Last spring, Mayllet Paz received a text from a friend — a photograph of rice and beans from Burlington’s Cool Runnings . It was the beginning of what would become an obsession for the Panama native — and, later, a job.
Paz, co-owner of catering company La Fondita Latina  with fellow Panamanian Wilfredo Amor, began driving almost daily from her Swanton home to North Street’s Cool Runnings, the Jamaican market owned by Leroy Headley. Last month, the cook, now living in Winooski, began to make her trips with more of a purpose. That’s when Paz began cooking her native cuisine at Cool Runnings.
Now, guests at the small store can enjoy not only Headley’s jerk chicken and curried goat but also a mix of Panamanian specialties that Paz varies daily. The two cooks are creating this taste of the tropics without a hood, using just an electric stove and Crock-Pots. The food is served at a stand at the back of the store that resembles that of a stadium vendor, complete with chafing dishes for quick service of long-cooked stews and braises.
Paz explains that construction of the Panama Canal led to the development of a unique fusion cuisine in her homeland. Typical Panamanian dishes she prepares include Mexican specialties such as tamales and mole but also Peruvian ceviches and Jamaican grub such as braised oxtail and coconut rice. Paz says her versions of the last two dishes vary from Headley’s only slightly, mostly due to the subtraction of a few spices from her meat and addition of sugar in the rice to enhance the coconut taste.
The uniting factor of the cuisines at Cool Runnings is big flavor. “For us, it’s just the flavor and the seasoning. So many people [in the U.S.] don’t really season stuff. When they go outside the box, they use a bottle of barbecue sauce,” Paz says. “In our kitchen, we season our stuff. [Vermonters] taste the flavors, and their taste buds go back to life.”
On a recent Thursday, the aroma of cloves fills the air as Paz pulls a Panamanian Christmas ham from an oven that looks only slightly more serious than one made by Hasbro. Meanwhile, the spicy smoke of Scotch bonnet peppers for Headley’s jerk chicken, topped with shaved slices of raw carrot, wafts to the snowy sidewalks of North Street with eye-burning intensity.
Though Paz and Headley only recently began working together, the action in the tiny kitchen is a ballet of cooperation. Headley slides a pan of aromatic coconut rice with black beans into a chafing-dish slot, while Paz puts the finishing touches on her candy-pink ensalada de feria, a potato-and-egg salad sweetened with beets and made tangy with vinegar and mustard.
Just as their paths at work crisscross, their paths to Cool Runnings show similarities. Paz, who is now a youthful 36 (“I’m Latina, so we have good skin,” she says with a laugh and a doff of her trendy news-boy cap), arrived in Vermont in January 1998, during the ice storm that knocked out power all over the state. She and her then-husband, a true native Vermonter of Abenaki heritage, were moving back to his home state. Paz says she didn’t own a coat in those days and was shocked by the cold, despite embassy warnings that she would find even Vermont summers sweatshirt worthy.
A lifelong cook, Paz focused on raising her two children, now 11 and 17, until she hit on the idea of a food-delivery service for Latin farmworkers missing their warm-weather home cooking. Last summer, she got a catering license and began selling her well-seasoned fare at the Burlington Farmers Market .
Ill-fated love also brought Headley to Vermont. Originally from Negril, Jamaica, he worked for two of his brothers at their Cape Cod Jamaican restaurant until 2002, when he left to join the woman he would later marry, and then divorce.
To support himself, Headley drove taxis before opening a clothing and gift store called Sweet, Sweet Jamaica in the Burlington Town Center mall. However, he kept dreaming of cooking again, as he and his eight siblings had been trained to do growing up in the tourism industry. Requests from customers for island food products gave him the impetus to open the original Cool Runnings in Essex Junction  in the summer of 2011.
Headley admits he hadn’t considered the implications of the location — specifically, the lack of diversity in the IBM-centered suburb. “We needed to be where there are black people,” he says bluntly. Headley moved his business to North Street last year to cater better to the Caribbean, Latin and African populations of Burlington and Winooski.
A few African natives stopped in for a quick lunch last Thursday; while the Latin community in Vermont may be less visible, Paz says it is growing. “Two of my best girlfriends are from Panama, too,” she says. “There is another grandmother, and her kids and grandkids are here [from Panama], too. You have new people coming all the time.”
During Seven Days’ lunch, several customers who popped into Cool Runnings seemed surprised to find an active food business inside. These were neighbors whispering requests for a particular pipe or spoon, a medium-size stock of which fills the store’s front counter.
Cool Runnings offers sparkling belt buckles in the shapes of guns and the Lion of Judah and island-emblazoned T-shirts for sale alongside peanut-porridge mix and cans of callaloo. A good-size speaker perched atop the drink cooler blasts bass-heavy dancehall music, almost shaking the bottles of sweet and tangy Kola Champagne soda and spicy ginger beer. Wall hangings depicting Haile Selassie decorate one corner of the food stand, giving the store a thoroughly Jamaican feel — which Paz expects will soon mix with elements of Latin culture.
The cook hopes one day to have part ownership of the business. For now, she plans to add more South and Central American products to the well-stocked collection of Caribbean hot sauces and energy drinks. Currently, much of what Headley carries is sent directly from his family in Jamaica. Soon he and Paz will begin making trips to New York City to fulfill Latin customers’ requests. Hard-to-find dried chiles, Costa Rican sauces, herbs and high-quality queso fresco will be available as soon as this week.
Even without easy access to such ingredients, Paz does an admirable job of creating her native flavors. Practically everything, from chile-red stewed chicken to the flavorful pork inside her banana-leaf-wrapped tamales, leaves a pleasant burn on the diner’s lips. What isn’t hot is still well spiced, such as the sweet and intensely aromatic ham. Plátano en tentación, a sweet dish of stewed, ripe plantains, sings with cinnamon and vanilla.
The latter is a key part of the breakfasts that Paz serves every Sunday. Her warming plates are based on what her grandmother served her on Sunday mornings growing up. They include fried meat accompanied by hojaldres, or sweet, fried-dough pancakes, and Twinkie-like meat pies crusted in mashed yucca, called carimañolas.
Headley, who says he loves to bake, also hopes to produce some less savory fare. Sweet coconut-flavored buns called coco bread and doughnuts called festivals are on his to-cook list. But first, he has to get through the winter.
In the summer, Headley says, customers came from Plattsburgh, Montpelier and Barre; in cold weather, he sees a smaller clientele limited to locals. To remedy the situation, he plans to begin delivery soon and advertise more to get the word out about his food. He says the slow winter has limited both him and Paz in what they’re able to cook each day (they serve from noon to 10 p.m.). “I know that [Paz] can cook, but we have to finance it, too,” Headley explains. “If we make the food and it doesn’t really sell, we lose money.”
Ultimately, Headley wants to make his small market a full-scale eatery. “Right now, I just have this electric stove,” he points out. “I want to add a hood. I want a real, decent restaurant. Right now, I feel like I could do a whole lot more.”
Headley is no slouch in the kitchen. His butter-bean-flecked dish of oxtails is as tender and comforting as any served in a New York soul-food spot. The crust of his uncommonly spicy beef patties is so flaky that the yellow dough resembles puff pastry, and his plantains are gorgeously caramelized. And nothing is more than $10.
Teaming up with Paz and her tastes of Panama may just be the ticket to the restaurant Headley is hoping for. And to some of the biggest flavor Burlington has ever enjoyed.
Cool Runnings, 78 North Street, Burlington, 324-7875 or 309-9580.
The print version of this article was headlined "Melting the Snow".