The Caribbean Queen


Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 2:29 p.m.
A passion for cooking led a Gainesville woman away from the medical field and into the restaurant business, and local residents are glad she made the transition.
Valerie Phillips, 52, the owner of Caribbean Queen Restaurant at 507 NW 5th Ave., said cooking has always been a part of her life.
"Cooking is something I love, and I've been doing it ever since I was a little girl," said Phillips, who was born in Jamaica, and who also is a licensed certified nursing assistant. "I used to bake bread with a couple of my friends on the weekend, then I started making Jamaican cakes."
She said she was in New York at the time, and one day she had an epiphany.
"This is it, I thought to myself," Phillips said, adding that there are two things you learn to do while growing up in Jamaica - cook and sew. "I was happy doing it, and the pay was good. From there, I decided to wait and see what was going to come out of it."
Phillips said she enrolled in a culinary school in New York City, and mastered how to cook French, Italian and American foods. After graduation, she received an internship at an exclusive French restaurant in the city.
"I ended up in a four-star restaurant in Manhattan," said Phillips, who has been married to her husband, Errol Phillips, for 18 years. The couple has four children.
"I learned to work under pressure and how to work with people I don't like," Phillips said. "I learned about teamwork, and a lot of new things, especially new recipes."
One style of food no cooking professional had to teach her how to make was Jamaican food. On a recent day, she was closed because some painting had just been done on the building, and she didn't want to cook food with the smell of paint in the air. Several patrons stopped by and one even put in an order for a curry oxtail dinner that she would pick up two days later after she got off work.
"I've been coming here religiously ever since she opened," said Valencia Benjamin, the office manager at One World Financial Mortgage Co., who is originally from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "I told her her restaurant is the perfect substitute for my mother's cooking."
Another customer stopped by and wanted to get some Jamaican beef patties. Since they are cooked in an oven and wouldn't be exposed to the air, Phillips decided to fill that customer's order.
"I come here whenever I have money," said Geneva Lancaster, 28, who remembers a Jamaican restaurant being on every corner when she lived in the Bronx, N.Y. "I told my mother today that when I got some money, I was coming to get some patties.
"I started coming here ever since I found out about it. I love the food because it is good. I get two patties every time I come here, but I love the oxtails, too. I have my brother come here whenever he has money now."
Phillips said she is an old-fashioned cook.
"I can't cook out of a can, and I can't cook out of a box," she said. "Everything is made from scratch."
Phillips said in order to prepare good food, "the ingredients have to be top-notch quality,'' she said. ''You have to wash the food and prep properly. Then you must monitor the cooking of the food. The finished product can't just be good, it has to be exceptional if I'm going to serve it to my customers."
Phillips opened her business in 2000, and she said it has been received warmly by the community.
"There are good days and slow days," she said. "Overall, business has been good. We've gotten past the first two to three years, so we must be doing something right."
She said when she first opened, people would ask her if she was going to be around for just a little while.
"I told them we will be here as long as the Lord gives me strength and health," Phillips said. "I didn't get in this business to fail. I have worked hard to build it, and I've overcome all obstacles I've faced."
Hours of operation are from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday. The phone number is (352) 374-8111.

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