By Garry Pierre-Pierre
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – For more than a decade, Stephan Durand has been a chef on a mission to elevate Haitian cuisine from the artisanal to the gastronomical level.
As is often the case when dealing with Haiti, Durand, a chef for almost 20 years, has his work cut out for him. But like many others like him, he is undeterred. And passionate.
“What we have is our culture,” said Durand recently during the weeklong “Gout et Saveurs Lakay” or Taste and Flavors of Home, food festival in his capital city. “Cuisine is part of that culture. This is what Haiti has. If they see us as proud, talented then people start seeing us as artists they can get to know us better.”
On the Friday of the food festival, the courtyard at the Karibe Convention Hotel was a makeshift culinary village, with more than 60 participants, including chefs, hotel-based restaurants, caterers , wine distributors and other liquor companies.
Johanne Buteau, the owner of the Karibe and Kinam hotels in Haiti and one of the top organizers of the food fair said that more than 800 people attended the various events, with smaller events, like the Chef Table competition at the Marriott Hotel restaurant selling out.
“For the past six years, this festival has become a pillar in not only showcasing Haiti through food, but has helped in giving talented Haitian chefs a platform to be seen,” Buteau said in an email response. “The objectives of this unique festival are to promote Haiti’s gastronomy through its cultural, professional, economic and social components.”
Despite the challenges, the weeklong event was a welcome respite from the political gridlock and social sores. People mingled, tasted the food and washed it down with a variety of rum punches and other lethal concoctions. It was a cool evening and the air was festive.
In addition to the chefs, food distributors were present as well, showcasing locally-grown products that are also not readily found in supermarket shelves where again, the majority of the food is imported.
Ena Derenoncourt, whose family founded Pidy, a food company in 1956, is filling the need for locally grown products and is optimistic about turning the corner on Haitian cuisine.
“We have jams preserves, peanut butter, coffee and all type of dry foods,” said
Derenoncourt, who added that their farms are mainly in the Artibonite Valley, considered Haiti’s bread basket. “We’re doing fine. Could we be bigger, probably?”
Festival organizers have made it a top priority to invite international chefs to exchange ideas and tips to influence Haitian cuisine at yet another level.
“I enjoyed the local food very much. Haitian cuisine uses interesting and healthy ingredients so its potential is limitless. A few Haitian chefs are doing a wonderful job revisiting its tradition,” said Pierre Thiam, the Senegalese-born celebrity chef, who runs a catering service in Brooklyn.
Thiam, was one of 10 international chefs who descended in this city to share their skills and also learn from their Haitian counterparts. He shares Durand’s passion and sees firsthand the challenges in elevating Haitian cuisine. He says that culinary education is inadequate.
“We visited a culinary school that needed basic things that we tend to take for granted,” said Thiam, “Part of the curriculum should include local traditions. It’s good to teach French classics etc. But it is at least equally important that aspiring chefs should also have a solid foundation on Haitian food classics. Investing in the schools is also important.”
Given the myriad of problems facing this politically-troubled nation, this is not even at the top of the government’s priorities, if it’s even thought about. So entrepreneurs and the private sector have to take the first step and support those who are toiling to restore Haiti’s long-tarnished reputation as a cultural destination. Buteau said that even after seven years, they struggle to attract sponsors and to get restaurants to plan early. For many of them, the festival yields few immediate benefits.
Another challenge is that Haitian cuisine, like its people is a mélange of African, French, Middle Eastern flavors that when done well is sumptuous. As Thiam points out, too much emphasis is placed on the French over the others. At the top restaurants in Petion Ville, Haitian infused dishes are rare. Many of the offerings at the food fair couldn’t be found on a menu of that same restaurant, which is presenting sumptuous fares.
When I raised that point with one of the chefs, he showed me his menu and when I quickly pointed out that Haitian dishes were miniscule compared to the Peruvian, French and continental cuisine on his menu, the paradox was lost on him.
So even in Haiti the rare visitor cannot experience authentic Haitian cuisine unless you’re invited to a dinner party at a person who knows and enjoys Haitian food. Otherwise, the food you’re served at most high-scale restaurants are devoid of local food.
Haitian food is becoming narrowly defined to be “comfort food” such as grio, tasso, fried fish, legume and rice and beans. These items are commonly found on menus at Haitian-American restaurants.
“It’s a hard sell,” Durand said referring to wooing wealthy Haitians to invest in the culinary industry in Haiti. “We have a lot of work to do.”