Restaurant owner George Laguerre took a break on a recent Wednesday from packing coffee beans at a wholesale business he runs in the remains of his recently burned-down restaurant on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, and traveled south to give a lesson on Haitian cooking to high school students.
At the Santee Education Complex, the owner of Tigeorges' Chicken makes his way to the kitchen, passing Army recruiters who invite students to do pull-ups on a metal bar next to a Hummer; drum-line students practicing against a stucco wall; water-polo players filing into the pool area in parkas.
Just a few years ago this campus recorded the highest crime rate and the second-lowest test scores in the district. Now, thanks to the development of a small learning community, with a curriculum focused on travel, tourism and culinary studies, these students' classroom is an enormous industrial kitchen, its counter lined with gleaming KitchenAid mixers; shelves stocked with ceramic cassoulet dishes and ramekins; dueling industrial stoves; a clothing rack hung with chef coats; and a population of students deeply interested in the cultural, economic and historical aspects of food.
Students report daily for classes on food prep, cooking and restaurant management. Once a week, the high schoolers prepare and serve a meal to faculty and community members in a campus restaurant, Bistro Mundo. Students rotate through different roles — chef, waitstaff, dishwasher and accountant — to experience the full scope of what it takes to work in the restaurant business.
On this day, senior Karla Zarala is busy fixing the top buttons on chef coats and straightening the boys' collars. She corrects her friend Gustavo's apron-tucking technique, folding the skirt inside his belt.
The students recently participated in FHA-HERO and ProStart, regional, statewide and national cooking competitions, which challenge students to create restaurant concepts, build menus and deal with practical issues, such as finances and sanitation.
“You need to learn to cook, not to show off your skills but to feed yourself,” says Laguerre, who has just returned from a trip to his native Haiti for the first time since the quake there. “Look what happened in Haiti. You gotta go back to basics.”
Laguerre's demonstration revolves around a traditional dish of yams called acra, named for the Ghanaian city of Accra.
“If you went to a party and they didn't serve you this [dish], then you didn't go to a Haitian party.” Yams are big in Haitian culture, as “they comprise about 30 percent of the Haitian diet; we have five or six different kinds,” explains Laguerre, as he peels three taro roots. “These three are enough to feed this whole class, you'll see.”
“Is that also called malanga?” Zarala asks. She is right. A round of high fives follows.
Laguerre explains the regional differences in recipes — in the south, Haitians use black-eyed peas to flavor their yams; in the north, they use salted herring. “We are using white malanga,” Laguerre says. “It's a matter of early versus late harvest. Just like wine, the yams become sweeter with age. Purple yams are sweeter and darker than the white variety.”
Running taro over a handheld grater, an animated Laguerre challenges the kids to think about cooking in a society that has very limited resources. “In Haiti, we use our finger a lot, to scrape stuff out. This is the gritty mind-set that exists. I could get another teaspoon out of that. I could feed another person, mathematically speaking. We use the starch from yuca and malanga to press clothes.”
Students watch as Laguerre drops spoonfuls of the yam mixture into a hot oil. “In my kitchen, I never taste my food,” he says. “You risk contamination. 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.” Without instruction from their professor, Brent Boultinghouse, the students diligently clean up after Laguerre while he cooks, picking up dishes and wiping down countertops.
According to the chef, Haitians don't eat breakfast. “They'll have coffee and maybe one slice of bread with butter. You wait until noon for dinner, when you eat a lot. At supper, in the evening, you don't eat much. And no one in Haiti eats past 7 p.m. On the island, you're lucky if you find a restaurant open late. If you do, it's the American influence.”
“Is that because there is not enough food, or is it just tradition?” a student asks.
“There's enough food, it's just the way they do it in Haiti,” Laguerre explains.
“In Haitian cuisines, there's no measurement,” Laguerre adds, and eyes widen around the room. “Everything is done by feeling. You look at the quantity, how much spice you need, how much salt. We eyeball everything we do. I come from a society where I do not have equipment, do not have advanced tools. You have to use your judgment. If you work for me, and think you're going to steal my recipe — good luck!”
At Santee, teachers focus on technique but also the cultural and anthropological relevance of food. Signs around campus advertise Bistro Mundo's “Bistro Haiti,” a fund-raiser scheduled for the following afternoon. The chefs in Boultinghouse's class anticipate a healthy crowd will come to taste their lunch of lamb curry, rice and bananas. Lamb curry is not a traditional Haitian dish, Laguerre warns, but he hopes his lesson in a simple, Haitian staple will educate the aspiring young chefs about the food he was raised on. “This is how it's done in the back roads 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.”