Chef Ron Duprat is bringing Haitian cuisine to the world stage with his week-long Haiti Culinary Tour, which runs from August 3-9. The tour will introduce participants’ palates to the spiced and savory flavors of Haitian cooking, while allowing them to explore Haiti. Chef Duprat, who was among the cast of the sixth season of the Las Vegas edition of the Bravo reality show “Top Chef”, has cooked for everyone from Michele Obama to Haiti’s very own president Joseph Michel Martelly. He seems to be everywhere: the chef who kept a cool head while catering singer Usher Raymond’s wedding in The Hamptons; the chef who Jay-Z and Béyonce tapped to create dazzling cooked delights for a popping party; the chef called upon to testify in Congress for kids to have healthy and free meals in school; one of the guests of honor at Cornell University’s prestigious Chef Series; the author of his own self-styled cookbook, and last but not least the chef at Miami’s Moca Cafe, and the Gulf Harbour Yacht and Country Club in Naples, Florida.
Haiti seems to be at the center of everything he does. Duprat was very instrumental in a campaign to assist Haitian students in getting travel documents, and subsequently a cartload of cooking prizes to the culinary competition A Taste of the Caribbean. He had initially been approached to be a judge by the competition’s committee, but upon finding out that Haiti was not among the countries being represented, Duprat rallied to have some of Haiti’s best young cooks attend the competition in lieu of having the spotlight as a judge. In the end, Duprat’s lobbying paid off, the students were issued visas, and carried home silver and bronze medals. Most importantly of all to Duprat, Haiti’s cuisine was given the spotlight.
With this culinary tour, Duprat hopes to spread some enthusiasm among non-Haitians about Haitian cuisine. Culinary revelers will not stay stagnant in a kitchen, but will travel all across Haiti during the tour to get a glimpse at King Henri Christophe’s famed Citadel in the history-rich city of Milot near Cap Haitian, and visit vibrant coastal towns like Port Salut, the city of Les Cayes, not to mention the architecturally-stunning, and Haitian art mecca Jacmel. With the tourism aspect thrown in, the tour just might prove to be a double winner. While Haitian cuisine has created finger-licking addicts, it has yet to be considered on the equal scale of other worldly cuisines, though it certainly has all the characteristics needed to bring it up to that level. Duprat has concentrated his marketing in the USA, hoping to mold lifelong lovers of Haitian cuisine out of the uninitiated. He’s well-aware that his Haiti Culinary Tour is the first of its kind in Haiti, but there is a first time for everything. He’s hoping to make it an annual tradition.
Here is what he had to say, shortly before the launch of the tour.
Q & A
You grew up in a place in Haiti called Mare Rouge.
Mare Rouge is a small town where everyone knew each other. I remember playing soccer with a coconut in my bare feet.
Traditionally in Haitian culture, it is the woman who is expected to be, and is the chef, the cook in the family. Growing up, did the love of cooking get you the side eye from people?
No. My grandmother taught me how to cook. She was always very supportive about my passion for the culinary arts. Haiti isn’t known as a destination of any kind, but I tell people to look at how Haiti used to be the top tourist destination in the past and hopefully Haiti will be able to realize that status again, and the many beauties of Haiti, including the food, will be able to be recognized and cultivated. I hope to contribute to this change that because Haitians have been enjoying great organic food since the beginning of our history. The entrée is home-grown and the salad is as fresh as can be when it reaches your table. You cannot ask for any better. Join me in exploring this tradition, and you agree that Haitian food is among the best-kept secrets in the culinary world. Being born and raised in Haiti has always left a lasting impression on me. I will forever be passionate about Haiti and always be willing to help. After all, I am only contributing my time and expertise; the education these young adults are sharing is priceless. I am here for them.
Do you remember the first meal you ever cooked?
Griot [fried pork], fried plantains and rice and red beans. I cooked it for my grandma. Griot is a sure way of making fried pork that melts in your mouth. Although it is made differently today, the original recipe calls for cubed pork cleaned with lime juice and broiled in very little water, and a bit of salt, allowing its own fat to become the frying oil.
What did you learn from being part of the reality show “Top Chef: Las Vegas”?
I learned to never buy an IKEA bed because I broke about three or four.
You catered the inauguration for Haiti’s president Michel Martelly. How was that experience?
It was a very bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, seeing the devastation around me was painful. Even though I no longer live in Haiti, it is still very close to my heart. But seeing President Martelly’s dedication to rebuilding Haiti inspired me to devote more of my own time to helping out in any way I can. I am supportive of any endeavors that look to promote Haiti in a positive light and that have substance behind them to do more for the Haitian people. I hope to accomplish many great things in Haiti. I want the educate the youth by opening a culinary school and a few chicken farms which will enhance their confidence and give them the tools to build a better future for themselves and the country. I hope to convince one more person that Haiti is worth the trouble. He is the leader of the country and has made many efforts to be active in the reconstruction and making sure the Haitian government has a say in what is going on in Haiti. I look towards a brighter future for Haiti, and there is no future without education. Any president who thinks of the children first is going in the right direction in my book. I have faith in the people of Haiti. They are hard-working and eager to grow, and that begins with education. We have a very good Prime Minister.
And you have a book out: My Journey of Cooking.
This book is a collection of recipes I have accumulated and modified with my own special touches while working in some of the best kitchens in America. But this book is more than just recipes to me; it is a snapshot of my first years. It can be bought at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com.
And from what we hear, you’re already working on another book?
Yes, I am. This book is about my life after Bravo TV’s “Top Chef”. It is still in development, but will be out soon.
Is there an ingredient you can’t do without?
I am classically trained. I believed in fresh ingredients, and to add some of my Haitian [ones]. You’re only as good as your ingredients. Great ingredients are what excites me about food. It’s seeing how little how you can do to them, so you don’t mess them up. If you start with a mediocre product—say you have ten ingredients and five of them are mediocre—you’ve already cut your odds down by 50%. In my mind, I’d say even more so, but you’re 50% mediocre already. But if you start with pristine products all the way around, your level of success is going to be so much higher. So much of being a chef is about that.
You actually attended the College Aimée Cesaire and La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine. Is it necessary for an aspiring chef to get professional training?
Absolutely. It teaches you the skills and knowledge necessary to operate in a professional kitchen where the breakneck pace leaves no room for errors. World-renowned Chefs expect the best from you at all times. They don’t have the time to teach you how to do your job.
And speaking of which, can cooking be taught?
Certainly. It is an art, true. But, it’s art that can be duplicated.
What advice do you have for aspiring cooks out there, who are still at water-boiling stage?
Live every day as your last day because tomorrow is not guaranteed. Take a trip to Haiti to learn about Haitian Cuisine and Culture. Mail your egos to your grandparents. But also, take your time. Take your time is the number one thing. Experience that’s the diamond. It’s the whole rough part of that experience, and it’s a rough experience. Put yourself in the right kitchens, is probably my other best piece of advice. Put yourself with people that you want to emulate their cooking, and their cooking style, and their leadership abilities. And make sure that they’re successful, make sure that they’re not closing restaurants left and right; make sure that they’re sustaining themselves, and doing it properly, and doing the right things and being good to people. [Being] good-hearted people is I think the best thing I could say to them. That is Haitian advice.