On the inside of his forearm, just below the crook of his elbow, “Everything’s Good” marches across Jamaar Julal’s skin in optimistic capitals. That tattoo quotes a lyric by Chance the Rapper but has deeper meaning: “When I was younger, I went through depression — I still go through it — and ‘Everything’s Good’ is a reminder that when things do get bad, I’m all right, and to keep pushing forward,” Julal says.
The 24-year-old has been pushing forward personally and professionally for the past few years, and “it’s unusual to say, but good things are coming during dark times.” Julal recently graduated from the Restaurant School as the program’s 2019 Fellow, but instead of cooking in a professional kitchen, you’ll find him nurturing his SCOBY, the jellyfish-like culture that transforms tea into kombucha, for his budding beverage company, JamBrü. Two years ago, he fell down the fermentation rabbit hole and began sharing his kombucha experiments (turmeric-apricot, pineapple-hibiscus) with friends and colleagues. During parties at his house, “people would ask how the kombucha was going. I’d bring it out, and we’d have some drinks.” The feedback: “‘Whoa, man, this is amazing.‘”
“I brought Jamaar’s rhubarb kombucha to one of the Aubergine dinners at the Rittenhouse last year and shared it with my table and the kitchen,” says Kiki Aranita of Poi Dog, where Julal had been working for a year pre-pandemic. “It was a hit.”
Despite alluring flavor combinations listed on their labels, many booches, both indie and mass-produced, fit the widely circulated meme about White Claw seltzers: They taste like TV static while someone shouts the name of a fruit from another room. JamBrü, which Julal bottles with purees and surgical juliennes and brunoise of fresh fruit, are so supercharged with vivid flavor they seem to threaten to erupt from their bottles like so many miniature geysers. (Which actually happened a few times during early “kombucha on the ceiling” experiments.)
To create his flavor combinations, “I go off of what I’ve eaten, an understanding of balance from the Restaurant School, and my curiosity, like when I see something like gooseberries or hardy kiwis at the farmers’ markets.”
The young booch maestro has come a long way from a lukewarm psychology student who’d “barely cooked” outside microwaving ramen during his first semester at Wesley College. “This is not at all what I expected to be doing. Especially, recently seeing the pick up of interest in JamBrü, I have that confidence where, I’m doing this. It’s not just me playing around and seeing what happens. I’m doing it.” But he gets butterflies, too, the same species that suddenly colonized his stomach when Todd Braley, Restaurant School culinary director and Julal’s mentor, asked him to be the 2019 Fellow. “It’s the feeling of me taking risks, but I was so nervous — why did he ask me?”
“An eagerness to learn,” Braley says. “He was pushing himself to gain mastery over the fish station,” one of the most challenging.
Julal thrived in the program and discovered a passion for teaching that he wants to make a part of JamBrü. “I want to teach the youth about fermentation, especially my Black youth. Maybe if I had been taught about this earlier, it could have been something I had known about my entire life, instead of a calling I almost missed.”
As Julal has found purpose and identity in fermentation, he’s also found purpose and identity in activism after the murder of George Floyd. He grew up middle class in Norristown, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and attended Plymouth Meeting Friends School as the only Black male student in his class of 21. From seventh grade through high school, he went to the more diverse Renaissance Academy in Phoenixville, where his white and Black peers questioned why he “talked white” and played “white sports” like soccer — which is beloved by people in Jamaica and all over the world — “a sport I fell in love with when my mother introduced it to me as a baby. It was a lot of mental trauma, me trying to figure out where I belong, me not fitting in no matter wherever I go.”
Depression shadowed him, as he “focused on being liked by my peers and trying to fix [myself for] other people.” He’d tick off his good traits and still come up empty: “I was smart, athletic, friendly — what more could I do to get people to like me?” He tried his hand at being the class clown, leading to trouble with teachers and talks with his parents, “but the focus of those conversations weren’t about me figuring out who I was and why I was behaving that way. I didn’t think my feelings had enough weight to talk about,” and as the youngest sibling in his family and the first born in the U.S., “I already had that spoiled baby brother thing on my plate.” He didn’t want to complain.
“Now I don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m just glad to be me,” but not complaining has been a trickier habit to kick. “I’ve had it easier than a lot of Black men and women in this country, and when George Floyd was murdered, I was hesitant to speak out and really internalizing my feelings.” When he eventually posted then on social media, a former classmate asked if he was friends with or related to Floyd, the implication being his feelings weren’t valid unless he could claim some personal connection to the man.
The comment was a crowbar jammed into Julal’s emotions, and in that moment, “I came to the realization that no matter what I have in terms of opportunities, I’m still part of the people who are being oppressed. If I was in [Floyd’s] position, [the police] don’t give a damn about my resume.” He responded to the commenter, “Yes, I do know him. He is me. I am him.”
Photographer and farmer Neal Santos, whom Julal met at this year’s Philly Chef Conference, was also listening on social media. “We agreed upon so much of what’s lacking in visibility and identity in food and entrepreneurship,” says Santos, who invited Julal out to Farm51, the farm he runs with his husband, Andrew Olson, in Southwest Philly, “to provide some space and peace.”
When Julal came to visit, Santos sent him home with a bag of last season’s frozen pawpaw pulp, which made it into JamBrü‘s most recent drop, a carbonic sunset of pawpaw-peach delivered around the city in his 2003 Accord. With over 30 Instagram requests for the 10 32-ounce carafes, Julal is quintupling output while workshopping his business plan with Aranita. “I think there’s a lot of space in the Philly market for kombucha,” she says. “Jamaar is embedded within our community, and that’s a big part of the success of Philly businesses.”