Marva a Mt. Airy maven for great Caribbean cuisine

Local Life April 18, 2012 7 Comments

by Alaina Mabaso

Most of us know what it’s like to open a kitchen cupboard and narrowly avoid a cascade of old Tupperware containers. But Mt. Airy chef Marva Haye can’t relate.

Marva Haye, a long-time Mt. Airy resident and paralegal, has run Negril Caribbean Cuisine, Northwest Philadelphia’s only authentic Caribbean catering business, for over 15 years.

Because her Caribbean cuisine leftovers are in such high demand, “I cannot keep Tupperware in the house,” said this native of Savanna La Mar, Jamaica. The shortage is due to her culinary skills: friends and family pack the house every time she cooks, and since Haye can’t bear to send their portions home in tin foil, it means that any plastic containers she buys have walked away by the end of the week, bearing the coveted leftovers far and wide.

Haye, who is 50-ish, has lived in the U.S. since her parents came to West Philadelphia when she was a teenager. She’s called Mt. Airy home for over 20 years, but her speech still has the beguiling lilt of the islands. An alumna of St. Joseph’s University, she faced a major choice while working as a paralegal; would she go on to law school, or would she pursue cooking, her true lifelong passion?

Though she didn’t cook at home as a child, Marva became fascinated with her childhood neighbor’s large oven, which produced a parade of delectable treats. Now, while she still works as a paralegal, she has been pursuing her own Caribbean catering business for over 15 years.

“If you’re curious about our food, you have to eat it as it is,” she says, looking askance at Caribbean establishments that would compromise their true taste for the relatively timid American palate.

Ask her how she makes her famous Calypso Shrimp, one of her most popular appetizers, and she’ll raise a graceful eyebrow. Rosemary is involved, but the rest of the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

As for the spice she brings to some of her dishes, she plucks a small, rosy Scotch Bonnet pepper from her fridge and holds it reverently by the slender stem. The Scotch Bonnet, renowned for the sweet heat it brings to traditional Caribbean dishes, is much spicier than the jalapeno. Be sure to remove the seeds before cooking it if you value your tongue.

To research a possible audience for her food in the Philadelphia area, Haye began teaching Caribbean cooking courses at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree in 1991 and at Temple University the following year. Good attendance and excellent reviews from her students convinced her that there was a home for her cuisine in the neighborhood.

In the fall of 1995 Haye debuted Negril Caribbean Cuisine in the Manayunk Farmers Market with much support from her beloved mother. But personal and professional challenges loomed. Sales in Manayunk were not what she had expected, and Haye made the difficult decision to close the following year. Meanwhile, her parents returned to Jamaica when it became apparent that her mother, who has always been a pillar of love and support for Haye, was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

But despite these setbacks, Marva continued to get calls from people looking for more of her food. With the help of her sister Sandra and her brothers Landie and Fred, Negril Caribbean Cuisine was re-born as Mt. Airy’s only Caribbean catering and event service.

Now, “transforming” weddings and other special events into “island flings” is a specialty of Haye’s business, as she provides not only traditional fare but warm and wild Caribbean-flavored music, flowers and décor.

Her ample menu has grown to include many dishes whose recipes and names she’s devised herself over the years, including the Calypso Shrimp, spicy Kaya Wings, Reggae Ribs, Marley’s Rasta Pasta, and in other nods to the Jamaican legend, Stir It Up Rice and the Caribbean pumpkin-infused Simmer Down Rice.

“When I can’t sleep, I come up with these names,” Haye said. Other menu favorites include authentic oxtail and beans, grilled salmon, jerk chicken and pork, and conch fritters. She has recently begun offering homemade ready-to-heat dinners, tailored to family size, from the full range of her menu.

Haye is also dedicated to helping others through her work. “For a small business, we do a lot of community service,” she said. This includes New Year’s Eve and Easter dinners for the Ronald McDonald House each year; years of advocacy on behalf of the homeless, and providing food and event help at little or no cost for local churches’ fundraisers. Her latest is coming up on May 19 at the Church of Saint Asaph in Bala Cynwyd, where she has provided the food for their spring fundraiser for the past seven years.

While she loves the Mt. Airy community for its welcoming diversity, she travels to Jamaica six times a year to be with her parents and walk the long white sands of Negril Beach, where she sketched her logo of an orange sun settling into the deep blue sea. “I feel like I belong there,” she said of the beach, where she goes to reflect on every major decision of her life.

Her advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: “Be authentic.” She has watched countless businesses come and go after founders stop focusing on authenticity and quality once they’ve built up their clientele.

“The stuff I sell is the stuff I eat,” she said. “Quality is non-negotiable.” Repeat customers have proven the allure of her cuisine: “Once people taste it, they come back for more.”

For more information, call 215-848-4849 or email marvanegril@aol.com

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  • Sundancesbb

    great article on a GREAT caribbean chef!

  • Mtairyneighbor

    One of the best caterers I have ever used. My long time favorite has been the stew beef and stew chicken with plantains

  • Cbanks0123

    Marva created an event for my only child’s college graduation. Her proposal was perfect and fit right to the budget we discussed. Most importantly, she created the entirely perfect ambience and atmosphere for this monumental event that I had in mind for my son.

    What was really perfect about her vision and planning for the event is that I did not live in the state were the event was to take place. I depended on Marva for everything — the locale, the food, the decorations, the music and it was all there when I arrived to celebrate my child’s graduation.

    The time remains one my son, I, and, the family and community of friends who attended will remember. All still talk about the lovely event and especially the food.

    I would highly recommend Marva/Negril for any event.

    I am already planning my next party and Marva will be the only caterer that I will use because I know that she will take the time to plan the event with fantastic food that will provide a memory for ever, for forever.

  • 2Players

    Hospitality is a way of life for Marva and she is an excellent chef and hostess. From small family parties to large catered events you will experience stellar service, excellent food and the warm and gracious spirit of a true professional. It is not just the food that will exceed your expecations but the total experience that elevates her affairs from other events.

  • Cjugador

    In is not often that you find a caterer who excels in delivering excellent fare and service. We attended a wedding reception catered by Marva and the staff at Negril and we were impressed with their attentiveness and attention to details. The candle lit atmosphere, reggae music and island delicacies literally propelled us to an island paradise. The centerpieces were colorful and provided a glimpse of some of the lovely flowers we have seen in the Caribbean. Marva and her staff go out of their way to ensure that the host and their guest have a memorable affair.

  • 2good2bforgotten

    We attended an event catered by Marva and guests who had heard about her cooking brought their own tupperware so they could continue to experience her jerk pork and reggae ribs the next day.

  • Ssfmoulton

    Lovely article…you go girl!