From Street Vendor to Local Restauranteur: Chez Max Offers a Colourful Legacy
Let’s be clear. I have no problem admitting I am very faint of tongue when it comes to spicy food. I’m a wimp. A smidge of heat is about all that my poor taste buds can handle.
Anything more, I turn into a teary eyed, shiny mess.
My first visit to Chez Max was a testament to that. With a wave of bravado, I ordered the jerk chicken. The dish came with chicken cooked tender and flavourful, rice and peas, plantain, tropical coleslaw, jerk sauce and festivals, a sugary cinnamon knotted fried dough that’s a little bit of heaven. Some would say it tastes like a doughnut.
“The sweetness is a great counterbalance with the jerk chicken,” explains Maxine Willocks, the culinary whiz behind Chez Max. “Teething babies love festivals; it dulls itchy gums.”
About half way through my dinner, my eyes were running; nose too. I even had that telltale sheen of someone having a mini tropical vacation from the subtle heat.
But I wasn’t giving up. It was too damn good and I kept at it until my plate was clean.
Stepping into Chex Max, diners are greeted with a fragrant array of aromas while the upbeat sounds of island music fill the air. This little gem of Caribbean life is brightly painted with several sayings written on the walls, even a map of Jamaica with little tidbits of island history.
Willocks’ mantra - Live the Life you Love - is emblazoned in bold print on several of the walls.
“Live the life you love, for me, means happiness is the ultimate form of success,” she explains. “It’s a loving reminder to everyone who enters the restaurant. I love making people happy and having them feel at home when they enter the restaurant and friends when they leave.”
With a lifelong love of food, Willocks describes herself as a nurturer and food is her language of love.
“Food gives me the opportunity to love and care for people. When you eat our food, the taste should reflect that it was made with love and care.”
Love is as much of an ingredient in the atmosphere of Chez Max as fresh is to Willocks’ cuisine.
Early on in her career, Willocks was a street vendor. Working hard she soon owned her own restaurant in Jamaica before relocating to Fort McMurray…for love.
“My birth place of Jamaica taught me that in life you can be a victor or victim. I started selling sandwiches on the streets in Kingston after my partner was shot and killed. I was left alone with nothing except determination. I started and grew the business into a full catering, dine-in restaurant while running a school canteen.”
It’s that determination and commitment that Willocks cites when asked the best aspect of owning Chez Max.
“I change people’s lives. I’m an example that passion and purpose can yield success, and with success, you can give back to your community.”
As her love of food carried her forward, it was that doe-eyed swooning of heart that brought her to Fort McMurray.
“I believe in moving forward in life and when my now husband, Jeff Peddle, and I met online we had too much in common to slow the momentum.”
Though Willocks now calls Fort McMurray home, she works hard to stay true to real Jamaican food.
“It’s important to remain authentic as I am representing a culture I am proud to be a part of. Jamaica is a popular destination and people are exposed to the culture and food. As a proud Jamaican-Canadian, I choose to showcase my heritage with pride and love.
“My recipes at Chez reach to a variety of diets: Halal, vegan, vegetarian. Using the freshness of homemade rubs and spices in dishes like pizzas, salads, and wraps, we’re creating a cross appeal for customers who need an introduction to Jamaica spices.”
Curried goat and oxtail are on the menu and for diners looking for a little bit of everything, Chez Max offers a dish platter called the ‘Big Man’ platter which includes jerk chicken, oxtail, and curry goat.
“It’s amicably named after my big man husband,” she smiles.
The jerk chicken, curried goat or oxen, can oblige those looking for a little heat while choices such as pizza and salads come with less heat.
When it comes to satisfying those pangs for a little sweetness, there are the coconut chips, a tantalizing Chez Max creation featuring fresh coconuts and fresh ginger.
“We thinly hand slice both on a mandolin, toss with brown sugar and cinnamon and slowly bake in the oven for approximately two hours while consistently turning.
“The end proud taste is just like something mom would bake,” describes Willocks. “They are affectionately called ‘bags of love’.”
Her beef patties are another signature taste delight; a flaky pastry filled with traditionally spiced ground beef. It’s also available in chicken and vegetable, both are not spicy.
“Jerk chicken and beef patties are our most popular items. Jerk is popular because it’s tasty, juicy and synonymous with Jamaica. Beef patties are a quick tasty snack you can have on the go; they are convenient to eat.”
Efforts to maintain true to Jamaican cuisine include drinks from Jamaica.
“Mango juice, coconut water, pineapple soda and Ting are our most popular. I describe Ting as Sprite on steroids. A must try.
“We are licensed and our signature drink is Appleton Colada Splash (Signature Appleton with pineapple and coconut juice) and Red Stripe beer.”
There is also wine and a growing list of Caribbean beer and rum cream.
Though the menu is basically all things Jamaican, that doesn’t reflect the customer base of Chez Max.
“Our customers are quite diverse. Jamaican food has an influence of Chinese, Indian, Spanish and African. It’s not all about spicy; fresh seasoning and marinades are what draws in customers from all over.
“What sets us apart from other Jamaican restaurants is we use Halal meats; we are vegan and vegetarian-friendly.
Anyone not wanting to cook or face dishes, Chez Max offers Chef-to-go meals, an assortment of 10 variety nutritionally balanced that are ready to heat and eat.
One of Chez Max’s biggest catering events is its Jamaican-themed party.
“We come to your home, office, worksite, we cook, we serve, we clean up and we play reggae music. We can even bring our six birds.”
Willocks and Peddle have adopted six colourful parrots over the years, all with varying vocal abilities.
Though Willocks clocks long hours at her restaurant, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“The restaurant business, for me, is passion in constant motion. I start early in the morning. A 12-hour day is a short day,” she chuckles. “I’ve worked three months without a day off. It requires love, commitment, and hard work.
“When a customer comes in and uplifts you by saying your food reminds them of how their mom cooks, it fills my heart with joy.
“It makes me feel that I am living my passion.”
While there are many positive aspects of owning your own business, Willocks is also realistic about challenges and staffing is one of her biggest.
“People come to Fort McMurray to earn oil money. A restaurant job is at the bottom of the barrel.”
Despite the challenge, it doesn’t dampen Willocks from doing what she does.
“I love my city. I love what I do. I plan to have franchises when the opportunity arises.”
“Fort McMurray is one of the best places in Canada to birth your dreams.”
Chez Max is located at the base of Tower One, downtown at the end of Richard Street. For more information call 587-537-9388 or visit chezmaxfortmcmurray.ca.