So you’ve built oil sands and serviced offshore oil wells and now it’s time to retire—what do you do? Open a roti joint in a converted shipping container, of course.
At 68 years old, most retirees would be sitting on a beach or in their backyards, reading the newspaper, playing bridge, or going to exercise classes. Not Howard Bissoon. Each day, seven days a week, regardless of the weather, he can be found in a converted shipping container no bigger than a bathroom at Dundas West’s Market 707. The former mechanical and marine engineer, who once serviced offshore oil wells in his native Trinidad and helped build the Alberta oil sands, now spends his time stirring curries, pounding dough for rotis, and making jerk chicken on a tiny electric stove for his takeout restaurant T&T Roti.
Cooking is his passion, and has been since his earliest days in San Fernando, Trinidad. “I’ve always been cooking,” says Bissoon, whose grandparents were originally from India and owned a bar and restaurant in Trinidad called the Black Cat, where they sold the basmati rice dishes and rotis that form the Indo-Caribbean fusion at the heart of Trinidadian cooking. “In the Caribbean, you cook for yourself since you’re born,” Bissoon says. “The parents are busy cutting sugarcane or planting the garden, but you can always push three rocks and some twigs together to make a fire.”
The first thing he remembers cooking was pot bake, a puffy bread made in a pot that’s placed over fire and covered with an iron lid, which then has firewood piled on top so it cooks from both ends. “I made it in the bushes behind my house,” says the soft-spoken Bissoon, who has a clean-shaven head and often wears aviator glasses. He’s always been one to express his feelings through the kitchen: When it came time to court his wife, Marie, he did it with food.
“He’d go to the beach and catch lots of crabs, fish, and fruit, and bring them all for me,” says the bubbly Marie, who sometimes helps out at the stand. Once, he peeled her a whole tray of Golden Delicious apples, which he knew were her favorite. “I fell in love,” she recalls, laughing. “I love fruit!”
“It’s true,” Bissoon says, with a sly smile. “Fruit works every time.”
He mostly cooked for his family (they have seven children) and occasionally at church banquets, but two years ago, Bissoon noticed that there was a vacant stall in the newly opened market on Dundas West. Since he had been volunteering at the adjacent community centre for years, he decided to give it a go, making everything at T&T from scratch and without preservatives. That includes the sweet and spicy paste for the tender jerk-chicken dinner (served with fresh watercress and fantastic rice and red beans), curry powders for the different rotis, mashed potato–filled turnovers called alloo pies, and kurma cookies, which are fried dough strips coated in spices and a sugary icing. Even the juices are fresh, like a cinnamon-spiced concoction featuring the bark of the Yopo tree and a ginger beer that’ll clear your sinuses and cure any potential stomach ailment.
But the true lures here are the rotis, which are made from dough that’s mixed daily, then pounded and rolled by hand and placed on a hot buttered griddle where it puffs up before your eyes. “Woo!” Marie shouts, as a customer’s roti comes to life. “There goes your baby girl!” Once cooked, the pillow-soft dough is wrapped around one of four fillings. There’s one with chicken and another with curried goat (bone-in or -out), while the vegetarian version balances chickpeas and potatoes. But the standout is the shrimp curry, a fiery sauté of fat curried tiger shrimp laced with turmeric, served alongside (as they all are) a Granny Smith–curried chutney.
While Bissoon admits that he was first drawn to the idea of opening his small restaurant to supplement the meager income he gets from his pensions, his second life as a chef has been a blessing. He’s bolstered by the feedback he gets from customers and the sense that he’s giving back to the community: Bissoon’s been known to give meals at a discount, or for no charge at all, to needy people in the neighbourhood, and he never turns anyone away.
“The love is number one here,” says David, a loyal customer who calls Howard and Marie “mom and dad.” They reciprocate by giving every customer a slice of fried plantain so soft, sweet, and golden that I can’t think of a finer amuse bouche in the city. “That love goes into the meal. The love emanates.”
“He got a lot more calm, cool, and collected when he started cooking here,” says Marie, mere inches away from Bissoon, who turns and cracks a smile. “If you don’t learn to be cool by this age, you’re toast,” he says.
T&T Roti, 707 Dundas St. W., 647-707-5409.