Meet The Chef
I want to say I’ve been cooking all my life, but I haven’t. It just feels like it. Like most things, there is an evolving story simmering in my pots and pans. I am mostly self-taught. This self-teaching came out of necessity. It’s a story connected to culture, to community, and to creating. It wasn’t until a few years ago I accepted that this passion for cooking could be and do more than it had already done.
I watched my mother cook for scores and scores of people both professionally as a chef at a local Haitian restaurant and personally for my family. Growing up there were no dinners around the table. In fact, I don’t recall there being a meal called dinner or a supported notion that it had to happen around a table. When she made our one meal of the day, it was intended to last all day. I watched my mother cook and paid attention to ingredients. There were never recipes, it was always more of an oral tradition.
I became a mother very early in life and a caretaker of many thereafter. I went on to college, pursued Journalism and spent the first few years of my career as a reporter (where I was a food critic for a brief, very fun, stint) and took on a host of odd jobs to bring ends together that never quite met. I later fell into nonprofit as a volunteer and worked my way up the proverbial ladder.
Working in nonprofit was a natural placement for me as the concepts of community and service were as natural as breathing to me. Being raised in an immigrant household, community and service is the only way to survive because doing so required a collective effort. Somewhere along the ladder, I blended community, service, and food to what has amounted to hosting thousands dinners over the last two decades.
No matter what people’s circumstances were that led them to my table, a hot meal made with, for, and by love somehow made it all just a little bit better. Food was the universal language that everyone spoke and needed. I was grateful to be a small part of someone’s (as well as my own) healing.
♡ Kerline Astre
My Prose to Food
Something absolutely magical and mysterious happens with me when my spatula kneels at the base of a pan. Something fairylike transpires when the aroma from that pan oozes from the air and dissipates within my senses. Something surreptitious occurs when flavors dance and sing in harmony before the bare eyes of a stove. Most people call it cooking. I call it resurrecting.
Growing up, food was the one thing that I never noticed was not there even when there wasn’t enough of it – perceivably. We would go into the kitchen, slam open – yes, slam open – the cupboards and see a bag of beans, a can of mackerel, coconut milk and an onion and stomp out of the kitchen mumbling (because we knew better than to scream in Mama Lise’s house), “Ain’t neva no food here”. Then, audaciously suck our teeth. Had Lise heard this, that would have been the end of the need to ever visit a dentist. What teeth would they examine?
We’d go to school and eat there, of course. We’d eat totally processed, loveless meals and think it was good. Then something magical and mysteriou would happen after school. We’d come home and there would be an elaborate spread of Haiti’s best reps. I’m talking Bouillon (Mildly thick meat and vegetable soup); Cabrit or Kabrit (goat meat); Diri Blan ak Sos Pwa Noir (White rice and black bean sauce); Diri ak Djon Djon (Rice in black mushroom sauce) or Taso et Bananes Pesées (Fried Goat and Plantains); Diri ak Legim (Rice with Legumes); Griot (seasoned fried pork with scallions and peppers in a bitter orange sauce); Kasav (flatbread made out of dried, processed bitter cassava, sometimes flavored with sweetened coconut); and Pikliz or Picklese (spicy pickled cabbage, onion, carrot with Scotch bonnet peppers).
We wouldn’t have all of those every day but they would be on a healthy rotation. My mother only cooked once a day – mid day. If you were not present, thenshrugs for you. There would be various tidbits to serve as breakfast such as the Haitian patties my dad would bring home after working the 18-hour overnight shift at one of the seven laundromats he managed. It was then I learned that the night had 18 hours according to the working poor or working as a necessary code of ethics. The latter is what resonated with me.
When he came home, we’d ransack his hands for the two loaves of freshly-baked bread and patties filled with morue or vyann (some type of fish and some type of meat). Funny story is that I called my brothers recently to ask them just what kind of meat or fish are in those patties. They both gave me wildly different answers after a perplexing shrug of “I don’t know." We just knew they were good! My mother would fry a few eggs donated graciously to us by our backyard chickens and make a strong pot of Haitian coffee. In retrospect, I don’t recall if it was actually Haitian coffee. It came air-sealed tight in a yellow packaging and had a man with a sombrero and pipe on it. In those days, it didn’t matter where the thing or product came from – to us, it was Haitian!
We were never hungry even when we believed we were. Each month my mother would prepare barrels and barrels stuffed to the brim with clothes we, the children, claimed we loved but never wore, and all sorts of victuals like twenty toothpastes, thirty-five bars of soap, one hundred tiny snack packs and literally tons of rice and beans. These would all be shipped to Haiti. We always wondered why she never sent any meat. I quickly discerned that rice and beans was the meal or main dish aside from the reality that meat is perishable. Everything else was a side dish, an accompaniment.
Food is a coagulant. It melds things whether they are naturally familiar with each other or not. Everybody ate at our house all the time. Sometimes I’d witness a monetary transaction but mostly, the Jeans and Maries would come over and plop down somewhere around the barrels and we would eat. As I got older, this relationship – the relationship that blossoms right before your eyes when people and food connect or people connect because of food – aroused me in a way that used to be inexplicable and in part still is.
I cook for the same reason I write – to resurrect, to come alive or rather connect with the substances that make us all feel alive. It is not a labor of love for it is not laborious. It is a labyrinth of liberty. I aim for from-scratch-cooking, meaning if there is a way to create it from its beginning, I will either do it or try really hard to maintain its natural integrity. I strive for mostly organic or farm-to-table ingredients.
Bon appetite, dear loves. Bon appetite.