Still I Rise: How Community Leaders and Restaurants of St. Croix Were Able to Revitalize the Island

by Mashari Grissom

Signature restaurants are valued treasures in our communities–especially the ones with good food. Take St. Croix for example, a beautiful island within the Virgin Islands that was recently hit with Hurricane Maria back in September of last year. Yet, their ability to overcome such a turmoil and still being able to provide for their communities is what makes them stand out. Rebuilding a brand, a business, or an establishment after a setback can be complex, let alone a restaurant severely affected by a Category 5 hurricane. According to the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce President, Edgar Bengoa, ninety percent of the businesses have reopened while power has been restored.

Located near a beautiful waterfront, in the seaside town of Frederiksted on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands the following businesses are the sun after the storm. Surrounded by new shopping centers, local markets, shops, corner groceries and public transportation the town of Frederiksted is booming with success.

Cultural Mecca of St. Croix: The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts

During a time of high volumes of youth violence , The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, Inc. (CMCArts) was created in 1994 to support different forms of positive expression and art. Through exciting events and exhibitions, CMCArts provides a space for artists to sell their art from all over the world. Their mission is to solely preserve and promote local art of the Caribbean community while providing a safe space for youth. The museum offers two-level floor galleries, working spaces, and tools for painters, writers, and international 3-D artists. In addition, their programs managed by the Board of Directors are created for children to be educated about art and its history.

“Our events and initiatives are made for the community to understand the importance and body of art in our lives,” stated by Janis Velmont, President of the Board of Directors for CMCArts.

Just recently, CMCArts hosted a festival to promote the significance of reading for the youth, which was sponsored by the Board of Education and The University of The Virgin Islands. All children who attended were able to take home any book that was donated to the museum.

While some museums just hold space for artists to exhibit their art for sale, CMCArts does that and more. Local artists are actively promoted while some are even inducted in the National Art Society. While making the children feel like they belong, the museum even provides summer camp programs and afterschool activities. Through these programs, children are encouraged to use natural resources within their environment to create multi-faceted art projects.

Networking and engagement within the community is important to The Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts. Authors are even able to connect with artists, which allows them to use their creative illustrations and graphic art for their books.  Besides portraits, their bi-weekly and monthly events showcase visual arts, performing arts, and musicians. Poetry reading, theatrical plays, and recitals are performed for children and adults to learn various forms of expression. Additionally, free jazz music events are also presented once a month. According to their website, The Caribbean Museum Center for The Arts offers “creative learning experiences which fosters an understanding of the rich cultural and artistic traditions of the Caribbean, and their source.”

St. Croix’s Finest Restaurants:

Owned by love, restaurant owners, Almitra and Greg has been dedicating their time, energy, and expertise at Ciboné since December 31st, 2016. If you happen to be in St. Croix on a Sunday and want to brunch, this restaurant embodies the true aesthetic of Caribbean cuisine. Their brunch menu consists of a specialty dish called the Hash Bowl which can be served with either chicken, lobster, or salmon. Yumm! In addition, the restaurant’s aura is comfortable and laidback along with a lounge-like atmosphere. Ciboné is also perfect for any date or romantic experience as their backdrop and artwork on the walls creates a welcoming environment. Restaurant owners Almitra and Greg admitted that they treat their staff like family. Through activities outside of work, their encouragement and friendliness create a family-based atmosphere.

When asked Greg if he had any advice for upcoming restaurant owners, he replied “Don’t be scared; people say restaurants are too costly…they have to stop and let go. Yes, its hard to get started…you just have to keep going.”

Whether it’s a Christmas carnival or a Jazz music-infused night, Ciboné is also not afraid to throw party!  In the night, the restaurant is occasionally transformed into a lounge while the residents of St. Croix and tourists eat great food with music from local artists. For outside dining, their courtyard is also open for dinner nearby a prime location. What make Ciboné unique is their creativity; they don’t have printed food menus like other eateries, which makes you feel even more at home. Some of the specialty dishes includes blackened salmon, mussels, and the signature Ciboné salad. For dinner, their salmon is never frozen and always fresh straight from Puerto Rico.

It’s clear that the hurricane didn’t affect their persistence, Greg and Almitra’s approach was full force and diligent. Even through the possible risks of high cost in stocking food, they continued to rebuild and restore the island through their entrepreneurial boldness.

