A few days ago, I FINALLY made it over to the Lumberyard parking lot to check out the new food truck and pick up some of my favorite island cuisine for lunch. Abdue “The Roti King” Hill officially opened his food truck for business last Monday. And business, and the roti, has been very, very good.
Roti is one of the most popular and widely known cuisines of the Caribbean. It is defined as an unleavened, griddled bread shell, similar to a cross between a pita and a tortilla, and originated in India. The Caribbean style of roti is predominately made with a chick pea or whole wheat flour and is filled to overflowing with a warm, curry spiced filling. It generally boasts a goat, chicken or vegetables combined with potatoes and this delicious curried sauce.
There are two components for these burrito like treats take a lot of work to master and can be really spectacular or…Maybe not so great. Mr. Hill has dedicated the past two decades to perfecting his dough and filling recipes and the result is one of the best roti I have ever tasted! I stopped by to chat with him and grab some lunch on Tuesday. He generously served up the chicken roti I requested in a to-go box, but asked that I come back the following afternoon for the interview. I agreed and took my lunch home to enjoy it!
When I returned the next day at 3PM, the sign on the truck was flipped to reflect a warning that the rapidly popular spot was “Closed” despite the posted hours of 7:30AM-6PM. Mr. Hill, however, was inside and quickly came out to join me in a shaded area in the side of the parking lot. Almost immediately, a young man walked up behind me.
“We’re sold out of everything!” Mr. Hill told him.
Some big orders that day had depleted the food truck of its delicious offerings and people were not happy about it. Mr. Hill smiled through the multiple folks that stopped by with similar inquiries as we sat and chatted. It’s a good problem to have.
Mr. Hill arrived on St. John in 2012 and hails from Nevis. He left Nevis in 1975 to relocated to St. Martin for a short spell where he got his first restaurant job at a place called Callaloo where he worked as a dishwasher. He remained in St. Martin for 15 years before returning to Nevis to open his own restaurant of the same name. The ever ambitious young man recruited a Ghanese gentleman he had met on St. Martin to make roti in his restaurant. This inspired Mr. Hill’s quest to perfect that recipe and make it his own.
He spent 20 years playing with the dough recipe until it was “perfect.” He makes all of the dough used in the food truck in his home in the evenings and early mornings, disclosing to me that, at 62 years young, he keeps his sleep schedule to less than 4 1/2 hours per night!
In his earlier years on St. John, he cooked breakfast and lunch at Caneel Bay Resort and spent time working in the deli and hot food departments at both Starfish Market and St. John Market. In his time spent at STJ Market, he met a couple from Trinidad who were staying at the Westin and they got to talking about roti.
“The lady gave me the technique…how to prep the chicken, how to prep the curry. Which I will NOT disclose!” he laughed with a twinkle in his eye.
That day, he made up a batch of the filling using the techniques that the woman had explained to him. They came back the next day to try the fruits of his labors. He later found out that “this was no ordinary lady.” The woman owned a lab in England where they developed their own spices. The spice “scientists” gave Mr. Hill’s first attempt at their recipes two thumbs up. And he hasn’t deviated from that recipe ever since!
“The scientists said it was perfect,” he smiled. “And you can’t beat that!”
Mr. Hill takes great pleasure in perfecting his food and making people smile with his culinary skills. His email holds the words “the food entertainer,” and I asked him about the story behind that.
“I take pleasure in treating people and people enjoying what they eat. I entertain with my food. A job well done is my biggest joy!”
In the eyes of this entrepreneur, the big red food truck in the Lumberyard is just the start of something. He hopes to later franchise the business and sell his recipes to other ambitious culinary enthusiasts on other islands to expand his roti business. His plan is to start with his own land on St. John, to then expand to the neighboring islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix and then across the Caribbean to his home of Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Martin….The Roti King must have his empire.
“One of these days some big guy will come and knock on my door and want to strike a deal.” he laughed.
For now, Mr. Hill is serving pates and johnny cakes until noon each day and dishing out roti in the chicken, goat and veggie varieties all day…Until its gone. But don’t stop by on a Sunday. The truck is only open six days a week because this energetic and ambitious man needs some rest!
As we were wrapping up our chat, another hopeful patron approached the truck on a motorcycle. Mr. Hill waved him away saying “Tomorrow Again.”
Thank you, Mr. Hill, for the amazing lunch and for taking the time out of your busy day to tell me a bit about your story. I hope all of you will make some time to stop by to taste some of this delicious cuisine that he has spent decades perfecting!