The village of Hardbargain, Trinidad is so small that even people who live on the Caribbean island do not know the name. Lisa “Queen Trini” Nelson, who grew up there, simply calls it “the bush”. Her love of cooking blossomed when she was a teenager watching her mother in the kitchen and experimenting together with recipes influenced by Trinidad and Tobago’s prevalent African, East Indian and Asian flavors and cultures (the sister islands form one country) .
“Those were precious moments,” she said. “I was her sous-chef without knowing it.”
From Trinidad to the Bywater
Before becoming Queen Trini, Nelson moved from Trinidad to New York to live with her father and later to New Jersey to start her own family. She was first lured to New Orleans by the weather after her family’s contractor made a long-term appearance to repair a client’s damaged properties in the Bywater neighborhood following Hurricane Katrina.
“They used to call me during breaks, just chilling on the porch — nice and hot — while I shovel snow and freeze my butt off in New Jersey,” she said.
When she came to visit in the summer, it was love at first sight.
“I was like, ‘Wow, the weather is so nice and there are so many trees.'”
Even though it was devastated by the storm, she could see the beauty and feel the Caribbean atmosphere, especially in the warmth of the people and the culture.
“How long are you planning to stay down here?” she asked the crew. With enough work to keep her going for the foreseeable future, Nelson and her four children finally moved downstairs shortly after.
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contract for cooking
The commission work progressed to her family opening a small hardware store on St. Claude Avenue, which ran for a number of years before being priced out by major competition. Next, they bought a nearby corner store and its menu of popular New Orleans dishes (think Po’boys and fried chicken), which landed Nelson in her first commercial kitchen (as well as her first-ever Po’boys with hot sausage, her Favourite). and long, hard hours at work.
Too tired to cook at home, she noticed that her children weren’t eating well. She started multitasking in the shop kitchen and cooking healthier family meals on the extra stovetops.
“And that’s how it all started,” she said.
On the days she cooked for the kids, regular customers would ask what smelled so heavenly.
For Nelson, it was just regular food.
“I thought, ‘What are you talking about? What’s so special about lentils, chicken and rice?’”
They begged to try something and – after getting a taste – begged to buy it. Then they came the next day to see if she had more.
“So I said, ‘Fine, I cook and sell on Sundays,'” she said.
Not only was it sold out, but people came back Monday to buy leftovers.
“People in the Caribbean don’t mess with leftovers, forget to buy them,” she said. “I was a little offended.”
But one light went out, and she expanded cooking her Caribbean food to two nights a week, then four, and finally every day, alternating her favorite dishes like those she used to cook with her mother, who had since died.
As word spread about delicious Caribbean food pouring out of the back of a corner shop, Nelson realized she needed some marketing help. She hired a college student who put her up on social media and proclaimed her Queen Trini Lisa.
“I looked at her sideways,” she said, claiming she couldn’t do justice to the title. But with a common Trini name like Lisa, she knew he could set her apart. Also, it would take forever to find another handle. Little time and energy, she admitted.
“Okay, I guess I’m a queen.”
People started calling the store and asking if the Queen was there. “Well,” she replied hesitantly, “that’s Lisa.” The more it happened, the more she liked the sound, she admitted. “People address me as Queen now, and I love it — except when my kids do it, that’s too much,” she said, laughing.
Coco Bread Fish Sandwich by Queen Trini Lisa with mixed leafy greens, cucumber, tomatoes, pineapple and sweet plantains fried in butterflies, wrapped in warm toasted coconut bread. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
Food soon became the main source of income between store sales and pop-ups around town. Faced with the mounting challenges of running a corner shop (broken appliances, break-ins, competition and even a mugging), Nelson decided to push herself even further by trying out her first festival.
