All the technical difficulties of a zoom interview were worth it to speak with a beautiful and inspiring force in the Indianapolis community. Chef Oya Woodruff is the owner of Chef Oya’s The TRAP, a seafood takeout restaurant on Keystone and 34th. She has a passion for feeding her community with fresh, quality food and connecting with people through her creations. As someone who can uplift and connect people just by her presence, her energy transcended the zoom world and went right into our hearts. We talked with Chef Oya about what it means to be a leading female force in the food service industry, why food access is so important in all communities, and how her family-like team has worked during the pandemic to keep the business thriving.
Tell me about your business and what The TRAP means.
Toward Restoring food Access to the People is definitely a model that we go by. We truly believe that food access is something that is absolutely necessary for the advancement of a people and of a community. I believe that food is one of those things that we should have access to. Specifically things that we don’t have access to on a higher basis, which is good, clean, decent seafood. This cuisine in particular is pretty healthy. I mean we do slather butter all over it, however we boil it and steam it. Everything is done in a really healthy manner and it’s fresh. It’s really important for me to give that access to, you know, the hood. People who might not necessarily be able to always get this type of food. Also, just feeding people that are hungry, period. There are people in the neighborhood that know they can absolutely come and get food. We love to make sure we always get Indiana grown corn from a number of different farms here in Indiana, whenever we can. When fresh herbs are available we get as much as we can and we use it up. We go through five pounds of parsley a day, there’s no way that a local farm would be able to keep up with that volume, but we try and people know to call us.
Who are your most inspiring influences, specifically women, in food and in the community?
As far as my most inspiring women that are close to me, I would say first and foremost my mother and my women ancestors. Without them, there would be no me, so I first and foremost have to give honor to them. Secondly, my daughter, who is of me and better than me. I draw the most inspiration that I’ve ever gotten from my daughter. That is unequivocal. Also, my great grandmother, who is not alive anymore, but I am still very much in connection with her and her spirit. She was in the National Restaurant Association when it was unheard of for a Black woman to even think of something like that. She was very highly regarded by her peers. When it comes to other women in food here in Indianapolis, I draw a lot of inspiration from my business bestie. Her name is Candace Boyd Wylie. She is what we call a “spice-slanger.” She makes the seasoning that we use called Young Bae seasoning from scratch. We go through about six pounds a week of seasoning that she makes for us. Tannoria Askew, she was on Master Chef. She’s a local home chef here in the city, I love her. Man, there’s so many women here in the city doing really good food. Que Wimberly, I gleaned so much inspiration from her, not just from the food aspect, but from business, period. She called me a mentor of hers and I call her a mentor of mine on business. Going farther I think Martha Hoover, she’s goals. I was so geeked when Chef Twinkle, who is another person that I get a whole lot of inspiration from and she works for the Patachou Foundation, decided to use our vegan Trap Buttah in the Patachou Cafe kitchen just recently. When she left I thought to myself, “Trap Buttah… I am on my way to one of Martha Hoover’s kitchens!” I don’t really fangirl over white women like that, (laughs), but I just really respect her hustle and her strength to be in the food business as a woman, period. What she does in her restaurants, and the food, and getting the money unapologetically… I love it. Chef Connie from Mikado, she’s another woman that I draw amazing inspiration from. She’s the child of immigrants, one of the best sushi chefs in the city. Connie made us some sushi kits for my daughter’s birthday, so the kids could roll their own, and I taught them all how to roll their own sushi.
What is the most rewarding part of being a woman leader in a white male dominated industry?
