The Higher Calling Behind West Indies Soul Food

22August 2021

Why is it so hard to give Sharon Richards-Noel some publicity?

Not to overstate how delightful I am to speak with, but typically if I tell restaurant owners, I’m a big fan of your work. I’d like to spend some time with you and share your story, they respond with, Oh, good, free money. Let us begin!

Not so with Sharon Richards-Noel. Back in 2015, the first time I attempted to interview the chef and founder of West Indies Soul Food, one of the Twin Cities’ founding Caribbean restaurants and original food trucks, I was told to call back: She was marinating jerk chicken. I called back: She was peeling yams. I called back: She was running to the restaurant supply place. I called back: She was out driving a kid who needed a ride. She was on the truck at a festival. She was at the garage. I tried and tried, failed and failed. Over the course of many years, Sharon Richards-Noel, as far as I could tell, was at all times using her two hands and all her heart to make chicken or serve chicken or fix a crisis or help a child. Years flowed past and it continued: It was rice, it was chicken, it was kids—no time, no time

Every summer at the State Fair, after I’d eaten all the new foods and was actually hungry again, I’d pop over to her booth in the International Bazaar area of the State Fair for my own personal State Fair treats: Jerk chicken, tender as can be, fragrant with thyme, more herbal than fiery, savory, lush. Curried chicken, of the carefully homemade sort, so subtly and delicately spiced that it tastes sweet (though it’s made with no sugar). Sweet like you’re home and everything is wholesome. Sweet like someone really cares. Now, I know that sounds cheesy and that a lot of dumb roadside restaurants say We really care when really they just scoop food out of premade buckets of slop. But you can taste simplicity and care in food if you are alert to it. I am. Which is why I devotedly seek out West Indies Soul, even when Sharon Richards-Noel will not call me back.

There, along the south wall of the bazaar, beneath her colorful sign, I’d nearly always find Sharon in the hot sun, mostly with a pan of chicken in her hands, moving it from here to there or there to here, managing a handful of young employees and the line of loyal customers who snake into the general chaos as the late summer sun shines hot and yellow on their paper-pig-ear-adorned noggins. 

I’d get my chicken and say hi. “I call you, I call you,” she’d call after me as I stood on the far side of the sneeze guard, her two feet planted wide and sturdy, the better to lift heavy things. She’d always add, “You want a slice of pie?” 

Sharon Richards-Noel makes stunning sweet potato pie. She spends weeks peeling the potatoes in advance and is generally in a state of mock fury that holds a little real fury about everyone using canned sweet potatoes these days. Her fresh sweet potato pie is so radiant, with island spices like nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, and clove. It’s more than pie—it’s aromatherapy, it’s chakra-balancing, it sings Calypso up at you from its plate, it takes you on an all-expense-paid island vacation and brings you home safe. 

“Sharon, I already bought the pie. I never miss your pie,” I’d call back across the sneeze guard, through the roar and hubbub of the crowd, holding up my slice as proof. Seeing that I was taken care of, she’d move her concern on to the next bit of work before her. “None better,” she’d call out. “None better!” 

I kept at it. Finally, this spring, a plot twist! “My fans tell me, ‘Talk to her, talk to her,’ so I’ll do it,” she finally allowed, as if I were the dentist. And so I got out my drill and frightening steel tooth scrapers and we spoke on the phone for a whole afternoon. The whole while we spoke, Richards-Noel—never idle—loaded takeout boxes for DoorDash and Uber Eats and such in the temporary kitchen from which West Indies Soul currently operates.

“I don’t like to do it,” she said of the interview, and I could sense her shaking her head over the phone. “I want God to get the glory. I don’t do anything to get praised. Let God get the glory; you put that in the story, all glory to God. All I ask is the strength and wisdom and stamina to get the work done. Nothing in that story about me! Everything about God.” 

And that is a good clue to why it’s so hard to give Sharon Richards-Noel some publicity. 

Thus, I remind us of Mark 12:17, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and to not forget through the course of this story—West Indies Soul is God’s. And the most important thing a casual observer should understand about the restaurant is right in the name: the word soul. “I promise you, God will be a big part of this story,” I said, as Sharon Richards-Noel did not believe me. 

Needless to say, the story of West Indies Soul begins in church. Minneapolis Central Church of Christ, to be exact, the city’s only predominantly Black Church of Christ. A church renowned for its hunger ministry and deep political ties, it’s the church Keith Ellison went to speak at the first Sunday after the George Floyd verdict, before his 60 Minutes interview aired.

