Peter Prime opened a DC restaurant with his sister as a tribute to the comfort food of their home.
By Peter Prime as told to Priscilla Ward
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
Peter Prime is the chef/co-owner of Cane in Washington DC. He’s also the former executive chef at the now-closed Spark at Engine Company 12.
My mother was always a really good cook—I used to hang out with her in the kitchen and watch. The first thing she taught me how to make was pancakes.
Growing up in Trinidad, a typical meal consisted of meat, peas and rice, and vegetables, but one of my favorites was my mom’s shepherd’s pie. Then I liked all of her curries. Oxtail is still one of my favorite meals. She would also make baked chicken and callaloo. It seemed like very boring everyday food at the time, but I’ve come to appreciate how much flavor Trinidadian food has.
When I got a bit older, I started to experiment with more American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, and chili. I would watch cooking shows on PBS and make the things that I thought were most interesting.
Cooking as a profession was never what I thought I was going to be doing. I first came to the States at regular college age to go to school in Alabama, but I wasn’t ready. I ended up leaving and spending some time in New York before losing my student visa and returning back to Trinidad. Years later, my dad got a job in the States, and my parents decided to relocate. My mom recommended that I go to Morgan State University in Baltimore. So I did.
I was originally an accounting major. However, in my junior year, I got an internship at Aramark food services. I spent a week in every department, so I did accounting, sales, HR, and then I got to intern in the kitchen, and that’s where I fell in love with the whole background operation. When I got back to school, I decided to change my major to hospitality management.
Right after I finished at Morgan, I went to the French Culinary Institute in New York. One opportunity led to the next. While I was in school, I worked as a line cook at their L’Ecole restaurant as a part of the curriculum. After graduating, I went on to be a line cook at Leopold’s Kafe & Konditorei in DC, then I was invited to go back up to New York and help them open up another one of their projects, River Room Restaurant, in Harlem.
It was a really cool opportunity. I was there during construction, and it was awesome to see a restaurant get built from the ground up. Pretty much every restaurant that I worked at, I was involved with the menu in some form. That helped me to understand the creative process and more about managing.
After living in New York for a little over a year, I moved back to DC, where I worked as a line cook at various restaurants. Then I moved to California to work for the Hillstone Restaurant Group for a few years. The west coast was cool, and I thought about staying, but I always knew I wanted to come back to DC to be closer to my family and be a part of the restaurant scene.
My sister Jeanine and I did some catering while we were in college. Eventually, she went on to get her MBA for the business side of a restaurant that we would eventually open together. My sister and I did a couple of events for friends, even though it wasn’t a formal catering company. Having our own restaurant was always something that we wanted to do. It was something that would allow us to have a career. My sister and I both like going out to eat, and we wanted to create the type of dining experience that we enjoy with food that reminded us of home.
The most well-known Trinidadian street food is doubles, so we wanted to highlight them. Jerk wings are also popular. In addition to these dishes, we wanted to prepare things for our guests well beyond street food.
We landed on Cane for the name of the new restaurant. We played around with a lot of different names, but we just liked the way that it sounded. I thought it represented a lot about where we were coming from—the mixture of enslaved people who worked on sugarcane plantations, as well as the fact that cane has driven wealth and the economy for a while in Caribbean countries. We get a lot of questions about the name. But we hope that when people eat at Cane, it inspires them to do a bit of research on Trinidadian culture.
April marks our two-year anniversary, even though I’m really confused because it feels like we’re missing a whole year. We didn’t do takeout before, and now we are only doing takeout. Over the last two years, we learned a lot, but we learned what’s needed in a changing environment.
COVID has been a really tough time. We are just trying to figure out the new business model. The whole community has really rallied. Especially at the beginning, people were really pitching in to help. I was able to be a part of the Power of 10 Initiative. But then you realize the business model doesn’t really work as soon as the debt starts piling up, and servers don’t really have any sort of safety net. I hope that we can start back up with indoor dining soon. We had such a strong model.