Our Restaurant Week coverage continues all week and in addition to restaurant reviews, we’re also highlighting some of our favorite spots and creators.
I recently chatted with Mike Harden, owner and chef at Caribbean Grill. CG is one of my favorite spots in C-U. The restaurant offers food you can’t really find anywhere else in town, and it’s incredibly good. I always ask for extra jerk sauce, because I prefer spicy, but it’s served on the side so you don’t have to worry about burning your mouth (or insides).
Caribbean Grill’s RW menu is straightforward and full of favorites. If it’s been on your to-visit list, Restaurant Week is the perfect excuse. If you haven’t yet been, this is the week to do so. Read up on our previous coverage here and here.
Smile Politely: Can you tell us a little about yourself? When and how did you decide to become a chef, and how’d you come to own and operate a restaurant in C-U?
Mike Harden: First let me say thank you to Smile Politely for giving Caribbean Grill the opportunity to share our story and reach more of the local community. My path to becoming a chef and restaurateur has been anything but traditional. I graduated from the U of I with a degree in Information Technology and worked professionally in the field for 7 years, before pursuing Caribbean Grill full-time in 2012. CG actually got its start in 2010 with the Taste of C-U festival as a food vendor, which led us to do more festivals, then catering (2011), then a weekly carry-out lunch service (2012), followed by a food truck (2015), and now a brick-and-mortar restaurant location (2017).
Our growth process has been organic and incremental, which I believe contributes greatly to our success. For me, good food has always been present, by way of amazing family cooks. I've always held a strong appreciation for food and the togetherness it creates, but I did not view a career in food service as my path. Cooking and hosting friends or family has been something that I've always enjoyed, and that enjoyment slowly grew into a passion. That passion is what led me to quit my job in 2012 and pursue CG full-time.
SP: What have been the most rewarding parts of your job?
Harden: I am a producer. I love to plan, execute, and perform at the highest level of excellence. I don't believe in short cuts, or compromising the integrity of a thing. Being able to see all the moving parts of CG come together and make such an impact on people every single day has been truly rewarding. Food, like time, is a common denominator for every person, no matter where or who we are. For guests to choose to come to CG to eat, to fuel their very existence, is so powerful a concept. It's something that we do not take for granted.
SP: What about the most challenging?
Harden: Some of the very same things that make my career rewarding are the same things that make it most challenging. Having the patience and persistence for a slow growth process; being a producer, but also knowing that I cannot do this on my own, and have to rely on others to execute my vision; and putting something out into the world that is so personal and unique. It's a very vulnerable space and opens you to criticism, but is also extremely humbling and grounding of an experience.
SP: What do you hope to get out of participating in Restaurant Week?
Harden: This is our second year participating in restaurant week, so we are excited about this time around! Last year we saw so many new faces, with some of those converting to become regulars at CG. So our goal this time is to reach as many people as we can with our brand of food & service, and hopefully build some lasting relationships in the process.
SP: Tell us about how you decided upon your RW menu. What can diners look forward to?
Harden: So this year, we've expanded our RW menu offering to include our full menu, daily specials and all. We want to encourage guests to try whatever on the menu intrigues them most, and entice them to possibly make a second or third trip to CG during RW to try other interesting options on the menu. RW for us is a celebration of our contribution to the local food scene in Champaign County and Central Illinois, so we hope to see as many people as possible out enjoying RW both with us and with all the other great local participants!
2135 S Neil St
M-Sa 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Su noon to 4 p.m.
Photos courtesy of Caribbean Grill