Bernie Gendron stood fully focused behind the counter of Island Jerk on Newcastle St., in downtown Brunswick.

Gently, she placed a decorative blue sphere on the cake, then stepped back to admire her work. Little by little, the custom graduation treat for a recent Brunswick High School graduate was coming together.

Cake master extraordinaire was just one of the many hats Bernie Gendron was wearing this Friday afternoon. In addition to her work as a custom baker, Gendron is also the owner and chef of the Jamaican restaurant that’s become a staple of the city’s busy thoroughfare.

“We’ve been open here for five years and two months,” she said, continuing with her cake work before the evening dinner rush. “We’ve been in business (at the other locations) almost seven.”

Island Jerk has had sister locations known as the Jerk Shack operating at other areas of the city. But wherever they are found, they make a point to serve up authentic Caribbean flare.

That means wholesome yet tasty meals, with very fresh ingredients.

“Jamaican food is food that is good for your body,” Gendron said.

Her dishes often incorporate natural sweet flavors of spice, coconut milk and vegetables along with jerked spices. Many plates include chicken, fish or more exotic meat options like goat or oxtail.

“The thing is ... it has to be fresh. That’s the key to Jamaican food. You have to use fresh produce, fresh seasoning and herbs,” she said. “We have our meats cut custom, just for us.”

Fruits like plantains are also a popular feature.

“There are various kinds of plantains ... some are sweet and some aren’t. The most popular are the green plantains tostones. It has a lot of natural flavor and can be served with salsa for a great healthy snack,” she said.

During her time serving up plates — be it the plantains, curry or falafel — Gendron has also become deeply connected to the downtown scene. She’s developed a steady stream of customers who come daily to dine on her fresh, funky fare. And they’re sharing their approval.

Recently, Island Jerk was named as the No. 9 Top Rates Local restaurant in the state.

“When they first called me, I thought it was just an advertising thing, but I looked it up and it was true. They take the reviews that customers leave at different places online,” she said. “So it was all from customer service ... which is great.”

But in addition to her daily customers, Gendron has also come to serve a different part of the population — the homeless. For years, she has been sharing meals with those in need in the downtown area free of charge.

“I believe in community, and we have a homeless problem here. It’s going to take the community to solve it,” she said.

For her part, she’s ready to step up to the plate. Not only does she plan to continue to feed the hungry, she is letting her customers get in on the good deed.

“We’re starting a new program called Meal in Reserve. When someone comes in to buy a meal, we will ask if they’d like to do a ‘meal in reserve.’ That will be a $5, non-tax donation that will go toward one meal — a jerk chicken bowl — for the homeless here,” she said. “They will get a receipt so it’s a tax write off. I’ve seen it work in other cities.”

She has created a wall in the restaurant that will feature photos of those who participate in the program posted under a tropically themed letters reading, “together we can make a difference.”

Feeding the hungry is clearly something Gendron feels passionate about and is excited to let others in on the good deed.

“Every single person on this earth deserves to eat. Food is not a luxury,” she said.

While Gendron is passionate about helping the homeless, she is equally generous when it comes to sharing her recipes with would-be chefs at home. One of her most popular dishes — the veggie delight — is incredibly easy to replicate at home.

“You can get all of the ingredients locally ... it really is very easy,” she said.

Island Jerk’s Veggie Delight

(serves four)

1 cup chopped butternut squash

1 cup chopped rutabaga

1 cup chopped chayte squash

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup corn (Island Jerk uses several sliced pieces of corn on the cob)

1 cup chopped onions

1 cup chopped green pepper

1 pumpkin packet of soup mix

Butter to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Steam the vegetables together (al dente) then place in a pan. Add butter, salt and pepper to season. Add pumpkin soup mix into the pan, the more mix added the thicker the sauce will become. For an even thicker sauce, add flour and water. Can be served over rice and black beans.

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