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Good food, good wine, good times

Published: 
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Lisa Johnstone

British wine critic, writer and auctioneer John Michael Broadbent who is a Master of Wine (MW) once said, “Drinking good wine, with good food, in good company, is one of life’s most civilised pleasures.

Claiming to have “stumbled” upon her passion in the culinary field 20 years ago as she interned at a summer job, Lisa Johnstone described the beginning of her love affair with good food as “quite accidental.”

Seated at the intimate and cosy restaurant she recently opened at Maraval Plaza, the mother of an 11-year-old son said Taste Vinoteca represented the culmination of a dream she is hoping to expand.

The Maraval resident laughingly admitted, “I stumbled into this career.”

Attending to her customers personally as she seated them, in the middle of passing out menus and delivering recommendations, Johnstone related, “It was a summer job, never thinking at all I was going to fall in love with it and I did.”

Uncertain of what exactly she wanted to do at the time, Johnstone said although she was certain that it would centre around business, she opted to spend three years as an Air-Hostess with BWIA as it allowed her the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures and off course, learn about different foods and wines.

Chucking it in to study at the California Culinary Academy, San Francisco where she obtained a Degree in Hospitality Restaurant Management, Johnstone said, “I knew I wanted to return to the Caribbean and was fortunate to get a job in Barbados at a hotel.”

Crediting this particular experience as an eye-opener as the hotel was in its final year of operation, Johnstone’s eyes narrowed as she recalled, “I walked into the lion’s den but learnt to tread water before deciding to move back to Trinidad.”

Accepting a position as the Opening Manager, Prime Restaurant, Johnstone claimed, “It was one of the best experiences I ever had.”

Gesturing at the family-type atmosphere she has created at Taste Vinoteca, Johnstone simplified her description of it as she declared, “It is a wine bar with food.”

Specialising in old world wines and shared plates, Johnstone acknowledged the gamble she had taken to establish Taste Vinoteca, especially in the current economic climate.

Listing some of T&T’s higher-end restaurants under her belt as the Opening Manager, Johnstone said each opportunity had only reinforced her love of teaching others the skill and art of preparing and serving food.

She said, “It was clear to me that I needed to do something on my own.”

Spreading her wings a bit further, Johnstone embarked on consulting for the hospitality and tourism sector for a period of six years as she trained persons in Miami, Guyana, Antigua and Barbados before coming back to T&T.

Fortunate for the opportunity to begin slowly setting up Taste Vinoteca, Johnstone confirmed, “Urban Oasis Cafe was looking for someone to do something in their space at dinner-time at One Woodbrook Place as they had been open for three years but were under-utilised at night.”

“So I thought it was awesome idea to develop my Taste brand where I didn’t have massive overheads, so we became a pop-up restaurant in that space.”

Johnstone said, “It worked beautifully as people began identifying what the Taste brand was.”

Based on this success, Johnstone said she began “looking around” for the ideal location which would allow her to expand her menu to include lunch and dinner.

Admitting the process to get the current location ready had been a tedious one, Johnstone explained that it had taken four months to develop the space into what she envisioned.

So far, she says the public has been loving the space.

She revealed, “Maraval is once again becoming a restaurant hub and with the traffic being horrendous, it is a nice little space that allows persons to step away from that a bit and it’s like a pit stop.”

Asked about her long-term plans, Johnstone replied, “Within the next five years, I will be concentrating on building it into the brand I want it to be, something that is very cosy and super personalised.”

“If things are as successful as we hope, another branch could happen.”

However, she immediately cautioned, “I don’t want to be in a situation where I have stretched myself too thin because I like to be hands-on.”

“I want my guests to enjoy me as well, just as much as my team does.”

Pointing to the commercial development continuing to take place in the south-land, Johnstone said that may be next on her agenda “in a couple of years.”

Performing a juggling act as she balances motherhood with work, Johnstone said, “It’s not the easiest thing but the family support that I have is unbelievable.”

“I couldn’t follow my dream without the family support I have.”

Johnstone said she was striving to maintain a certain level of quality and excellence in her food and wine offerings.

Also wanting to support the local economy, she said she had employed contractors from across the country to help make her dream a reality.

Johnstone also sought to disabuse persons who thought it was all about “bussing your pocket.”

She assured, “It’s very affordable for everyone. This is about putting together menus that are appealing and we cater for someone wanting to do lunch which can start from $75 per person, up to $150 per person.”

“There is also a shared plate concept so persons can mix it up a bit if they want.”

Johnstone said every difficult step during her professional career had served to develop her character and determination to succeed and see her business become the premier fine-dining establishment in the Maraval community.

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