Quick dish: A Q+A with Esther Joseph of Calypso

FOUND: "I tell people, Asheville finds you," says Calypso owner Esther Joseph. She moved here from New York City one month after first hearing about Asheville. Photo by Liisa Andreassen

As soon as I stepped into the bar area of Lexington Avenue’s St. Lucian-themed restaurant, Calypso, I sensed that the location had a certain je ne sais quoiEsther Joseph, Calypso’s owner, knew it too. That’s why she decided to take a leap of faith when the space that previously housed Lex 18 became available in November. She reopened one month later as Calypso.

Mountain Xpress: Tell me a little about how you found your way to Asheville.
Esther Joseph: I tell people, Asheville finds you. Seriously, it’s just like a dog — the dog chooses you. People are called to Asheville. A month before I moved here, I had never heard of Asheville. I moved here from New York City. I was ready to move, and I was searching. I was clear about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I wanted a small city and was starting to get nostalgic about my childhood in St Lucia. Asheville had the water — rivers, lakes, etc. — mountains, small buildings and historical remains. When I started reading about Asheville, I just knew it was the right place, and one month later I moved here with my dog. The more and more I get to know the history of the area, the more and more I believe I was called here. I’ve been here since 2011.

What did you do before you opened Calypso?
I owned a landscaping business in New York. I still do, but it runs smoothly without me. When I moved here in 2011, I did nothing — really, I thought I was going to retire. I was tired, girl! I had had it. I was overwhelmed and needed to rest.

What happened then?
Well, I got rested up and thought, “What next?” I took a lot of time to discover myself. I had gone to culinary school in New York but never really thought about pursuing it afterward. Then I started playing with the idea of opening a restaurant. I thought it could be cool. However, the only place I would even consider opening one was on Lexington Avenue — I love, love, love this block! It’s for locals and tourists. I started looking, but nothing was ever for rent. Then this became available. Again, I believe there’s something that brings things to us. I never chase the money first.

Esther Joseph, owner of the St.Lucian-themed restaurant, Calypso, is pictured with two of her three chefs, Nigel Lawrence, sous chef, left, and Thomas James Centanni, executive chef, right. (Missing from the photo is Dave Mullins, lunch chef).
ISLAND CUISINE: Esther Joseph, owner of the St.Lucian-themed restaurant, Calypso, is pictured with two of her three chefs, Nigel Lawrence, sous chef, left, and Thomas James Centanni, executive chef, right. (Missing from the photo is Dave Mullins, lunch chef). Photo by Liisa Andreassen

What was it like transitioning the space from Lex 18 to Calypso?
Great. People say there’s a feeling here — they don’t know what it is, and neither do I. There’s just something about the space. That’s what I want to tap into. I’m not driven by money. If people consider the place to be a success, it will be. I feel if you do what is right and do well for the community, success is a byproduct. I decided on a menu with dishes from St. Lucia to honor my mother. It’s my roots; it’s where I’m from. And many people don’t think of St. Lucia when they think of island cuisine; they think of Jamaica or Mexico. St. Lucia has a rich culture and heritage, and I want people to know about it. I want to share it and want people to have an experience — that’s important to me.

How would you describe the cuisine?
I stress the flavors to my chefs — I have three of them. I focus on the unseen aspects of food. I want people to be curious about the tastes. I tell people that this is curry that stimulates, not irritates. You want something that feels good in your tummy. All the recipes are mine from my childhood except the corvina [sea bass]. Many of these menu items have deep emotional components for me. When working with my “cheffies,” I know when a dish is right. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it,” because it’s really more of a feeling than anything else. I used to get sick a lot as a child. I was one of 10 children, and later in life I realized that my mother would pay attention to me when I was sick. She would make me comfort food. Those are the stories. All of the menu items mean something to me. My favorite is probably the oxtail — it’s also a top seller. The rotis are also delicious. If someone has never tried this type of food, I tell them to try the rotis — they give people a good feeling for the types of curry flavors — and side dishes such as dasheen, a root vegetable. To me, dasheen reminds me of poverty and how poor we were growing up. We ate it all the time, but a lot of people like it. I couldn’t have an authentic menu without it.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who it be and what would you have?
Jesus. We need his wisdom. He loved wine, and I love wine, too! I’d probably be too nervous to eat, but we’d definitely be somewhere outdoors with something roasting on an open fire. I crave the simple life.



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One thought on “Quick dish: A Q+A with Esther Joseph of Calypso

  1. Gary J

    Welcome! We came from DC in a similar way. I had visited the area as a child many times on vacations (from Florida) and the mountains called me here in 2005. Looking forward to visiting Calypso. Lovely interview, Liisa.

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