Bridgewater’s Olrie Roberts, 41, arrived in the United States from the Caribbean at 19 intending to become a dentist. Now he makes mouths happier as the owner of Zaz in Hyde Park, serving Asian-Caribbean fusion. He’s also had a fairly productive pandemic, adding more space to his restaurant and losing 30 pounds.
How did you get your start as a chef and a restaurant owner?
It’s funny. I’m from the Caribbean. I’m from Grenada. I also lived in Trinidad. My mom’s side is from Trinidad. My dad’s side is from Grenada. I grew up with my grandparents. Cooking was an essential for all of us, knowing how to cook. But when I came to the States, my initial thing that I wanted to do was become a dentist. My plan was to come here to go to school, and then I started working on a regular job, and I started having to take care of the family. I needed the money and different things like that, so my plans changed quickly.
I then ventured into ironwork and became a welder. I was a foreman for quite some time … and I then decided to follow my passion, which was food and cooking. I worked at a bakery, Konditor Meister, and I worked at the Granite Links Country Club.
I decided, OK, know what? I’m going to follow this passion through. And I started to go to culinary school. I went to Le Cordon Bleu. I went to Spain, did some studies over there, did some cooking over there in Spain.
I came back to the States, and I just started looking in different neighborhoods to see financially what I could afford. And Hyde Park was the best choice, because I liked the diversity. I liked the mix of people, and we had pretty good foot traffic at the time.
Obsession equals greatness for me, so I’ve been obsessed with food and with learning different types of cuisines.
Why did you come to Massachusetts?
Two of my aunts were doctors, and I wanted to get into the medical field as well. In the Caribbean, they drilled into us that we got to make better of our lives. So, I tried to follow the family tree.
How has COVID-19 has affected you?
It’s definitely a roller coaster. When it initially hit, I pivoted my plan for the year and decided to do meal preps. I really started doing delivery services, and I started doing the meal prep for different neighborhoods. And we were driving up to like 20 miles to try to get the food out. At the time, obviously no one was really leaving their homes, at the beginning of COVID. The idea of meal preps was on point, because we were able to serve a week’s worth of food or so for people who didn’t want to go out or go to different places to pick up food.
In the middle of COVID, the meal prep thing kind of died down, so people were more trying to get out. And so the numbers kind of decreased quite a bit from when I first started, so I continued doing delivery.
The biggest thing for me was I started the construction of my storefront in December 2019. The idea was to expand the business and to add more square footage. ... Right when we were about to go through the permitting, and we got everything going, and we got the construction started, COVID hit. So, the place was a construction site. It was really quite difficult to maneuver, and my construction team didn’t work. No one was working at the time. The financial investment I made was very risky, not knowing with the COVID situation. It was quite difficult just to kind of get moving past that stage.
We completed the construction. We added another 1,000 square footage of space, and then we added patio space. The patio space has helped, I guess, in the fall and the summer. … We didn’t have the funding to do it earlier on in the process, because we had just invested a lot of money doing the build out.
The timing was not great. Everyone would agree. A lot of people are going through that difficulty. It was definitely not easy, but we’re still here. We’re still standing. We’re still able to open again. We have a pickup service window. We were able to do the patio.
I’m a member of the Hyde Park Main Streets. And so, they definitely help me with business.
How do you feel heading into the winter?
[Our pickup] window is going to be ideal. We amped up the delivery service. We extended the radius again. This week, actually, we started the meal prep services again. [We’ll] go as far as Avon, Brockton, Medford, West Roxbury, any type of neighboring towns, and see how we can try to get the food out. And, of course, the indoor dining, we’re definitely going to be looking forward to, for those who are willing to come up to dine out, which is at a minimum lately. People haven’t been doing much dining out at all, I mean, considering the situation.
What’s your sense of Boston’s treatment of people of color?
Right, right. For me, from my lens, I feel like it’s obvious that we are dealing with a climate, a racism climate right now, and this is heightened with a lot of things that are going on. And so, I’m not naive. I know it exists. And so for me, even as a business owner, as a small business owner, as a minority small business owner, you could definitely see a lot of the red tape, whatever is involved, like liquor licenses or different things like that — where we have to, for me, just try to apply for different things, different grants, different things like that. You definitely see the difference.
It is unfortunate, because for me, I grew up in a country or in a time where we accepted everyone. The climate and America on a whole, in general, not just Massachusetts, have been staring at this issue for a very long time. And I can’t afford to make an excuse to fail. I can’t afford to make an excuse when I get 100 “no”s and different roadblocks. I can’t make an excuse to stop what I’m doing, because at the end of the day, that kind of mentality that I have, I’m able to push through and not allow it to stop me from achieving what I need to achieve. But also I also understand that it would be nice to get some extra funding or extra help here and there from different sources. And so, unfortunately, we adapt to hearing the “no” so many times.
For me, I’m able to just push through, and I’m used to being uncomfortable, so that doesn’t matter to me, because I come from very humble beginnings. Being uncomfortable is what I’m used to.
Why did you open in Hyde Park?
Diversity. My food is very diverse, very different. The fusion is Caribbean, Asian, Latin. I worked at different places prior to opening my business, so I wanted to be able to reach different masses all over. … I wanted to be more on the outskirts, where I can tap into different neighboring towns, like Milton or West Roxbury, Roslindale, different areas that are close by and have them see what we have to offer.
What’s your favorite dish on your menu?
As a chef, I’m my biggest critic. So, for me, I always push myself to be better. Again, like I said, obsession equals greatness for me, man. I have a Thai basil fried rice that’s one of my faves. I just added a chow mein that’s pretty awesome. We have a salmon burger. … . I push a lot of seafood there, so we do a lot of seafood stuff with salmon and shrimp and so forth. The mac and cheese is awesome, and the Thai stuff is awesome.
Since the pandemic, what have you been doing to pass the time?
My dad is going through health issues right now. He had his leg amputated right in the middle of COVID. My parents, they live with me. So, being able to kind of shift some of the things that we do in terms of wheelchair services and different things like that, I’ve been pretty busy in terms of trying to figure some things out on my end at home. So, that has been really taking up some time.
I have three kids, three wonderful kids. I’m single now, so I don’t have a partner to shoulder the weight with me in terms of responsibilities, so I’m just trying to juggle things.
What’s your favorite thing to stress eat?
Good question. Wow. It used to be ice cream, but I’ve been really watching my diet right now, and I’ve actually been working out. I think I should probably add that I’ve really been on a workout thing once the COVID started, so I lost probably like 30 pounds. For me, being a chef, losing that weight is amazing, because I’m able to have more energy and be lighter on the knees.