Chef Jouvens Jean, a winner of The Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen, is a talented culinary ambassador for Haitian and Caribbean cuisine.
Born to Haitian parents in the Bahamas and raised in the U.S., Jean brought his talents and expertise back to Haiti after reaching much acclaim. He has served as executive consulting chef at the Marriott Port-au-Prince and Kinam Hotel and as executive chef at Pétion-Ville’s JoJo Restaurant.
Now, Jean lives in Miami and is the executive chef at Sawa Restaurant and Lounge in Coral Gables. He spoke with The Haitian Times about his journey and another passion, The Chef Jouvens Foundation to benefit young people in Haiti.
The Haitian Times: What attracted you to the kitchen?
Chef Jouvens Jean: What attracted me to the kitchen was the camaraderie and brotherhood, sisterhood that the kitchen has.
THT: Growing up, did you do a lot of cooking?
JJ: I did no cooking growing up. My mom was too afraid that I would burn down the house because I was a troublemaker as a kid.
THT: You are passionate about food. “Put Your Heart In It” is your culinary credo. Can you please explain what you mean?
Chef Jouvens Jean, taking a pause in Haitian countryside
JJ: I think that everything you make a conscious decision to do that is meaningful to you, [that] you must put love and your all in whatever you undertake.
For me especially, for the food, if you are not really putting the love in the food, you are not going to get a great result. For some people, cooking is mechanical. When I am putting together a particular dish, whether I have a recipe or not, my heart guides me.
If my heart is not in it, I will not serve the dish.
THT: When you were in restaurants in Haiti, wherever you were [working] became the go-to place for exquisite food, and more importantly, typical Haitian dishes were elevated. Your passion was felt in every bite. What drives and motivates you?
JJ: I take inspiration in everything: A cook’s laughter, how the wind blows, the sound of the dining room, the color of a flower, the smell of an herb. Everything that evokes an emotion within motivates me.
THT: You served as executive chef at many prominent restaurants in South Florida, including Sawa Restaurant & Lounge from 2010 to 2012. Now you’re back. How did it come about?
JJ: When I first met Ramzi Zahr, owner of Sawa, we hit it off. Our personalities clicked. We mesh well with one another. He is like my brother. We call each other brother. He has an upbeat personality, and the synergy between us has been strong since we met in 2010.
THT: Have you been able to incorporate Haitian food in your menu at Sawa?
JJ: I’ve absolutely been able to interject my Haitian touch in Sawa’s menu. I think that has been the secret behind Sawa. Since the restaurant’s menu is Japanese and Mediterranean, Haitian dishes are not part of the menu. However, Haitian touches and flavors are. I make the Haitian seasoning ‘èpis’ to season the kabobs we serve, incorporated scotch bonnet peppers and the bold flavors that we love in Haiti to the food we serve. And people took notice that the food is tastier.
THT: In your kitchen, you are demanding, I saw you in action in the kitchen at JoJo’s, you maintain personal excellence, and plating must be flawless, you always reminding the staff of this. How do you instill this same passion to your staff?
JJ: The teaching element has been my claim to fame. In my experience with leading a team, I think that as a leader, you have two choices whether to lead with fear or with admiration. Whichever you choose will determine how your legacy is celebrated.
THT: You won the Food Network’s Chef Wanted and Cutthroat Kitchen. Recently you competed in Beat Bobby Flay, where you went head-to-head against the renowned [chef]. How did you prepare for these competitions, and how do you deal with the pressure and competitors?
JJ: Competition cooking is absolutely different from restaurant cooking. When the cameras start shooting, the pressure is magnified. Every set, just like every kitchen, is different.
With that said, I try to keep reassuring myself that I’m the best chef and do what I love doing, and it has worked thus far. I had Bobby Flay on the ropes for those of you that don’t know.
THT: On May 18, 2018, Haitian Flag Day, you and eight other Haitian chefs curated a dinner at the James Beard House in NYC in celebration of Haitian Heritage Month. How did you chefs develop a menu and which Haitian dishes did you present?
JJ: We chose dishes that we knew would best represent Haiti’s gastronomy. From there, we injected our personalities into each dish and curated a menu from our hearts to the motherland.
I presented Selecto Coffee Rubbed Sous Vide Goat Tenderloin with Creole Sauce Sphere, Haitian Cinnamon Vanilla Water Chestnut Brûlée, Compressed Macerated Red and Golden Beets, and Black Garlic Crushed Plantain.*
THT: Through the Chef Jouvens Foundation, you have organized several projects in Haiti. When did you launch the Foundation. What are its mission and initiatives?
JJ: This Foundation is something I’m very passionate about. The Chef Jouvens Foundation has very clear goals for Haiti.
On the one hand, to feed young children and increase their awareness about nutrition, thereby ensuring that they can grow and learn.
On the other, to provide hands-on training and restaurant experience abroad for young culinary students, so that they can truly flourish in their chosen field. These are the kinds of small contributions we can make to helping young people in Haiti who are experiencing tremendous adversity.
In both cases, we sincerely hope our efforts can translate into allowing some very exceptional young people to thrive and, in turn, inspire those around them. These two problems – hunger and dead ends – may not sound equivalent, but to us, they’re two sides of the same coin.
Young people, given the opportunity to meet their potential, will inspire others. This is how old cycles get broken and new patterns emerge.
*These dishes, respectively, are or are closest to Kabrit Krèyol, Labapen, Bètrav roug ak dore enfize, and Banan peze.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and to meet The Haitian Times editorial guidelines.