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 quoi. Esther 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.
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.