“The preacher put in a hood so I could start my catering service!” she said. That was back in 1991. “It was me, my ex-husband, and another couple. I was tired of going out and spending my money and not getting good food, and our church agreed. Church has always been a big, big part of my life.” West Indies Soul began merely catering an event now and then—a wedding, a graduation party, Grand Old Days, Juneteenth events, just a few fun days with good food. Mainly, Sharon Richards-Noel raised her three kids and ran a home day care center.  

As to the West Indies part of West Indies Soul, God started that story in 1961, in Port of Spain, on the island of Trinidad. That was the year Sharon Richards-Noel was born, the middle child of seven, to a family without running water.  

“I remember living up on a hill, being 10 years old, maybe 11, and having to go take a bath in the street with my underwear on,” she said. “You go by the city pipe, dump a bucket of water on your head, wash yourself in the street! Then take a bucket of water home for the family. It was beautiful, though. I got to just be a kid—play marbles, fly kites, raise chickens and pigeons. My dad was a butcher, so he was always bringing home the good meats. Back then, to be butcher in Trinidad, you go to the countryside, you pick your goat or your cattle, you bring it to get killed, you take it to your stall and cut it up and sell it. At Christmastime, we never had ham from a store; we make our own. We had a mango tree, a breadfruit tree, a coconut tree. My mom, she had a little 7-Eleven type of store. She made homemade coconut fudge to sell in it, homemade sugar cakes. That’s how I got to be such a good cook, just learned from her and her sisters.”

Her mom passed away in November. As she shared this with me, she quickly added, “But I’m still very much the middle child—I like to be peaceful, and I want to be in the middle of things. I used to put on my mother’s high heels to reach the stove to cook. Now you can’t leave me out. I take business serious and cooking serious. That’s a middle child.” 

As she got older, Trinidad’s infrastructure improved, and the family eventually got running water in the house. Then God came calling, in the form of a full scholarship to a Catholic university for one of Richards-Noel’s older sisters. “We think she was the first Black girl at St. Kate’s,” Richards-Noel said. “First girl from Port of Spain, no doubt.” 

Once this sister graduated and got a job at First Bank, Richards-Noel moved north to join her. “I wanted to see the things you only see on TV, snow and all that,” she said. “But then it snowed, and I told my sister, ‘I want to go back home, you can’t see how cold it is on the TV. What are these Moon Boots, they so heavy! I want fried rice. They don’t make fried rice right here. They don’t make chow mein the way they do in the Caribbean; what is it?’ I lost 20 pounds just for Minnesota food.” 

Seeing the local population suffering from what could be a famine-inducing flavor crisis, Sharon Richards-Noel decided to do something about it by enrolling in Saint Paul College’s chef program. “I like all the parts of taking care of people—taking care of the human body for health, with cooking, with fashion design. Take care of the home with home economics,” she said. 

She also met and married a man from Grenada, and they raised three children, whereupon, like so many women chefs before and since, she discovered restaurant hours to be incompatible with caring for little kids. So she opened a day care in her home in St. Paul. “It was a lot of police officer and teacher kids, social worker kids,” she said—very St. Paul and middle class. “I always like St. Paul; it’s more neighborhood-like. In St. Paul, if I see a kid waiting for the bus, I sit with them and wait. If I see someone needs a ride, I give them a ride. They say, ‘Let me buy you gas.’ I say, ‘I didn’t ask for gas.’ ‘Well, what do you want?’ ‘Just pray for me.’ Everyone knows me in St. Paul. It’s a beautiful place to raise kids.”  

For the rest of her children-at-home years, Richards-Noel’s house would continue to be a sort of community kids’ day- and-night care. “Door’s open; my whole basement is chairs and couches and places to sleep. I know the Lord blessed me with a home, so I open up my door. If you have nowhere to go at night, you call me by 10, my house is your house. No drugs, and when I ask you to leave, you leave. That’s why everyone knows me in St. Paul! If I see a human being digging in the trash for food, I bring him food. I see a kid with no place to sleep, I find a place. What’s so hard about that? We are all beautiful souls if we let ourselves be beautiful. They used to call me the old lady who lived in a shoe—that’s how many kids I had living here.” 

