Ever since Esther Joseph opened her downtown Caribbean restaurant, Calypso, in fall 2016, she has shut down operations for a month each January, taking advantage of the annual post-holiday slowdown to rest and rejuvenate. Yet, this year, when the windows of the storefront restaurant on Lexington Avenue remained covered in brown paper into February, customers and neighboring businesses began to wonder when she would open again.
Sadly for fans of Joseph’s vibrant island cuisine, Calypso is permanently closed. Joseph says she has mixed emotions since she made her decision. “I woke up New Year’s Day, and I realized I was exhausted,” she says.
“I thought, ‘I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back.’ The first feeling was relief,” she continues. “Then, as I’ve talked to people and they have told me how much they will miss it, I have felt sadness. But ultimately, I am happy with my decision.”
A native of St. Lucia who studied restaurant management in New York, started a landscaping company, received a degree in international affairs from New York University and a doctor of naturopathy degree from Trinity School of Natural Health, Joseph has had a lifelong passion for nutrition and healthy eating. She moved to Asheville in 2011 and bought a small farm in Candler.
She opened her restaurant, she says, to fill a niche and as a labor of love. “I opened Calypso as a way for me to give back to the place I fell in love with,” says Joseph. “I wanted people to experience a little slice of the Caribbean world that they didn’t know. I am quite certain I am the only St. Lucian in Asheville.”
Joseph’s menu did not compromise for or cater to American tastes or the tourist trade. It offered Caribbean specialties such as conch escabeche, salt fish fritters (accras), curried goat roti, callaloo, braised oxtail, petit piton stew and curried yams and bananas.
“Running such a unique restaurant was really, really difficult,” she says. “Half of the things on my menu I couldn’t get in Asheville and had to drive three times a month to Atlanta to get product.”
But the biggest hurdle Joseph encountered was related to staffing. “Training the kitchen to cook the food and the servers to talk about it was challenging,” she says, noting that the density of hotels and restaurants in Asheville can be problematic for small eateries.
“I was getting frustrated and stressed, and that’s not who I want to be. I want to be a kind, compassionate human being. I wanted to change the negative aspects of restaurant culture, and instead, it was changing me,” she says.
Joseph describes herself as a person who tries to take lessons from every experience. Her takeaway from her stint as a restaurant owner — particularly in unsettled times such as these — is that people want to gather, share and talk, and food is a conduit to that.
“When people are stressed out, they often reach for the worst kinds of food. Healthy, nutritious food is important to transformation. I have always said. ‘Feed the body, feed the soul,’ but you have to have both,” she says.
“I am a teacher at heart, so that will be at the center of my next project,” says Joseph. “I want to create a truly sacred space where I can provide people with what they need to nourish themselves in body and soul, find transformation and shift their lives into something worth living. That is my intention now.”
Whatever is next for Joseph, it won’t be in the Calypso space. “I am at a point in my life where I’m not attached to much — not a business, not a building, not things. I am ready to move on and go with the flow,” she says. “Whatever I do, I will give it my best, but I will not do anything that isn’t feeding me spiritually.”