“Allyuh behave allyuhself!” Ronaldo Martin jovially chides the small group of laughing construction workers departing their worksite for the night and into the refreshing and electric evening air on a mild spring night in Harlem, New York. Martin’s words are delivered with such rich tone and good nature that passing pedestrians can’t help but pause and smile in response to the Trinidadian’s directive, peppered and delivered in a way that all Caribbean people understand, respect and identify with. It’s hard to describe the duality of the Trini colloquialism in terms of it being a humorous warning and a parting witticism all at the same time. But if you are from the Caribbean, or travel to the region, you know exactly what I am talking about. The words’ delivery: warm, cool and charismatic- just like the orator, a man who commands your attention when speaking.
At first impression, it’s easy to bestow upon him the title, “Culinary Commander” of the Big Belly Roti Shop, New York’s newest pan-Caribbean restaurant. But Ronaldo prefers a simpler title, one that conveys his affinity for building close relationships with the restaurant’s patrons through obsessively attentive customer service and tireless dedication to providing a memorable dining experience. “In this shop we keep it uber-friendly, comfortable and intimate. It’s not about me…it’s all about the shop’s relationship with our guests,” Martin insists. “The Culinary Commander…No sir! Just call me what I aspire to be…Shopkeeper!”
There are precious few success stories that inspire us more than the ones that are chock full of nuggets of quixotic determination and personal dedication juxtaposed with odds of the improbable and fantastic. This shopkeeper’s story finds its humble origin in the Diego Martin region of Trinidad. The region’s capital city, which shares its name, sits nestled and surrounded by the bucolic and wonderfully picturesque northern hilly region of the small island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The city of Diego Martin, is where a younger Ronaldo called home. As a youth, Ronaldo frequented his favorite neighborhood hang-outs in nearby Tunapuna; often venturing to St. James to cop the delectable “pavement roti” hawked by street vendors alongside “doubles”, roti’s deliciously snackable counterpart in the Trinidadian bill of fare.
It is in Trinidad & Tobago, affectionately referred to as “TT” by its citizenry, where fiercely industrious work ethics are more so hewn, than developed amongst the nation’s workforce. It is the very same conviction of individual effort widely attributed, here in the United States, to Caribbean immigrant workers; satirically lampooned in well-known comedy sketches such as Keenen Ivory Wayans’s “the Hedley’s,” featured for many seasons on the hit comedy show In Living Color. In Trinidad parents rear their children under rigid codes and puritanical philosophies of personal accountability, sacrifice and commitment. The bright lights of New York seem a million miles away, yet many Trinidadians give up their island home and travel to the United States to reap a more secure and larger financial return on their willing investment of hard work and sacrificing efforts as patriotic residents of the states.
(Ronaldo Martin, owner and Executive Chef of The Big Belly Roti Shop, becomes an American citizen.)
For as long as Ronaldo Martin can fondly recall, his parents, Astor and Elizabeth Martin, consistently combined such old-world ethos with loving encouragement, nurturing their five children, and motivating the younger Martins to pursue their individual dreams and passions in their adopted home of America. Ronaldo, the youngest sibling, obediently followed his parent’s missives on the benefits of self-reliance and hard work. To this very day, the owner and Executive Chef of the Big Belly Roti Shop continues to apply such valuable principles as he readies his establishment and enthusiastic staff for the shop’s debut in Harlem, New York this summer. A strong sense of familial connectivity inhabits the Big Belly Roti Shop as Astor, the gregarious teddy bear with a booming laugh and twinkling grey eyes, and Elizabeth, the soft spoken but regal matriarch, guide their son as mentors and guardians of Trini culture and cooking. Step by step through the development of the restaurant’s physical space, Ronaldo takes time to shares trade and culinary secrets with his young son, Ronaldo, Jr., a passionate and discerning foodie who is already exhibiting all the signature makings and culinary intuitiveness of a practicing chef; or a seriously analytical food critic. It would certainly seem that opening a food establishment is a generational rite of passage in the Martin family. In this past year, Ronaldo proudly became an American citizen with motivating encouragement from his Guyanese-American wife and absolute best friend and kitchen-mate, Cheryl; a superb cook in her own right. The couple’s relationship charmingly and effectively extends past the normal parameters of matrimony, with both members acting as a resourceful strategic advisors for each other- planning and mapping out the critical next steps for each one’s personal achievement and success.
(Ronaldo, with Cheryl and Ronaldo, Jr. , at his old stomping grounds Maracas Beach in Trinidad)
The shopkeeper quickly credits, his parents, siblings, and family traditions practiced at home as the greatest sources of support, inspiration and moral compass. “My parents owned two roti shops back home in TT,” Ronaldo humbly notes, “Man, this is in my blood!” What is a fascinating hallmark of his own roti shop is Ronaldo’s concept of bringing traditional “roti” and pan-Caribbean culture together with modernity and sophistication. For way too long, many consumers of Caribbean roti have had to travel to the “outer boroughs” to enjoy the delectable stews, hearty flour wraps and spicy curried flavorings of the Trinidadian and Guyanese specialty in pedestrian shops that offer very little in the way of aura and ambience. But the Big Belly Roti Shop, aka BBRS, offers all that and more in a setting that is stylish, progressive and atmospherically in step with the refreshing neo-soul renaissance currently underway throughout the Village of Harlem. And most impressively and importantly, BBRS does it without sacrificing the authenticity and soulfulness of the cultural product.
With its pan-Caribbean menu, the shop offers an array of richly prepared presentations from the Latin Caribbean as well as the featured dishes from the West Indian concentration. Under Ronaldo’s supervision and mandates, attentive and welcoming service to the visiting patron will be as much of a consumable feature as the items listed on the menu. With more than 23 years of working his way up from busboy to General Manager positions in some of the most celebrated restaurants, lounges and hotels in the New York City, including Virgil’s, and Carmine’s restaurants, as well as Le Parker Meridien Hotel and the Hilton and Marriott Marquis hotels, Ronaldo knows what commitment to premium hospitality and service is all about. The element of customer service has not only been a developed dimension of his professional maturation, it’s a fundamental pillar of his philosophical concept of how to building an exceptional restaurant.
As the night envelops the northern Manhattan isle on a recent exuberant spring evening, Ronaldo prophetically stares out from the BBRS construction site into the vibrant Harlem scene. He compares the mild breeze to the relaxing climate of his childhood years in TT, reminiscing about swimming in the Caribbean ocean and camping out on the beach at dusk. “Hey, I love my Maracas Bay bake and shark, and St James pavement roti and doubles just as much as anybody else. But New York is and always will be the global capital of cultural diversity, and Harlem is the epicenter of that presentation. Opportunities uptown are flourishing, especially for Caribbean born, and African American entrepreneurs; actually for all ethnic artisans who want to celebrate and share with the world their own unique cultural gifts.” Ronaldo affirms as he closes up the shop for the night. “My shop is gonna’ be home for everybody, believe that! And what better gift to give than the gift of home?” True, so true. So as the finishing wrappings go on New York’s new premier roti shop, let’s get the party started Harlem, USA. Your gift awaits you right down on Amsterdam Avenue. By way of Diego Martin, of course!
The Shop Builders and Shopkeepers: Ronaldo (left) and his BBRS business partners, Tim Phillips and Juice Morton