November 29, 2023
St. Martin
The Rasta Restaurateur

Meet the immigrant musician who proved that an island that imports practically everything can go local and organic

By Melody Wren

Local officials warned him that he wouldn’t be able to grow a thing. St. Martin is an import society, and many people believe farming in this stony earth is impossible.

But Ras Bushman ignored them. He managed to turn the steep rocky hills high above his land into a lush garden. In 1999, he opened his first vegan-style restaurant: a clearing under a tree. Now the part-time Rastafarian musician runs The Ital Shack: the only organic cafe in the Dutch quarter of the island, known as St. Maarten.

“People need to get more conscious that we are what we eat, and we must get more conscious of plant rights, like human rights,” said Bushman, who was born in Curacao, and whose real name is Roland Joe. “If you agree with culture, you have agriculture. If everyone could plant something — a herb tree, a plant — the whole world would be farming.”

Pumpkin, corn, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, sweet peppers, lettuce, arugula, cucumber , cassava, lime, thyme, and sorrel grow along paths carefully hewn into the treacherous hillside overlooking St. Maarten Bay.

It is typical contour farming, traditional to the Pacific islands, where growing tree crops on hillsides is a very old and effective conservation practice.

This was a farming experiment to “prove it can be done,” said Bushman. He explains that the Rasta way of life is generally called “Ital,” a play on “vital,” meaning a healthy life, without chemicals or packaging.

We climb laboriously to the cafe at the top of the hill.

“Watch the food,” Ras Bushman keeps reminding me, as we traverse our way up the zigzagged stony pathways.

The climb is so steep that I have to watch every step, or risk tumbling down toward the bay.

In the cafe, Bushman’s wife, Ras Liza, cooks up the daily specials: rotis, patties, lentil pea stew and Ital soup, served with fried plantain.

When we’re done chatting, Bushman offers to drive me back to my hotel.

I tell him I could take a taxi.

He holds up a hand.

“Don’t make it into a problem,” he says.

He needed to stop for charcoal along the way. Cooking with natural charcoal enhances the flavors of the food. Assuming there’s a Home Depot equivalent nearby, I tag along.

As we talk in his jeep, I glance up to find we’ve driven onto an isolated, heavily-treed side road. I experience a fleeting moment of panic, feeling vaguely naive that I’d been caught alone here with a virtual stranger, with no idea of where I was.

The quasi-abandoned road leads to the derelict Belvedere plantation, sprinkled with ancient crumbling stone buildings. My panic evaporates once I realize I’m seeing a part of the island that tourists don’t get to see. We’re a world away from Philipsburg, with its tourists, casinos and parked cruise ships.

Jaime is sitting on a lopsided kitchen chair, eating ribs and rice out of a pot on the porch of his stone home. Chickens scurry around him. He’s lived on this property for over 50 years, he says, in one of the original stone plantation houses.

Bushman points to a spot where he says charcoal has been made for centuries. Branches and logs are piled high, as if in a sacred circle.

Jamie makes charcoal by covering the wood with fresh earth and leaves, then burning the wood for about three days, creating natural charcoal for local barbeque joints and restaurants like The Ital Cafe.

Bushman hoists a couple of huge bags of charcoal to his jeep,  then returns me to my hotel as he’s promised.

Bushman plays with his band, The Freedom Fighters, in some of St. Maarten’s many nightspots. But he’s equally devoted to his second career. “The richest man on earth is a farmer,” he said.

The Ital Shack is open daily except Saturdays, from 7 a.m.

Melody Wren writes about travel, food and green living.

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