To some, Valerie Phillips is better known as Ms. Queen.
The owner of Gainesville’s first Jamaican restaurant, Phillips remembers being called Ms. Queen when she first opened Caribbean Queen in 2000.
As one of Gainesville’s pioneers in integrating culturally diverse cuisine, Phillips has witnessed the city’s restaurant scene flourish.
“When I moved to Gainesville, the restaurants were limited,” Phillips said, remembering the city 22 years ago. “You talk to some people and they’ll tell you that Jamaican food is not gonna do well in Gainesville because the people don’t know about it.”
After seeing other restaurants doing well, Phillips took the leap with only one question in mind:
“Why not Jamaican?”
The restaurant is now in its 16th year of serving authentic Jamaican cuisine, such as curry goat, jerk chicken and oxtail.
Phillips’ first obligation is to authenticity — even if that means working 12-hour days. Apart from being the owners, she and her husband, Errol Phillips, cook all of the restaurant’s dishes.
Unlike other restaurants that hire cooks, Caribbean Queen sends a welcoming vibe to the community. Their presence ensures customers the food is 100 percent Jamaican-made.
“It’s one thing to open a restaurant and say it’s Jamaican,” she said, “but you have to be able to give the people the real authentic cuisine that they’re looking for.”
Born in Kingston and raised in Clarendon, she returns to Jamaica every Christmas for two things: to visit family and to bring back some spices.
“All the herbs and spices that we use are from Jamaica,” Phillips said. “The spices is what makes it what it is.”
Phillips has been cooking since elementary school in Jamaica, but before she was crowned Ms. Queen, Phillips worked in the medical field.
She remembers cooking and bringing her lunch to work — everybody wanted some.
“So I said to myself, ‘Well you know, I could sell this,’” she said.
Now, Phillips’ happy customers come in asking for recipes, which she is pleased to share. For some, the cozy shack on Northwest Fifth Avenue is a lot like Grandma’s kitchen.
“The most rewarding part to me is when a customer will get the meal, and they taste it and they say, ‘This is just like the grandma,’” she said.
Phillips places an emphasis on keeping her culture alive. Having left Jamaica at 18, she still retains the traditions she grew up with.
“Once you grow up in a culture, and you grow up until you’re about 17, it’s something that it don’t matter where you go and how old you get, you never lose that,” she said.
While she’s introduced Gainesville to her culture, she has also picked up some Gainesville traits along the way.
“I like reggae — like Bob Marley and Damian Marley — but what I really like is country music,” she said. “I love country music.”