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Credit: James Jackman
The Way We Eat

How a Night-Shift Plumber Juggles Being a Dad and Eating Healthfully in the Middle of a Pandemic

updated Nov 24, 2020
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Name: Omar Harris
Location: Pembroke Pines, Florida
Number of people that eat together in your home: 5 — Omar; his fiancé, Xylina Crespo; and their three children, Gisele (14), Gia (5), and Lucian (4)
Avoidances: No pork and the family mostly avoids dairy due to lactose intolerance.

If you’re not following any plumbers on Instagram, now is a fine time to start. When Omar Harris, aka @omartheplumber, isn’t unclogging pipes and clearing drains at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he’s demoing tricks of the plumbing trade for his nearly 5,000 digital followers. (Subjects covered in his Instagram highlights include “Flush Valves” and “Toilet Stoppage.”)

Although Omar works the night shift five days a week, eating healthfully and working out are important to him. That means no raiding the airport vending machines at 2 a.m. or grabbing a midnight slice just because it’s easy. For him, mindful eating is a return to roots: Omar grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, eating his grandmother’s home cooking, until he moved to Miami around kindergarten.

We caught up with Omar to talk about that formative Caribbean upbringing, his late-night green tea habit, and the one pantry staple his kids say he never gets right. 

Credit: James Jackman

What are your earliest food memories of Kingston?
My grandma did a lot of cooking — ackee and saltfish, oxtail with rice and peas. We had our own land and grew our own vegetables, watermelons, and Jamaican apples, or ackee. We had real eggs — straight from the chicken, no steroids. I don’t know if you’ve ever had natural eggs, but they taste different. Sometimes you’d crack an egg open and see a bit of blood. That’s how you knew it was real.

Did you help your grandmother in the kitchen a lot?
Yeah, especially with chicken. When I was young, I cut off the chicken’s head. It would run around with no head, then I’d drain it and take off the feathers. Things were different when I came to the United States. My mom is a true baker, so I learned to bake at a really young age. I was always in the kitchen helping her. Red velvet cake was No. 1, but her Jamaican black cake was very good, too. We call it rum cake. Every Christmas, we’d make 15 rum cakes for all the family coming in!

Do you still make rum cakes at Christmas?
Yes, yes, yes. Every year. It’s a real popular cake in Jamaica; everyone fights over the rum cake at weddings. It’s expensive to make, though — that’s why we serve it in squares instead of slices.

Sounds like you had great cooks and bakers in the family. Any plumbers?
Actually, no. But my mom always told me, “Make sure you can demand yourself a salary.” I went to Miami Dade College to become a certified fire inspector, but I couldn’t find a job. The field of firefighters and fire inspectors is overpopulated in Florida. So I went on YouTube and looked up careers that are needed in Florida. One of the main things that popped up was plumbing, so I obtained my journeyman plumbers license. Now I’m five years into the trade and my specialty is drain cleaning. Best decision I ever made.

Why’s that?
It’s everything I expected and a lot more. I’m dealing with poop, of course. But I’m also dealing with customers, helping them fix things. [This job] has given me so much — not only financial security for my family, but as an influencer.

Credit: James Jackman

You must’ve pulled some crazy things out of toilets and sinks.
Last night I pulled out a couple of baby bottles that had been flushed down a toilet. I’ve taken out a ball of diapers. Cell phones. Jewelry — a lot, a lot, a lot of rings.

What is your work schedule like?
I do overnight, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., five days a week. Our schedules are based on seniority and a lot of guys have been here longer than I have. But I don’t complain because I have great benefits and a pension.

Do you get to eat with your family on workdays?
I’m normally off Sunday and Monday, so that’s when I really get to hang out with my family. When I come home from work on a weekday, my fiancé is just getting the kids ready. My daughters are doing online schooling and my son goes to preschool. [Before the pandemic], I would take him to school, which is like a 25- to 30-minute ride. That’s our bonding time. After the drop off, I come home, work out, get some sleep, then pick him up around 4 o’clock, hang out together, take a little nap from 8 to 10 p.m., then go back to work.

