by Channing Mathews; featured photo by Kori Price
The story of Pearl Island Cafe is a search for identity, passion, and roots. The delightful smells and artwork of the Caribbean-inspired restaurant draw you in for a warm taste of the Caribbean, right in the heart of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and the historic Vinegar Hill Neighborhood in Charlottesville. Starting from the first jar of pikliz, a cabbage-based, vinegar-forward, and spicy condiment, sold at the Charlottesville Farmers’ Market, Pearl Island is thriving as Charlottesville’s premiere Caribbean lunch and catering space.
Named to honor owner Sober Pierre’s Haitian roots, the restaurant pays homage to Haiti’s reputation as the Pearl of the Antilles, a place filled with treasures and turmoil throughout its complicated history. “Part of what I am doing right now is to reflect the beauty of Haiti. You know the richness that it had then, I want to emphasize that now. [I ask myself] ‘How do I showcase the beauty in the flavor, the people, and the culture as a whole?’”
Born to Haitian immigrants in Miami, Florida, Sober had an early knack for business, using recycled wire from downed and inactive power lines to make bracelets for sale. But his business savvy would take a backseat to his educational pursuits. Sober attended Tuskegee University, a historically Black University in Alabama, to pursue mechanical engineering and a football scholarship. Upon graduation, he pursued job opportunities at John Deere and Caterpillar, where he discovered his interest in engineering was not aligned with his desire for something more: “I loved engineering, like the innovation of it, but I also wanted something I was more passionate about.”
In search of greater fulfillment, Sober pursued business school at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where the ideas for Pearl Island started to come together in his current food business. “My reasoning for going to business school was identifying something I was passionate about and connected to. Something that at the end of the thirty-year career, I wouldn’t be questioning what it was all for.” This passion pursuit led him into a deep dive into his culture and identity exploration to learn about diversity of cultures in the Caribbean through the communal experience of food. “What we are trying to offer is access to the people and to the culture. Food being a very important, if not central part of it.”
But the marriage of business with food and identity did not necessarily mean the abandonment of his engineering background. In addition to partnering with his wife, Dr. Zakiah N. Pierre, an analytical chemist by training, Sober applied his engineering mind to the design of his kitchen to maximize efficiency and consistency of the brand. This was an especially important skill when COVID-19 resulted in Pearl Island becoming a one- man kitchen, as work staff became less consistent as the pandemic progressed. “We’ve evolved…my wife has always been in the background, supporting wherever needed. In 2020, when we had a large amount of transition, she took on more of the catering side of things. I reimagined the process in the kitchen that helped me to ensure that the full burden of producing a consistent product didn’t all fall on my shoulders.”
My experience of Pearl Island brought me back to my time living in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. To experience the food of Pearl Island is to experience the warmth and welcoming of what you might find in a Caribbean household with spices baked into the walls, and no written recipes beyond the magic of the chef’s hands. Every forkful of my curry chicken and sous poulet brought me back to the lush richness of food culture on the island, and made me chuckle as I fondly remembered my favorite street food vendors, who set up shop just outside of the kitchens within their home, inviting me to dine on their patios.
It seems that such a memory is not uncommon when experiencing the food at Pearl Island: “One of the things I miss most about the farmers market is that a lot of our customers were always excited to share about their travels to the Caribbean, and what our stand represented to them… It’s been a way for us to connect and to share our culture. It’s been great to have the experience of people enjoying [the food] and coming back.”
As a scholar of ethnic-racial identity development, I am always intrigued by the ways that food speaks to our racialized identities in the same ways that words and labels do. Food is where we share space and stories, moments that we share with others, years or even moments after we leave the table. Food is a place for us to take pause and inventory, to remind ourselves to slow down and spend time with old peeps, or find some new ones to create new memories. Pearl Island reminds us of those shared stories, by giving our tastebuds a new story to tell in community. “It shows that there’s promise and possibilities. Making the diverse flavors of the Caribbean more accessible is what I want to get to. And we are doing that.”
Oh yes, Mr. Pierre. Y’all are certainly doing that!