A West Indian Kitchen
Noa Noa owner Scott Woods reflects on lessons learned in St. John
By Scott Woods, as told to Marshall V. King
Photos provided by Scott Woods
When I was nearly 32 years old, and four years into my career at my Warsaw “beach restaurant,” called Spikes Beach Grill, a young couple came in for lunch one day in August 1995. They told me about their easy-going lives on the island of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. Since Spikes was a seasonal restaurant, they suggested I visit St. John when I closed Spikes that fall. I was intrigued and I called their employer on the island, and he said not only could I get a restaurant job and any other odd jobs I wanted, but the place where the couple had been staying was available. So I bought a plane ticket.
Then, two weeks before I was to arrive, disaster in the form of Hurricane Marilyn hit the islands on September 16. Thinking that restaurant jobs would be out of the question after seeing TV reports of the destruction, I shipped my construction tools and planned on helping the island to rebuild from the devastation. On October 2, I was on one of the first commercial planes to the islands after the storm.
By day, we were cutting up beautiful sailboats strewn on properties, cleaning up debris and rebuilding demolished structures. At night, I worked in restaurants. The first trained chef I ever worked for was named Scott Bryan at Chateau Bordeaux where we cooked classic French cuisine. I also approached Woody’s Seafood Saloon, the local watering hole in Cruz Bay. They needed a prep cook on Sunday mornings to help a “well-seasoned” local West Indian gentleman in his 70s, Mr. Eric Christian. Mr. Eric was well-known on the island for his West Indian fare and cooked at Woody’s on Sundays. I took the job.
Mr. Eric told me, “On Sundays, I need you down here at 7 o’clock.” I told him on Saturday nights, I don’t even get home until 3 a.m. He said, “I need you down here at 7 o’clock.”
I underestimated “his” business. The line of locals would start forming around 9am, and by 10, when we would start serving, it reached around the corner. Mr. Eric always had a line out the door and we always sold out of everything.
I was Mr. Eric’s chopping and dishwashing guy. Mr. Eric didn’t like prep cooks much and had a test for rookies: He would put this old pot on the back burner of the stove, add only tomato paste and burn it to charcoal. Then he would hand it to me to clean. This was his test to see if I was committed to the job.
He let me slowly start side-by-side cooking with him. I was cleaning whelks, making sauces and peeling shrimp. After a few months, a mutual trust and friendship between us was built to the point that I would hang out on the bench with Mr. Eric after shift. Once I was sitting with him after I had his West Indian plate, and I told him how much I loved his cooking but needed a nap after eating his dishes because the meals were so “heavy.” He explained to me that his great-grandfather was one of the original slave families on the island, and when there was food on the table it needed to sustain them because they didn’t know when they’d eat again. “Da heavy was a full belly.” I was so humbled, to say the least, and saw his West Indian plates through new eyes from then on.
I remember making dumplings with him. They were still real doughy when eaten from a bowl of bull foot soup. I loved those diamond-shaped dumplings! Toward the end of my stay I kept asking for his conch fritter recipe. The last Sunday I worked with Mr. Eric, he put a pen and paper on the prep table and said: “write.” As he made the fritters, I wrote everything down. Mr. Eric’s fritters are still on the menu at Noa Noa, the casual-dining restaurant that I started here in Warsaw in 2000.
I have no doubt the Noa Noa concept was born on the island of St. John. I’ll never forget Mr. Eric, those West Indian Sundays or that beautiful island and the time I cooked there. I make it a point to get back there every other year or so. This past July, my wife, Tish, the kids and I visited St. John. I had my West Indian meal, a rum toast to Mr. Eric and that afternoon nap on the beach. Thanks, Mr. Eric!