Once her own kids got big and she shut down the official day care, Richards-Noel climbed through a series of professional kitchens and developed a severe distaste for chef bragging. “I never forget this guy at the Minnesota Club. He always want to argue about who was a better chef—what do I care? Is he a human being? Then love him. That’s all.” This is also why Sharon Richards-Noel does not want to speak much to people like me, who bring silver trays heaped with temptations such as vanity and pride. 

She opened a small stand-alone version of West Indies Soul in St. Paul on University, and it got by, mainly on catering. Like everyone, she applied for a stand at the State Fair, maybe three or four times. The phone rang one late-winter day in 2004, and her oldest son, Emanual, picked up, as Richards-Noel’s hands were busy with cooking. “‘Mom, it’s Dennis from the State Fair’—that’s what he said,” she recalled. “Boy, stop playing with me. ‘No really, Mom, it’s the State Fair.’ Boy, stop playing with me or I’m going to hit you with this pot. ‘No Mom, really.’ ‘Boy, if I get on the phone and there’s no Dennis from the State Fair, you really gonna be in trouble.’” But it was indeed legendary State Fair “Food Czar” Dennis Larson, who had picked West Indies Soul to bring a little Caribbean spice to the fairgrounds. Richards-Noel and her kids began to plan big plans—until—until Mother’s Day 2004, when Emanual was killed in a car wreck.  

“He was my firstborn, such a special boy,” recalled Richards-Noel. “I remember we were driving on the East Side in our minivan. I see three or four Black kids beating on someone. Emanual jumped right out of the car, and he stood over this little white kid they were beating, pulling them off him. Then I see all these white people come running; the kids who were beating him run off. There’s one Black kid left, my son—Lord, they gonna kill Emanual. They grab him—the little white kid is screaming, ‘He just saved me! He just saved me!’ That’s who Emanual was. He sees another soul getting beat, he was going save him. That’s why I thank the Lord for Emanual, for every day.” 

Today, Emanual’s face is big as the sun on the side of the West Indies Soul truck. A lot of people think he is the truck’s owner, and Richards-Noel likes it that way, which is another reason she’s press-shy. “I drive with Emanual every day now; he’s always with me,” she explained. She hadn’t reached that place her first year at the State Fair, though, when she was in the Food Building. She remembers her first State Fair as a difficult blur. Later, they moved her out of the Food Building and to the International Bazaar, and that’s been a happier fit. Everyone is chatty; it’s like a village square in Trinidad with sunshine and bustle.  

 “I have so many friends at the bazaar now,” she said. “The exotic plant guy, I give him coffee every day. At the end of every fair, he gives me plants, and they 

grow beautiful in my backyard. It’s a village concept in there. In the morning, I come and make breakfast for my staff; I share with the other vendors. There’s a French lady who makes soaps, and everybody just does a lot of trading. I love it. Did I tell you we run out of food every day at the State Fair? Everyone says, ‘I never tasted sweet potato pie like that!’ We never use cans; we peel our yams. We do everything fresh.” 

With the pie and bartering, there is prayer. “There’s a white guy who stays after all the time and asks me to pray for him—so if you look into the bazaar, a lot of times there’s a white guy and a Black lady standing by the booth and praying together. I don’t know his story; I think he found me when he wasn’t ready to pray—in sin we all fall short. I’m far from perfect. If I come off as saying I’m perfect, you take that right out your magazine.”

But what if I think Sharon Richards-Noel is perfect? Or, you know, not perfect, but living a life truly worth aspiring to? She works and serves, serves and works. She took full custody of a grandbaby and raised him for a year and a half. “He still comes over every other weekend, and his mom is doing a lot better. A lot of bad stuff happened, but a lot of good stuff is what I remember.” 

She paused in our interview to tell me I was a good mom, and that I should drink a whole lemon blended in water for energy. Every part of me thinks that if we had more Sharon Richards-Noels in the world, we’d have a better world. So I told her so.

“That’s real nice of you,” she said. “But all I do is, every day I get up, I try to serve a higher power. I want to end up in heaven. If it’s a hundred degrees and we can’t even handle a hundred degrees, how are we going to handle hell? But I know whatever happens, God is going to protect me through it all. So I serve him.” 

And that is the real reason why it’s so hard to give Sharon Richards-Noel some publicity. Everyone else making food at the fair, with the exception of the Hamline Church Dining Hall, is trying to serve as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. But Sharon Richards-Noel is trying to serve God. And God doesn’t read reviews. 

Originally published in the August 2021 issue.

This post was originally published on this site

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