Since opening The Trap in Indianapolis’ Eastside in 2017, Chef Oya Woodruff has established herself not just as one of the city’s most exciting chefs – but a tireless champion for social justice, too. What’s most interesting about her journey, though, is how she’s refused to play by anyone’s rules but her own. She says, “I believe in taking charge, and shifting the paradigm purposefully.” From the location of her walk-up joint serving seafood trays smothered in her irresistible Trap Buttah to the amount of food she regularly gives to those in need, one thing is clear: Chef Oya’s way is the right way.
Ahead, she shares why she made seafood the specialty of The Trap, her commitment to serving the hungry, and what first-timers should order.
Why did you decide to make The Trap a seafood restaurant?
Woodruff: I got the inspiration from garlic crab trays, which are popular in Jacksonsville, Florida. After seeing them posted on social media and having one myself after visiting friends who live there, I wanted to recreate the tray (specifically the garlic sauce) at home. While my version didn’t taste like what I had in Florida, it was so delicious. I felt like it should be shared. Also, no one else was doing boil-style trays in Indianapolis. I figured, let’s sell them and see if people here want them. I started making seafood trays at home, promoting them on Facebook, and selling them from my front porch. I was so busy right away.
And how did you pick the location?
Woodruff: It used to be a Jamaican food place I ate at all the time. One day I saw a sign that said they were moving, so I met with the owner. He loved me, the food I was making, and what I was doing. After assessing what we could do with my uncle who’s in construction, I signed the lease. Another reason I stopped selling from my house is because my dad said too many people were coming by. In August 2016, he passed away. The same week we buried him we got the keys to start building out the space. I opened in January 2017.
We’re in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. It’s the worst for crime, and literacy rates are low. People don’t come here unless they have to do. This is in the middle of a food desert. I also have a special tray that’s not advertised, which I’ve been doing since I opened. If people are hungry, they can come to us and get it for free. No questions asked. My duty is to feed people. This is my love language.
What’s behind the name? It’s definitely memorable.
Woodruff: TRAP stands for Toward Restoring Food Access to the People. Beyond the acronym, it’s also a kind of colloquialism in black culture. Trap houses are usually in the middle of a hood, where people go to get drugs. But it’s also become synonymous with a place of work, where we handle our business and make our money. It’s what we as black people do. We know how to make negatives into positives.
What do you love about being a chef in Indianapolis?
Woodruff: When I think about Indy food, I think about all of the black and minority food entrepreneurs who’ve come up in the past few years. It has been so incredible to watch people grow, and see their dreams come true through food and creativity.
For first-time visitors to The Trap, what should they order?
Woodruff: The Shrimp Sampler is a good introduction to all my sauces. You get five shrimp in each of the Trap Buttahs, and you choose the YoungBae spice to your level. (The signature blend developed by Woodruff’s friend Candace Boyd of FoodLoveTog is a playful spin on Old Bay Seasoning.) The Loaded Crab Legs with Shrimp Tray is the most popular. You get the seafood and all of our boil-style vegetables (potatoes, corn, and broccoli) and a boiled egg. You just pick a sauce. I also have a seafood, cream-based chowder made with crawfish, lump crab, shrimp, corn, potatoes, Trap Buttah, and Bae seasoning. It’s super rich and creamy, and unlike any seafood chowder or stew you’ve ever had. We only serve it September through March, in the cooler months.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.