I absolutely deserve and demand that I have the clout that you say I have. It should be recognized that I work hard, because I do. It should be recognized that I am talented, because I am. It should be said, in whatever circles that want to talk about me, that I am something to be talked about. I don’t say that with any humility at all. (Laughs) This is coming from decades on my part of having to dim my shine because as Black women, we are taught from birth that we are less than, that we are inferior. We are bombarded with these images and these thought processes. It’s the simple fact that we don’t see faces that look like ours on TV or anything like that. There’s a certain Black face on TV, there always has been and there always will be, but I never saw anybody on TV that looked, acted or talked like me. Point blank, there was never any fat Black woman that had hood influences and grew up in the environment that I grew up in, but that could also adapt and manage to whatever environment she’s put in. I’ve never seen that on TV. I feel like I have to use my voice and influence to be as loud as possible, and be unapologetic about the loudness, so that whoever I am representing feels represented and recognizes that they can do whatever the fuck they want to do. There is literally no limit to what we’re able to do and how we’re able to move, unless we put that on ourselves and believe the bullshit that we are taught. When we believe it that’s how we act, and when we don’t believe it we end up on top. I really believe that everyone I meet and everyone I come into contact with, I’m giving a little bit of myself. That’s why I am here, to talk about my experience and to give the messages that I receive from spirit. I am a messenger whether people are getting something different from me, or something that makes them feel different, or tastes different when they eat my food, or whether they sit and have a drink with me, or whether they talk to me over zoom. (Laughs) One of the things that I feel is absolutely necessary is representation, because we all deserve to be seen.
What is your favorite dish to make and why?
I love sauces and gravies. I’m a saucier at heart. If I did work in a five star fancy restaurant, I would be known as a saucier, that would be my position. I would still be an executive chef, but I would rely heavily on sauces and things to enhance what you’re eating. I think food is pure and beautiful in and of itself, but the accompaniments that come with it are very important. Really anything that I make, I always try to make sure that there’s some type of accompaniment with it. Which is why I have a line of sauces and marinades. That’s one of the things that I am most known for.
What do you hope to see come of the progress of food deserts in your community and beyond?
I just really want people to have access to food. I really want people to recognize that we do have the ability to grow it and make it in good and healthy ways for ourselves. Beyond that I think we have to change our socioeconomics through policy and by demanding it and no longer asking for it. There are so many factors in place that keep us from advancing through centuries of systemic racism, and centuries of redlining. Which is the reason why our neighborhoods look the way they look, and the reason why it’s not profitable to put a grocery store in our neighborhood. I just want to change the fabric of that by setting an example as a business owner, being someone who is enterprising, someone who employs people, and someone who invests in her community. Also, by investing in such a way that those investments pay dividends, not just in cash, but in social and financial ways. By investing in that literacy, we know what to do with what we get. I didn’t grow up in those circles. There were some things that I missed growing up, and that is recognizing how we are supposed to add onto what we have, as opposed to just always outputting and taking away. So, I just hope to continue to set that example and put forth things in my neighborhood and continue to feed as many people as I possibly can.
What are your personal philosophies in life and how do they play into what you’re doing?
I am a practitioner of a traditional African Religion called Ifá, and the main tenant of this religion is good or gentle character. It’s called Iwa Pele, and I always try to exhibit good character in everything that I do. Secondly, I know that exhibiting good character and in doing what my head tells me to do, I will always do that in whatever dealings that I have. I don’t worry too much about a lot of stuff, because I know that I always go into things with the intention that my character will never come into question. I always give reverence to myself and pay homage to myself because without me… there is no me. (Laughs) I wake up and I do what I have to do for myself, my family, my crew, and my community. I also give praise to my ancestors, always and forever. That’s something that I cannot go without. When I was growing up, I always knew that I wanted to do some kind of cooking. I watched food network like most kids watched cartoons. I was watching the cooking shows on PBS, before there was a Food Network. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I think Christians say that people have different ministries, and one of my ministries is definitely reaching people through food. We all have the ability, duty, and responsibility to grow as people, as stewards of this earth, as family to each other.
What advice would you give young women who are aspiring chefs?
Be who you are, and let YOU make a way for YOU. So many times we look up to someone so much and we want to move in the way that they move, and we aren’t really taught or shown how to be ourselves unapologetically and how to recognize that there’s no one on earth who can do what you can do. You have your work specifically set out for you. You chose to do whatever it is that you’re doing, before you were even born. That’s what I believe anyway. It is so important to be who you are and do exactly what it is that you want to do. Pay your dues of course. That doesn’t mean you can’t work and learn from other people, but stay focused on what your goal is.
Chef Oya’s mouth-watering seafood can be ordered in a few different ways. Take home dinner kits via TRAP At Home can be ordered online and pickup is every Sunday from 12-2 pm. Hot food service at the restaurant is from Wednesday-Saturday, 11-3 pm. Chef’s Trap Buttah can be ordered online as well. Follow The TRAP on Instagram, and check out the website.