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Practice creates masters
After a food historian friend wrote a two-page letter to get Nelson a booth at the NOLA Caribbean Festival, she took a big risk by making “Bake and Shark” — an iconic Trinbagonian sandwich with spiced fish (yes, shark meat) in between two pieces of fluffy fried bread (the “baking” part) served with fresh lettuce, tomato and cabbage. It was sold out on the first day. The Queen was crowned with the grand prize in the festival’s jerk chicken competition a few years later with her unique barbecue version (one of her proudest moments and on her regular menu). By that point, she’d given up the corner store and focused full-time on pop-ups, festivals, and a spot in Central City’s former Roux Carre Food Court.
The Trini people of New Orleans (commonly referred to as the northernmost city in the Caribbean) began flocking to them, excited to try their favorite dishes like roti — a flatbread with a variety of fillings and doubles — a vegan, anytime-of-the-day snack seasoned chickpeas folded into two flatbreads. Nelson never made these at home in Trinidad because the Indian street vendors made them fresh and at their best. When customers found out she didn’t have one, she witnessed “the joy drain from her face.” After enough sad faces, she couldn’t take it anymore and committed to teaching herself to do doubles.
“I promised myself that I would try to do them three or four times a week, just practice, practice, practice,” she said.
There was YouTube, cooking channels and recipe books – a whole year and a half of trial and error to get it right. And just like her mother, she found a version she liked by combining different techniques and recipes.
“It’s a bit bigger than the ones at home,” she said. “It’s more of a meal.”
She wants people to get their money’s worth. The batter is fried to order for maximum fluffiness and flavor. Mango chutney, tamarind and hot sauces served as side dishes are made from scratch.
Queen Trini Lisa’s vegan doubles perfected: two pieces of turmeric-flavored flatbread, freshly cooked, filled with curried chickpeas, with sides of mango chutney and tamarind, and homemade hot sauces. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
What exactly is Caribbean soul food?
When I asked what is commonly misunderstood about Trini food, Nelson said that people don’t know where Trinidad is and they think it’s Jamaica (citing the name of Trinidad-born Nicki Minaj to solve the problem to solve). A visit to their new brick-and-mortar neighborhood in Mid-City (opened this January) may provide relief, with its warm, blue-green tropical atmosphere, verdant plants, and ubiquitous use of the Trinidad and Tobago flag. Not to mention the Trini and Caribbean loving people who flock here. (And the smell, of course.)
Nelson brings New Orleans flavors to her recipes, like Creole spices in the Doubles and Louisiana-brand Fish Fry for her fish, because she believes in “home is where you are.” She also loves accommodating a variety of diets, with gluten-free and vegan options, and using halal chicken in her curry and jerk dishes. To keep it interesting (for her and for us), she occasionally adds specialties like trini yakamein, double seafood, oxtail chowder, mango chow, corn chowder, and yes, bake and shark. She also experiments with grits and oxtail and practices with the roti.
“People work hard for their money, and with so much good food in this city, I’m always grateful that they come and spend it with me,” she said, still in awe of her own journey. “I mean, I’m just a girl who grew up in the bush, and here I am rubbing elbows with award-winning chefs [like the 2022 Black History Month collaboration dinner with Nina Compton]Winning awards, being on TV and now having my own shop, I’m like wow, I didn’t see that coming.
Queen Trini Lisa’s Island Soul Food Restaurant at 4200 D’Hemecourt Street in Mid-City, open Tuesday through Saturday. Follow her on Instagram at @the_queen_trini for hours and specials. (Photo by Tami Fairweather)
Since she started, her children have worked with her, washing dishes, preparing, serving, and hauling supplies. They are very loving, she said, and are her backbone.
“Without them, I’m not Queen Trini, and quite frankly, they’re the reason I’m Queen Trini in the first place.”
Nelson said she didn’t know what her talent was for a long time. She knew she could cook but didn’t think it was. Now she sees that journey to come to New Orleans and become Queen Trini gave her the confidence she lacked in her younger years. “I’ve really settled in here,” she said. “I cook with passion and joy and love and people say, ‘I can see the love on the plate,’ and that means everything.”