Yap is the owner of Blue House Bed and Breakfast in Ocho Rios Jamaica
Photo of Shaggy, the pan chicken man on Red Hills Road, Kingston, by Carlington Wilmot