Picture this scene: A hungry customer stands outside a nondescript building in downtown Los Angeles. He’s not even sure if he has the right address, but a little sign out front indicates he’s in the right place. As he waits patiently for chef Rashida Holmes to fill his order of piping hot Bajan patties (an island specialty in Barbados) a couple of hipsters whiz past him in a Prius, roll down the window and scream, “They’re worth the wait!”
Few could’ve predicted 2020 would bring a global pandemic. Even fewer could’ve imagined the threat of a virus would be coupled with worldwide protests against the deadly shooting of an unarmed black man—just one of many, actually. But not only did both happen, both worked strangely in favor of Rashida Holmes, a Los Angeles-based chef who in summer 2020 opened a takeout “popup” based in DTLA called Bridgetown Roti that offers irresistible Bajan patties (think empanadas, but stuffed with ingredients native to the Caribbean).
“The pandemic has actually been kind of positive,” says Holmes. “We’ve had a great response from people wanting something tasty that they don’t have to cook themselves, that is new and different. And there’s definitely an interest in people wanting to support black businesses.” And the demand has been huge. Holmes is working hard to keep up with orders (currently in excess of 400 on a busy weekend) as she builds toward a brick-and-mortar business.
Holmes is a native New Yorker. Her mom was born in Barbados, the Caribbean island famous for birthing pop star Rhianna. Meanwhile, her father on her grandfather’s side is also from the Caribbean. He was born in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal and has family from Barbados. “I like to joke that they might be related because it’s a tiny little island,” says Holmes. “But if they are, it’s way back.”
Holmes bounced around a lot as a child. The family moved to New Jersey shortly after Holmes was born and then onward to Texas for elementary school. High school happened in Baltimore where Holmes also went to culinary school before moving to Pittsburgh. “I kind of had a nomadic childhood,” she says. In 2013 she moved to Los Angeles and currently lives in Boyle Heights with her wife, a schoolteacher. Her culinary pedigree in the City of Angels is an impressive one and includes Stark Bar at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, the restaurant at the Freehand Hotel, and Botanica, a hip, produce-focused eatery in Silver Lake. Being a chef was not originally in the cards.
“I’ve always loved to eat. I’ve always been interested in food, but I didn’t think it was going to be my career,” says Holmes. “I went to college because you’re supposed to go to college. After that didn’t work out, I was like ‘let me try culinary school.’ I instantly felt at home and was good at it. I enjoy the instant gratification and instant failure of it, and the ability to learn quickly.”
In Bajan cooking, Holmes is tapping into a palate unfamiliar to most Angelenos, and that’s saying a lot given the city’s rich tapestry of ethnic cuisines. Bajan cooking includes influences that are African and southern Indian, combined with flavors native to the tropics. A patty, for example, might be stuffed with toasted okra, braised greens, snow crab, and salt cured pork belly, or a sweeter version may feature ingredients like curried yam, mango, and coconut chutney. Then there are roti, round flatbreads made from stoneground wholemeal flour and rolled burrito style with ingredients like curry chicken thighs, crispy potatoes, turmeric spiced cabbage, cilantro, and scallion. Spicy, bright, fruity and full of warm spices are words Holmes uses to describe Bajan cooking and refers to it as “the things that are in your belly kind of flavors.”
Bridgetown Roti, expected to open as a brick-and-mortar storefront in 2021, will be a takeout restaurant. “Roti shacks in the Caribbean are like the taco trucks of LA,” says Holmes. “It’s food you take on the go. I want to introduce LA to that side of the Caribbean.” It’s also a way for Holmes to eschew the tipping-based sit-down model, which she doesn’t view as sustainable. “COVID has been a reckoning that has come at the cost of so many jobs and at the cost of the livelihoods of so many brown and black people, which is unfortunate,” Holmes says. “But it will force us as an industry to restructure the restaurant model.”
When Bridgetown Roti does swing open its doors, we predict lines of hungry hipsters queuing up to sample her bright, flavorful, and awesome cooking. They’ll also be witness to something else special: a queer woman of color helming a restaurant. “I live at the cross section of woman and black person and LGBTQIA,” she says. “I hope at least me being a business owner can tick off all those boxes for at least one of us.”