“This is his dream, and he’s going to make it come alive,” stated Almitra when asked how they overcame such turmoil as restaurant owners.

Smoke STX
Just fifty feet from the blue waters, Smoke STX is the go-to place if you’re craving ribs.  The rustic vibe and smokehouse atmosphere creates a family-orientated casual dining spot located in Frederiksted, St. Croix. When asked what goals were set for the restaurant, owners Les Cherry and Chef Joe Smith, both expressed their vision for Smoke STX’s expansion.  While their catering business is booming for villas and brands throughout St. Croix, their goal to expand in different locations of the Virgin Islands looks promising.

One of Smoke STX’s specialty dishes, is called Three-Day-Ribs. Chef Joe Smith explained the process:

“The first day consists of butchering and seasoning, following with the next day of smoking the ribs, finished with a light graze on the third day for flavor.”

While Chef Joe Smith has been in the dining industry for about thirty years, and restaurant owner, Les Cherry’s experience shows 20 years, the food at Smoke STX are must-haves. The restaurant opened just September of last year and their catering services are already reaching villas. Smokes STX’s catering usually consists of three diners a week which included a full dinner with wine. I was so intrigued with this smokehouse in particular; I searched their great reviews on the internet.

“I live in North Carolina and know me some BBQ. Everything was great here – the pulled pork, brisket, and (especially) smoked meatloaf. Pair it with the smoked mac and cheese and you’re in for a real treat,” stated by a Trip Advisor reviewer.

Rum bar and finest West Indian cuisine, Braata is one of a kind! Located in Frederiksted, near the new boutique hotel, The Fred, this eatery is nestled in a courtyard between Strand and King Street of St. Croix. According to the Caribbean Journal, Chef Digby Stridiron, owner of Braata is responsible for St Croix’s culinary renaissance.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rico, one of Braata’s chefs who was also mentored by Chef Digby. He spoke about his participation in revitalizing the island with food along with a group of talented chefs in the area. In efforts to support the people of St. Croix after the hurricane, they cook large supplies of food for families. The money is raised from throwing pop-up events, themed parties, and brunches at Braata and its sister restaurant, Ama. Their collective goal is to refine, re-polish, and restore their island through leadership and action.

Braata’s menu changes from time to time while sticking to their signature Caribbean flavors. Currently, their dishes include griot with shrimp palau, accra with chimichurri sauce, and ginger jerk chicken. But, what’s a meal without a drink? Their West Indian inspired cocktails and “plum-infused rum” proves why preserving culture is so significant. Rico went into detail about his favorite dish at Braata:

“Our specialty dish is definitely the mahi ceviche salad. Not done the traditional way like submerging the fish in citrus juices, but instead taking a more charcuterie approach to it. I decided to try curing fish and making a ceviche a different way than the standard, I use a basic curing solution with the zest of various citrus fruits.”

Prepared by talented chefs and diverse culinary backgrounds, Braata, Ciboné, and Smoke STX are still standing after the storm –untouched and unbothered.

After six months of Hurricane Maria, most of the power has been restored but the power of leadership continues to overflow in Frederiksted, St. Croix. These people fully represent the term “it’s bigger than you.” As this saying derives from this exact concept of doing things for the larger result. These restaurant owners didn’t think solely of themselves; they considered the ones in need: their community. It takes leaders with thoroughness and self-control to get up in the morning and do the double work for others. After hearing their stories, I became inspired and intrigued on the amount of strength it must of took to stand back up and try again.

The CMCArts leaders and the restaurant owners of Braata , Cibone, and Smoke STX are just a few of what Frederiksted, St. Croix has to offer. The phenomenal beaches, new boutiques, and stores also makes it a prime location to visit. Even after the hurricane hit, these businesses were able to diligently refine, re-polish, and restore their island through conscious leadership.

This new momentum in Frederiksted is a drastic change for the residents of St Croix, because the commercial and culinary renaissance used to only be in the town called Christiansted. Additionally, the new hotel, The Fred brings even more attention, as it is nearby boutique stores, jazzy cafes, and a beautiful coastline.

Through community engagement, great food, exciting events, and festivals these establishments of Frederiksted, St Croix proves why culture expression is vital. Local artists can promote their artwork on the walls of restaurants while musicians can express themselves on any Friday and Saturday night.  It was an honor to get a personal glimpse of the beauty within these West Indian kitchens as well as the cultural mecca of St. Croix: Caribbean Museum Center of The Arts.


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