Chinkey: “We’re the best, man, we have real nice food”

For Trinidadians, Chinkey’s Nite Bite is a favourite spot for “street food”

Ossie Francis, better known as Chinkey, serves some of his customers in St James, Trinidad. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

I love this business – you meet so many different people, and that’s what I enjoy most. I have friends from all around the world, and they always come to Chinkey’s Nite Bite when they’re in Trinidad. People from every walk of life: politicians like Jack Warner, musicians like David Rudder, Damian “Junior Gong” Marley, Calypso Rose, Alison Hinds, and even beauty queens like Wendy Fitzwilliam.

But to make it a success, you have to put the work in. My wife Ann is the driving force behind everything, she’s the engine room. She really does the work of about three people. And then we have another three in the kitchen. One of those is our cook, Julian, who is really excellent; he’s been with us about 15 years and when I’m ready to retire I would like him to take the business on.

For my part, I control the stall, which is another thing in itself; you have to be respected by the people around here, otherwise it’s easy to get into trouble. It’s a good business, but that’s not to say it’s always easy.

We’re here, on our stall across from Smokey and Bunty’s bar in St James, every Wednesday through to Saturday from around 7 pm, and on the busier nights, like Friday, we won’t finish packing up until 7.30 am the next morning. And there’s all the preparatory work: all the vegetables and other ingredients have to be fresh, so we spend a lot of time at the markets.
I’ve been in the food business over 30 years, so it’s been a long journey to get where we are today.

I was born in a tapia house on a hillside in Laventille Road, Febeau Village, Trinidad, in 1950, so I’m 59 years old now. We were a very poor family with nine children. My father was a lifeguard on Maracas Beach – he got medals for bravery – and my mother did odd jobs as well as looking after us. There wasn’t a lot of money coming into the house, so from pretty early I was living on my wits, on the streets a lot. I didn’t have a lot of time for school. and at age 11 I was sent to Belmont Orphanage. I learned a trade there, joinery, and when I left the orphanage, aged 16, that’s what I went into for a short time. I was sending money back to the family. But after a while they fell on hard times again and so I went back out onto the street, gambling, cards and dice, for extra cash. I’d also do a little small work here and there, but nothing permanent.

I was partying a lot at that time, and that’s how I got my nickname. I was born Ossie Francis, but my friends called me Chinkey, because when you party a lot and take a few drinks, your eyes get a little small and scrunched up – well, they found I looked a little Chinese, so the name stuck.
After a time you get fed up with the gambling and moving from job to job, so at the age of 28, I started selling dry goods, like rice, from a parlour in Laventille Road, with the rest of my family. But we also used to cook each day and it started getting popular, so after a while, we began to sell the cooked food. Everyone was involved: my brothers cooking, sisters selling and my mother making bake. Food was really cheap in those days: a big cup of mauby was 25 cents, something that would sell for $7 today.

It went well, but after a time, drugs and the gangs started to take over the area and cause trouble. So normal folks stopped coming out so much, business started slowing down, some of my brothers went their own way, and so I knew it was time to move on. We set up a stall in San Juan and did really well there for a time. We were selling lovely food: nice fried rice with ochro, baigan, pumpkin and bhagi; boneless stewed fish, shark, smoke herring, saltfish, soya beans, all sorts of food.

But the same thing happened: drugs and gangs started coming in. I used to have a lot of customers from St James, so I thought why not go to meet them, as there is obviously a demand. That was about 14 years ago. My brothers also have their own businesses just along the street.
We love being here. St James is so energetic, you can get anything you want, day or night, and we have become part of the local scene. Everybody knows Chinkey’s. We were even on a Travel Channel show, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, which was amazing. Chinkey’s was seen all over the world, something I never thought would happen. He even said the shark and bake he ate was one of the best things he had ever tasted. That was wonderful.

Right now we’re getting even more popular; people are fed up with chicken all the time, so they like the alternative of vegetarian and fish, which is what we do. We don’t sell chicken or beef. We have everything I mentioned before, but also roti, pies, bake and shark, boneless kingfish, tuna, marlin [seasoned with] bandhaniya [shadon beni], garlic and homemade pepper sauce. We’re the best, man, we have real nice food.

We’ve never had any handouts or help from anybody; we’ve done all this on our own, and a lot of it is for our daughters. I still live in a small house in San Juan with big houses all around, but every man wants his children to have the opportunities they never had. I was born at home; my children, Ashaki, 28, and Nneka, 20, were born in a nursing home. I am not an educated man but my daughters are educated, and I am proud of that.

I want to open another business in San Juan next year, but if things go well, then I would be ready to retire in a couple of years. I love the business, but I feel I’ve nearly done my time.