By Rachelle Salnave
The trendy pop-up picnic has taken root in the Haitian community, highlighting the country’s class divide
Haitian-American promoter, Jimmy Moise was determined to have a seat at the table and give the French franchise, Dîner en Blanc, the upscale international pop-up picnic, a taste of Haiti. Last month, on Dec. 28, over a thousand guests gathered in West Palm Beach, FL for the elaborate picnic dinner. Guests, who were purposely clueless about the location of the picnic, were secretly bused to Mizner Amphitheater in nearby Boca Raton.
At first glance, everything about Dîner en Blanc West Palm Beach appeared pretentious. Attendees dressed elegantly in white, brought their own chairs and picnic baskets filled with gourmet food and decorative white table settings to the surprise location which just happens to be 26 miles from President Donald Trump’s home in Mar a Largo. Dining and socializing in the outdoor space, guests were blocked off by security while onlookers gazed from afar astonished at the elegant crowds dressed in white.
What began as a welcome-home picnic dinner party among friends in a Paris public park in 1988 for Frenchman François Pasquier, has now turned into an 80-city international chic picnic franchise.
For over five years, Moise hosted the West Palm Beach Dîner en Blanc (DEB) and acquired the rights to host DEB in Haiti with his business partner Fabienne Reid, who also co-hosts the West Palm Beach and Orlando regions. Moise is the first Haitian American to obtain a license in the United States and the second license holder in Haiti after taking it over from original event planners, Carla Beauvais and Johanne Buteau, who held the event from 2013-2017 in Port Au Prince.
“Dîner en Blanc is an international event. Its brand attracts thousands of people internationally,” Moise says “but this year, we made a conscious effort to connect to the Haitian American and African Diaspora community.”
Reid, who was born in Haiti and raised in Boca Raton was inspired to see her two worlds collide.
“To be able to bring this Parisian-style event to Boca was a big highlight for me and it appeared that the city appreciated it,” Reid said, after mentioning that city officials were surprised at the turnout.
Gusti Labatte-Deneau, a nurse practitioner and a community organizer who coordinated two full buses from Port St. Lucie, FL has attended four DEB past events but she truly loved her experience in Cap Haitien, Haiti in August of 2019.
This ancient city and original capital of Haiti had its inaugural DEB event in August 2019. Guests were secretly led to the front courtyard of the historic Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Cap-Haitien to party the night away. Bystanders were amazed to see their church transform.
“Being able to travel home and be part of something different, was exciting,” Labatte-Deneau says. “We packed the restaurants, hotels and even provided temporary jobs to locals for the few days we were there.”
For some, however, events like DEB opens old wounds about the class divisions that still permeate throughout Haiti. Even though the rules of DEB apply to every franchise, Haiti is a small country, where close to 60 percent of the population lives under the national poverty line. With strict rules intact for the fancy picnic, the guests received the memo. Diners flew in everything from their china, table settings with their gourmet food tucked away in their baskets. Each diner was able to customize their package if they wanted the DEB team to help with providing chairs and tables, or anything they needed which was purchased locally in Haiti. Fashionably dressed in all-white from head to toe, everyone was eagerly ready to parade their dining décor.
Last year, the event was comprised mainly of Haiti’s elite. Lorraine “Lolo” Silvera, a restaurateur in Cap-Haitien, whose family previously owned the infamous El Rancho Hotel and Casino, said despite its controversy, it’s a fun event shared among friends and open to all who can afford it.
“I attended the very first Dîner en Blanc event in Haiti. The buses picked us up where we were then secretly taken to the beach,” she said, “It was simply exquisite.”
But on her second DEB undertaking, she felt the location, which was held at the national museum, had potential but the country wasn’t quite ready to welcome the group. The event, which took place in the middle of Champ De Mars, was once one of the sites that housed hundreds of displaced families in tents after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
Word quickly spread about the DEB events and a group of activists took photos recreating the DEB event, dining in trash to mock and protest the economic disparity between Haiti’s rich and poor.
“This is exactly why we wanted to convince the DEB corporation that our team would rebrand the Haiti chapter as a destination event,” Moise says. Moving it out of Port-au-Prince and branding another city in Haiti was important to both Moise and Reid. They wanted to show that Port-u-Prince is not Haiti.
Silvera who owned a restaurant in Cap-Haitien and also has an international pop-up restaurant business says “the Diaspora has been the largest contributors to the fast-pace economy that’s happening in Cap-Haitien.”
According to Silvera, the majority of the bourgeois community lives in Port-au-Prince so the main people who attended DEB Cap-Haitien, were the Haitian Diaspora and or locals who could afford it.
Reservations for the 2020 edition of DEB Cap-Haitien has already begun. The vision of Moise and Reid is to continue to build a cross-connection between the Haitian Diaspora and Haiti, by providing the international community an opportunity to have a seat at Haiti’s table.
Rachelle Salnave is a Haitian-American filmmaker based in South Florida who explores race and class in Haiti and the African Diaspora.