What is your eating schedule like on workdays?
Normally I’ll have a bowl of cereal, like Special K Vanilla Almond with almond milk, when I drop my son off. Then when I wake up, I eat whatever Xylina makes for dinner. We try to eat clean — so salmon or another type of fish, plus vegetables or a salad, maybe pasta.

Credit: James Jackman

Do you snack a lot at work?
My snacks are predominantly fruit: oranges, apples, pears, peaches. I do a lot of walking at the airport, so maybe three days a week I’ll have some carbs around midnight — like a Nutrigrain or Special K cereal bar. But I also know I’m going to burn it off doing, like, 9,000 steps.

So you never cave and have, like, a slice of pizza at 3 a.m.?
I was doing that when I first started the night shift, eating Papa John’s at 2 in the morning, but I felt so sluggish. I’m 6-foot-2 and I gained a good 15 pounds. That’s when I realized I cannot eat garbage at night, or garbage period. So I took those pounds off and went back to my routine. Now I drink green tea every night before I start my shift. That gives me the energy I need for the night.

You never drink coffee?
No coffee. I don’t like the jitteriness. Sometimes I’ll have a second cup of green tea, with brown sugar or honey, around 3 a.m. That’s it.

Credit: James Jackman

How long have you been eating like this? And why is being healthy important to you?
Two or three years now. My mom is diabetic. My dad is diabetic. My grandma is diabetic. When I started living on my own, I realized I had to eat cleaner. My fiancé does most of the cooking now; her No. 1 dish is a veggie burger she makes from scratch. It tastes awesome. But for dinner we’ll normally have oven-baked salmon and steamed broccoli or stuffed mango chicken or stuffed shell pasta. Sometimes she stuffs peppers with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, which we’ll have with a fresh basil and mozzarella sauce and a side of steamed vegetables.

And how do you spend your time off on Sunday?
Sunday is beach day. When I get off work Sunday at 7 a.m., I don’t go to sleep because it’d mess up my pattern. As soon as I get home, we go to the beach instead. My wife and I read, and the kids play in the sand. I’m not a swimmer. I’m terrified of sharks and don’t get near the water.

Have there been shark attacks in Ft. Lauderdale?
Yeah, a long time ago. But a shark is a shark, man! They have shark attacks in California — one of them could easily swim to Florida. I don’t play around with that.

Do you bring snacks to the beach?
Yeah — coconut water, grapes, green apples, vegetable chips. That’s it for us, but we’ll treat the kids to a slice of cheese pizza and chocolate or vanilla ice cream from a [boardwalk] shop.

What are your plans for the holidays this year — other than making rum cakes?
We always have Christmas at my mom’s. Thanksgiving would be oxtail with rice and peas and curry goat. My mom and my fiancé do the majority of the cooking. Normally we have at least 30 family members over, but this year it’ll be [smaller] because of COVID.

Credit: James Jackman

How else has the pandemic impacted your diet? Are you eating in restaurants?
We went to Chili’s once, and they were very clean. Everyone had their masks on. But we really don’t go any place we could contract the virus. No movies. I don’t even go to LA Fitness anymore; I cancelled my membership because it’s just not safe. Other than Chili’s, and this one Mexican restaurant on the beach, we’re all cooking at home, eating as clean as possible.

Are you teaching your kids how to cook?
Yes! My youngest daughter, Gia, started boiling hot dogs and assembles her own tacos on Taco Tuesday — she puts the ground turkey into the shell, puts on the sour cream and salsa. Pretty good for a 5-year-old. 

Do you bake with your kids?
Yeah, vanilla cupcakes. My mom makes red velvet cupcakes, but I messed that up and the kids wouldn’t eat them.

Do they normally like your cooking?
Um, they love their mom’s cooking more than anything. When I make them macaroni, they say it’s too watery. I try to follow the recipe exactly from the box, and I’m getting better at it, but my kids won’t eat it. I tried throwing a whole bunch of cheese on top to hide the runniness, but they said it was nasty. They’re onto me.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Omar! Everyone else: Be sure to follow him on Instagram.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.