4 Things You Didn't Know About L.A.'s Haitian Food Ambassador
There might not be a lot of Haitians in Los Angeles (2,200 in the county, actually), but George Laguerre is one of the island nation's proudest ambassadors anywhere. Over the last 13 years, he's turned an otherwise dismissible storefront on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park into a makeshift Haitian cultural center, luring diners into TiGeorge's Chicken with a mesmerizing window-front rotisserie on which glistening, marinated birds whirl above smoldering avocado wood.
After his homeland suffered a devastating earthquake, he announced in 2013 that he would be closing TiGeorge's Chicken to move back to Haiti and focus on his coffee business. But Laguerre had a change of heart, and his restaurant remains alive and well. The namesake chef is on site every day, serving his now-famous chicken along with Haitian specialties like goat, lambi, acra, pikliz, fritay and pain patate.
Laguerre dives into the stories and memories behind these traditional foods in his autobiography, No Man Is an Island, co-authored by Jeremy Rosenberg and released this month by Rare Bird Books. A stream-of-consciousness account that feels more like a conversation with the gregarious restaurant owner than a memoir, the book is filled with oral recipes, facts about his food and country, and insights into his life and struggles.
Here are four things we learned about Laguerre from reading No Man Is an Island.
His full name is Jean-Marie Monfort Hébert Georges Fils Laguerre.
Laguerre nearly died from tetanus, which he says he contracted when his mom cleaned his umbilical cord after handling money at her bakery. Thinking he wasn't going to make it (he was later revived by an injection of medicine), they decided to baptize him at the hospital, with everyone in the room throwing their name into the mix as a memorial contribution. The nickname "TiGeorge" means "son of George," kind of like adding "Li'l" to the front of someone's name or "Jr." to the end.
He came to L.A. to make it in the film industry.
Laguerre dreamed of being a cameraman and attended the School in Visual Arts in New York part-time for seven years before graduating and heading westward. He landed in L.A., quickly discovering that connections are everything in the film industry (and that he had none). Instead, he performed odd jobs — boating, truck driving, banking — eventually opening a party supply business, which allowed him to slowly but surely (over four years, he writes) acquire the necessary equipment for TiGeorges.
His restaurant was almost a failure.
No one came into TiGeorge's Chicken the first day it was open. The second day, Laguerre writes that he sold only one plate. The third day he put out a table and chairs, hoping to lure customers away from the Thai restaurant across the street. Within an hour, the chairs were stolen. But slowly, over the next few months, people started trickling in and buying specialties like the Island Combo, which gives you a quarter or half chicken, red beans and rice, plus a bunch of traditional Haitian sides. He says the businesspeople from downtown, with offices nearby, saved his restaurant “when it was at its most vulnerable.” Stories from local newspapers helped, too, and an eventual visit from Huell Howser sealed TiGeorge's Chicken's place on the list of L.A.'s must-eat ethnic restaurants.
He used to drive down alleys in Echo Park in search of avocado wood.
Shortly after he opened TiGeorge's Chicken, a story ran in the L.A. Times that said Laguerre used avocado wood for the rotisserie. In truth, he also used citrus woods, but since only avocado was listed in print, Laguerre became obsessed with making sure he exclusively used the quick-burning wood for his chicken. To cut costs, he began driving the alleys of Echo Park, in search of discarded avocado wood for the shop. But after an attempt to chop up an entire tree he found lying in an alley resulted in a broken chainsaw (due to all the nails embedded in the tree), he connected with a plantation in Santa Ynez, which was more than happy to give him avocado wood for free.
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