Sampling Haitian Specialties in NYC

Chef Elsie Dubois cooks her first batch of Griot (fried pork cooked in bitter orange juice and hot peppers) before a hungry crowd arrives. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Some of the ingredients used to prepare traditional Haitian cuisine, including avocado, sweet potato, brown sugar, cornmeal, cabbage and hot peppers. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

A family takes a break from shopping to sample Pain Patate. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Chef Elise Dubois presents a plate of Griot and plantains. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Hats like the ones pictured, bags and vacation booklets were given out at the event by Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Chef Elsie Dubois takes a spin on a makeshift dance floor – between an aisle of pots and blenders – to Kompa music playing in the background. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

The smell of plantains, pork and peppers along with the sounds of Kompa music transformed the sixth floor of New York City’s flagship Bloomingdale’s store into a Haitian kitchen; where everyone wanted seconds.

That is exactly the response Chef Elsie Dubois wanted. She prepared traditional Haitian dishes including Griot (fried pork), Pickliz (spicy Haitian cabbage), Mais Moulu (savory cornmeal porridge often served with herring and avocado) and Pain Patate (sweet potato pudding).

These dishes were made using many ingredients common in Haitian cooking including meats like pork, vegetables, hot peppers, shallots and corn meal — a staple of the Haitian diet.

Dubois prepared what she said were must-have Haitian dishes, often served during holidays and special occasions such as parties and weddings. She knew they would be a hit with everyone, whether they had eaten Haitian food before or not.

“Those are the international dishes of Haiti. We have lots of foods, but some foods are deep down traditional, “ she said.

“We choose those foods because people really enjoy them.”

Chef Dubois says her passion for cooking came from spending time in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother as she was growing up in Haiti’s capital city of Port-au-Prince. She developed that passion in school and as a Girl Scout.

“In my school they used to give cooking classes – not too much maybe like one hour a day. I was also a scout and in the scouts they taught you how to cook on Saturdays, so we used to cook all those Haitian foods in scouts,” she said.

Dubois earned a degree in Culinary Arts from the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management in Port-au-Prince, but says there were not many job opportunities available. She immigrated to the United States in 1983 and took classes at Queens College for a year before transferring to The French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center) in Manhattan. It was after completing her training there that she began to work in New York’s restaurant industry professionally.

“My first job after the FCI was on a boat, on the World Yacht. That’s where I got all of my experience,” Dubois said. “They had parties everyday and big catering events.”

In addition to cooking for the thousands of people that sailed around the Hudson River on the World Yacht company’s many cruises, Dubois had several side jobs at restaurants and even volunteered to assist chefs so she could learn more. Dubois is now a sous chef at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, where she has worked for the last 17 years.

“Do you know how many volunteer jobs I did to reach where I am today? It was not easy, but I am thankful.”

She was chosen by the office of Haiti’s Consulate General in New York to bring consumers a taste of Haiti as part of the Caribbean Celebrity Chefs program this year during Caribbean Week New York.

The annual event, organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization, gives islands the chance to promote their countries to consumers who could be potential tourists.

“Haiti is open for business,” said Ann Marie Bernadel, executive assistant to the consul general of Haiti in New York. “This event occurs every year to show the richness of the Caribbean because we are a very rich area, that’s for sure,” she said.

Chef Dubois does not miss an opportunity to share that richness with restaurant guests at the Waldorf Astoria. She said she makes Polenta, a sweet corn dish often eaten for breakfast in Haiti, that is internationally sought after.

“People used to call from all over the world asking for the recipe,” Dubois said.

“Instead of using sugar like we use in Haiti, I put maple syrup so it makes it even more delicious.”

Apart from that dish, Haitian cuisine is mainly featured at the Waldorf when there are special events featuring Caribbean or other multicultural cuisine.

Dubois was excited to share her food with the 100 or so people that stopped by for samples June 6 at Bloomingdale’s. She doesn’t often get the opportunity to cater events featuring Haitian cuisine because of her busy work schedule.

The streams of people kept coming well after the event was over. Some even came back to the table a third time hoping there was more food. Others wanted to get the recipes.

“Our food is very tasty. I want to share it with everyone,” Dubois said.

“That’s why whenever friends and family are having parties I say, make Haitian food. We have to keep the culture alive.”

2 Comments

  1. PureMajic says:

    A lovely piece, Melissa. And the photographs add to the pleasure

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