JJ's Caffe Featured in Yankee Magazine

Serving up the American Dream with a side of pedigree in Brockton

By Amy Traverso  |  Senior Food Editor, Yankee Magazine

“The Champ Burger,” perfectly prepared on a brioche bun. Lori Pedrick

“The Champ Burger,” perfectly prepared on a brioche bun.

Lori Pedrick

The first clue that the man behind the Formica counter isn’t your typical line cook is the crisp white chef’s toque perched atop a handsome head of salt-and-pepper hair. His chef’s coat is neat; his workstation immaculate.

Then there are the precise movements; the way he deftly lays a slice of cheddar on the flat-top grill for just a second so that it wilts over the meat on contact. His hands are graceful. He’s only making a burger, but there isn’t a crumb out of place. This is a chef with training.

The final proof is hanging on the south wall of this 33-seat café: photos of Justin (JJ) Fernandes in formal whites and that ever-present toque standing next to Al Gore, Tom Menino, George H. W. Bush; a certificate of appreciation from the White House communications office. That wall tells the story of an American dream made real, of a 25-year-old immigrant from Cape Verde who took a job as a dishwasher at the Boston Sheraton in 1981 and worked his way up through every station in several hotel kitchens to become executive chef at the Park Plaza Hotel.

After 30 years of 12-hour days, he and his son, Nelson, went back to their hometown of Brockton, Massachusetts—home to the country’s largest Cape Verdean population—bought a small retail building on the north side of town, and opened a restaurant.

From the start, they knew they’d serve breakfast and lunch. The dearth of great breakfast joints—not bakery/cafés, not $50 power-breakfast hubs—was a dilemma that Nelson had come to know all too well as a concierge at the W Hotel in Boston. “Customers would ask, ‘Where should I have breakfast?’” he says. “And there weren’t enough to recommend because the rent is so high and the average breakfast check is so low.”

Brockton needed a breakfast place, too, and here, they could afford to open one. Home of boxing greats Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, it’s a city on the edge of middle-class stability, struggling, like many southeastern Massachusetts communities, with a heroin crisis and attendant crime. The north side is quieter, the houses well kept.

Nelson, 33, relishes the opportunity to own a share of this dream. He manages the staff and books and cooks during the lunch rush because, just as in Boston, good line cooks are in short supply. Father and son still work 12-hour days, seven days a week, with just a single week off in July.

“I probably work more hours than I did before,” Nelson says, “but I’m putting it into my own place, whereas working at the hotel for 70 or 80 hours a week, you’re just making someone else rich.”

With JJ at the helm, a simple menu of comfort-food classics punches far above its class. “The Champ Burger,” named after Brockton’s boxing greats, is moist and perfectly seared on a brioche bun with caramelized onions, mushrooms, bacon, cheddar, and chipotle mayo. Crème brûlée French toast starts with the usual thick slices of bread in a rough custard and tops them with a more-refined pool of crème anglaise and a bruléed sugar crust.

Then there are the other little details: fresh flowers in bud vases, and a large waitstaff (mostly family), ensuring that you won’t have to wait more than a minute for a coffee served with a “Here you go, hon.”

Across the counter, a regular named John tucks into a plate of homemade banana-bread French toast with fresh fruit on the side. “I’m trying to get a little more healthy,” he says.

Nelson knows about 80 percent of the customers by name. Then there are the newbies who come via word-of-mouth or on recommendation from the nearby Fuller Craft Museum. These folks tend to wrap up their meals with the same exclamation: I can’t believe there’s food this good here! In Brockton?

Toward the end of the shift, a woman walks up to the counter to greet JJ. She’s a former co-worker from the Park Plaza, come down to see how he’s getting along. “My son’s 13 now,” she tells JJ.

“No!” he replies, shocked. She’s out of the hotel business now, too, she says, and for a moment, they exchange that look of shared understanding, like two veterans at a reunion.