WALL STREET INVESTS LUNCH MONEY AT VERONICA'S KITCHEN
Like many women of her generation in her native Trinidad, Veronica Julien grew up learning how to cook under the watchful instruction of her parents and grandmother. "This was something every girl learned," she remembers, "but in my household, everyone had to learn how to cook and clean and keep a house, not just the girls." Julien, now a grandmother herself, credits her childhood training for the award-winning fare she serves from Veronica's Kitchen, as she calls her stainless-steel cart. Found on the streets of New York's Financial District, the cart is a popular mainstay among the lunch crowd for its Trinidadian dishes and punches.
Like the various forms of Caribbean cooking, a tasty, colorful hybrid of the many cuisines and cultures that left their imprint on Caribbean history, Julien is from a multinational household (her grandmother and mother were "born and raised Trini"; her father was an Englishman originally from Grenada). "Trinidadian [cuisine]," she explains, "is a little of everything— African American, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese. And a lot of Trinidadian dishes are Eastern Indian staples, like roti, curry, and pilau."
The verdant landscape of the Caribbean is another source for the richness of Trinidadian cuisine. "Growing up on the islands," Julien says, "we ate what we bred—cows, chickens, ducks, goats, vegetables, and fruits. My father fished, and would bring us fresh fish, too. A lot of city kids these days, they don't have what we had."
That bountiful childhood would serve Julien well later in her life in the United States. She had made a trip here in 1983, to visit a brother and sister who had immigrated, and loved the country immediately. However, she was hesitant about uprooting her family, which included two small children, and leaving her haberdashery business behind. After a divorce though, she felt she needed a change, and knew that she wanted to remake her life in a new country. "It was not easy," she says. "I knew it was going to be hard, but I did not know it would be that hard."
Julien returned to the States in 1985 and worked various restaurant jobs until she found employment as a consultant at a microfiche firm. She stayed there for seventeen years until the firm downsized and eliminated her job in 2003. "I thought, 'What am I going to do?' My sister said, 'You make great cakes. You could start there.' So that's what I did." Julien began selling her cakes to family and friends, and as word of mouth spread, was soon conducting brisk business supplying cakes for birthday parties and other celebrations. Gradually, she expanded her selection until she had a full menu.
By 2005, Julien had built a steady clientele and was ready to open her own establishment; a food cart seemed like the right step. "It was very slow when I first started," she says. "For three months, I would only make about $40, $50 [per day]. I didn't know how long I would last."
Soon, however, the tantalizing aromas from Veronica's Kitchen began attracting crowds. "I remember the first day that I made more than $50—I made $130, and it was a big day!" With the encouragement of her customers, and with family members cooking in the cart under her tutelage, Julien became a permanent fixture at her Financial District location, where she served up steaming lunches of such Trini specialties as Stewed Oxtail, Jerk Chicken, Curry Shrimp, Fried Plantain, and various styles of roti.
Her reputation grew steadily, so much so that fan nominations and widespread acclaim, online and otherwise, boosted Veronica's Kitchen into contender status at the 2007 Vendy Awards. Five years later, she remains content with her success in the cart, but admits she has considered expanding her enterprise into a full-sized kitchen. "It is not easy. I'm from the islands, I like the heat," she says, "but it gets so hot [in the cart], you wouldn't believe it!"
And if she won the lottery, would she still be cooking? "Oh yes, I would!" she's quick to say. "But I always tell myself, if I came into money, I would do some volunteer work and teach preteens how to cook. In my family, the preteens are always curious, always asking, 'how do you do this, how do you do that?' Once they turn seventeen, though, they don't want to learn anymore. You have to start early." If her charges learn how to cook Julien's specialties the old-fashioned way, just as she did, it would truly be a public service.
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Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.