On Wednesday, George Laguerre took a break from packing coffee beans for his wholesale business in the charred remains of his restaurant TiGeorges' Chicken on Glendale Blvd., and traveled south to give a lesson in Haitian cooking to a group of high school students.
At the Santee Education Complex, students report daily to a fully functioning industry kitchen, for classes on food prep, cooking, and restaurant management as part of the curriculum of a small learning community focusing on travel, tourism and culinary studies. Once a week, students prepare and serve lunch in their on-campus restaurant, Bistro Mundo, to faculty and community members, rotating through different roles–chef, wait staff, dishwasher and accountant–to get the full scope of what it takes to work in the restaurant business.
Laguerre's demonstration revolved around a traditional dish of yams called acra, named for the Ghanaian city of Accra. “Yams consist of about 30 percent of the Haitian diet, and we have five to six different kinds,” explained Laguerre as he peeled taro root. “This is enough to feed this whole class, you'll see.”
“Is that also called malanga?” senior Karla Zarala asked. She was right. A round of high fives circulated the room.
Laguerre explained regional differences in recipes and cooking techniques. In the south, Haitians use black eyed peas to flavor their yams. In the north, they use salted herring. “You need to learn to cook, not to show off your skills, but to feed yourself,” said Laguerre, who recently returned from a trip to back home to Haiti for the first time since the quake. “Look what happened in Haiti. You gotta go back to basics.”
Grating taro over a handheld grater into a metal bowl, an animated Laguerre challenged the kids to think about cooking in a society with very limited resources. “In Haiti, we use our finger a lot, to scrape stuff out. This is the gritty mindset that exists. I could get another teaspoon out of that. I could feed another person, mathematically speaking.”
Students watched as Laguerre dropped spoonfuls of the yam mixture into hot oil. “This is how it's done in the backroads of Haiti and in the mountains. As a kid, it's something I loved very much. I started making it at age 8, therefore it is one of the best dishes of my life.” Santee High students cleaned up for Laguerre as he cooked, and fetched paper plates and napkins to serve the fried yam. “In my kitchen,” explained Laguerre, “I never taste my food.” Eyebrows lifted around the room. “You risk contamination,” he said. “If I catch anyone with a finger in my food, I will cut it off. The food has been prepared to be eaten at the table and it will be.”