The Flava’s Called Caribbean Creole – Costa Rican native Marlene Myrie’s interest n Caribbean food led her to establish a catering business, a restaurant, and Bag Lady Flava, a take-out lunch business – Brief Article
For those who take their eating seriously, there’s something intoxicating, something downright ethereal about foods from exotic countries and from exotic U.S. locales. Many of these specialties contain spices, herbs and interesting blends that most of us dare not try to re-create in our own kitchens. With the unfamiliar becoming increasingly familiar, people are flocking in droves to restaurants that specialize in flavorful dishes from places as far away as India and Japan and as near as Louisiana and the Caribbean.
Marlene Myrie, the owner of Bag Lady Flava, knows foods from the Caribbean and Louisiana firsthand. Myrie’s full-service food company, based in Los Angeles, caters entertainment industry events and sells her own brand of curry sauce, spicy jerk sauce, hot sauce and gumbo. A native of Costa Rica, Myrie says that she learned a lot about Caribbean cooking from her Jamaican grandparents. The development of her “Caribbean Creole” cuisine, though, is a culmination of a number of factors. “People from the Caribbean and from Louisiana both use lots of spices and sauces,” she says. “The food is spicy, not bland. I took an interest in Creole food because I saw the similarities and was intrigued.”
Myrie’s interest led her to scan cookbooks for recipes and to learn even more about Creole and Caribbean cuisines by cooking with friends from New Orleans and the West Indies. The result, she believes, is the ability to create not a particular dish that merges foods from both cultures, but rather dishes that represent each culture well. For instance, her gumbo contains all of the authentic fixin’s, including crab, sausage, shrimp, tomatoes, okra, bell peppers and file. Myrie says that the secret to her gumbo is in the roux (a mixture used to thicken the gumbo’s stock).
Myrie is not concerned about nay sayers who question the authenticity of her dishes. She knows that Creole cuisine, including gumbo and jambalaya, gets some of its influences from the French and the Spanish. Having family origins in one of those cultures, coupled with a love for cooking, she can compete with the best of them. “I think I make a mean pot of gumbo, and I am not from Louisiana,” says Myrie. “I think it’s the love of the craft and the perseverance that enable a person to go out and look for the seasonings and the information to try and perfect the gumbo.”
Though Myrie has focused her energies on making island and Cajun fare for the past six years, her love of cooking dates back to when she was 9 years old. cooking dinner for her younger brothers and sister. Myrie notes that as an adult, she has always had a penchant for entertaining guests: “I didn’t just do parties; I threw parties with themes. Of course the food was a great part of it.”
Going into business seemed the next logical step, so in 1980 Myrie started her first catering company, the Curry Express. She later embarked on several other ventures, including a restaurant in Southern California, before arriving at Bag Lady Flava. The initial idea for the company came from her decision to run a business that provided bag lunches to companies. She thought that the name Bag Lady would be fitting because the lunches would be delivered in brown paper bags. However, fate stepped in before that idea was able to reach its full potential.
In 1993. Myrie happened upon the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, a Los Angeles open market that attracts more than 2,000 customers every Sunday. When Myrie first opened her booth there, she sold pastas, crepes, elaborate salads, and roasted and grilled meats. As time went on, she became a little daunted by the large number of local restaurants already specializing in the same kinds of gourmet foods. “I thought it over for a while,” she explains, “and decided that what I needed to do is what I do naturally, and that is Caribbean and Cajun food, Things just grew from there.”
Part of the expansion of Bag Lady Flava includes Myrie’s Web site (http://www.bagladyflava.com), which was launched earlier this year. The site allows online visitors to purchase Myrie’s gumbo and sauces over the Internet. Customers receive the partially frozen products overnight, giving them the option of immediately freezing the items or thawing them out for cooking. The site also provides a history of Bag Lady Flava and details her custom catering capabilities.
Myrie’s reasons for taking the business online are clear: “My business had reached a plateau.” she says. “I needed to either move the business to another level or get out of it, and I was not going to get out of the business.” Her decision has paid off. increasing product orders, bringing in e-mail requests for menus and price quotes, and recently prompting a production company shooting a live project for HBO to inquire about her catering services. Needless to say, she got the job.
Getting the job isn’t something new for Myrie, who has become known for her Midas touch when it comes to catering around Los Angeles, She has catered record-company events and affairs for the casts and crews of several television commercials. She is also known for her attention to detail and penchant for providing fresh and tasty meals. “I’m one of the few caterers I know who cooks on site,” she says. “It’s hard work, but it’s OK, because that’s what I do.”
Since taking her business online, Myrie has set her sights on new plateaus. She’s currently exploring the possibility of marketing Bag Lady Flava sauces and gumbo wholesale and is in the process of closing a deal with one of the major television marketing services. From the look of things, it will soon be a cinch for folks all over the country to get a taste of the Bag Lady’s flava.
Sonya Kimble-Ellis is a freelance writer in New Jersey. She is a frequent contributor to Black Enterprise and an editor at FYI, a publication for artists published by the New York Foundation for the Arts.
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