By Onz Chery
It was a sight that people of Haitian origin are well familiar with – too familiar – a plate of white rice covered with black beans topped by a chicken’s thigh. Celebrity chef Gregory Gourdet ate that dish countless amount of times growing up in a Haitian household.
But this time, on May 7, 2020, the dish was sitting on a table in front of six people who weren’t Haitian. On top of that, it wasn’t for a simple event, it was for one of the most known cooking shows in the world, Top Chef.
Although Gourdet grew up around Haitian food, he had only been cooking it for about four years. But there he was standing in front of six non-Haitian food experts to feed it to them at one of the biggest stages of his career.
Tom Colicchio, a chef of Italian origin who’s been the head judge of every season of Top Chef, planted his fork in the meat. He chewed slowly with a thinking face. One of the few times, he ate Haitian food before that was at a street fair in Florida.
After eating the meal and reading the Haitian menu Gourdet put up together – the challenge of that episode was to create a restaurant – something clicked in Colicchio’s mind. He wanted to go to Haiti.
Mission accomplished. Gourdet graciously showed Haitian food to the world and in a sense Haiti itself. And as the judges were munching on food that was very foreign to them while receptively listening to Gourdet, a man who looked different than them talk about it, the celebrity chef displayed one of the solutions for the ongoing racial tension: food.
So as the Black Lives Matter Movement has pushed America to a racial reckoning, Gourdet sees food as a unifier. Being a culinary artist who experienced diverse backgrounds, Gourdet puts himself in a position to be a bridge-builder.
“Food is one of the ways to understand how people and their cultures are different,” he said. “Just think about it, when you discover a new food, it’s quote on quote exotic but it’s just something you haven’t had before. It’s something someone else eats every day. Food is the exact representation of people and their cultures. If we can be more open and accepting to other races the world will be a better place.”
As for many, the racial tension deeply rested in Gourdet’s heart and troubled him. He posted a video of George Floyd’s murder on his Instagram account two days after it happened on May 25 and wrote a text alongside it that included “Who can stomach this???”
He also often tweeted on racism issues and said how infuriating he feels about it to various news outlets. Gourdet himself has been a victim of racism as a chef.
“I know that some things I’ve been held back from me,” the 39-year-old said calmly. “I mean, in 24 years working in kitchens, of course, I experienced racism. But luckily, I have better experiences that helped shape me.”
Gourdet appeared in two seasons of Top Chef, he was the finalist of Season 12. He’s now the culinary director of Departure, a restaurant located in The Nines, a five-star hotel in Portland, Oregon.
Gourdet moved to Portland in 2009 to seek freedom from drug and alcohol addiction. He’s been sober since then. Prior to his move to Portland, Gourdet migrated quite often. He was raised in New York, spent a year in Haiti when he was four, then moved to Delaware during his high school days. Gourdet later migrated to Montana for college then returned to New York.
Because of his addiction, he left N.Y. to go to California. But that move wasn’t successful as far as sobriety, therefore he migrated to Portland, where he ultimately found freedom. Throughout his many moves, Gourdet saw vivid descriptions of different races and cultures and noticed the need for them to be unified.
He saw that unification through food. Gregory’s first major cooking job was at Jean-Georges, a restaurant that specializes in Asian food fused with French cuisine in Manhattan. Most meals won’t be perfectly crafted without ingredients that originated from different countries. It’s a reflection of how the world itself works, he said.
“Everyone brings something important to the global table,” Gourdet said. “Every culture is important to make the world round.”
Although unification is essential, it’s also critical for every culture to stand out in their own ways. That’s easily noticeable in Gourdet’s cooking, one can taste the different components of his food separately. Colicchio was impressed by this skillset.
“When you start eating from Gregory’s dish, every bite reveals new tastes and new flavors,” the 57-year-old said. “You realize there’s a lot going on there. He took command of how to layer those ingredients. Every bite you say ‘Oh, I taste allspice. What is that? Oh, that’s Korean.’ That’s the kind of cooking I think separates a great cook from a good cook. And it was clear that Gregory had that ability.”
Colicchio said many chefs don’t start their careers by cooking food from their countries. He, himself, started his cooking career in French restaurants as an Italian-American. It’s not until later in their careers that many chefs introduce their ancestral roots to their food.
For Gourdet, it happened five years ago. He was a renowned chef already, yet he felt an emptiness in his career because he wasn’t cooking the food that he grew up eating. And there was one instance when he made an Asian dish, a lady suggested him to cook Haitian food next time. Gourdet’s mother, Yanick Gourdet, was present. He exchanged a look with his mother after the lady’s suggestion.
Soon enough, Gourdet was learning how to cook Haitian food at every opportunity that presented itself. He learned from his mother when he visited New York for holidays. He learned from a Haitian chef in Portland, Elsy Dinvil, from his aunts when he visited Haiti among others.
Yanick Gourdet was excited about her son cooking Haitian food especially because it allowed him to connect with his Haitian roots.
“To find out that he was cooking Haitian food it’s like he was putting himself back into the Haitian culture,” she said. “It was there all the time but now he was cultivating it for himself and at the same time, he was sharing it with other people. Sharing it is the most important thing.”
Gourdet’s appearances on Top Chef boosted Haitian food’s popularity tremendously, which is something Haitian chefs are thrilled about, not only to showcase their cooking but also their country.
“Everyone’s tag line about Haitian cuisine now is Gregory’s own words: I want the world to respect Haitian cuisine,” Dinvil said. “A non-Haitian who eats and enjoys the food I put my heart and soul into makes me feel as if I just shared something very sacred with them and a piece of what makes me me, my culture, and Haitian roots.”
Gourdet plans to open his own restaurant in Portland next summer, Kann, or sugar cane. Kann’s focus will be on Haitian cuisine but it will also feature food from other countries. Perhaps, Kann will serve as a peacemaker for the ongoing racial issues.