Siblings Patrice and Nadege Bernier have never been to Haiti, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of touch with their culture.
“Since you’re a kid, the rice, the beans, the chicken, the griyo, the bannann peze (fried green plantain), you grew up with it and it’s you,” Patrice tells Global News, as he sits next to his sister at a small table one Sunday.
“As you grow up, you have to understand the Haitian culture and you understand it through the food.”
The two have memories of their mother in the kitchen, cooking up a feast.
“My mum never let me be in the kitchen. So, for my mum, it’s like a sanctuary, even until now. If you want to go help out, it’s blocked,” says Patrice.
“That’s true,” agrees Nadege.
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“People are just noticing, but it’s always been there,” he told Global News.
One of the restaurants that cater to the ever-thriving community: Agrikol (1844 Amherst St.).
Wanting to be as authentic as possible, the restaurant sourced Chef Paul Toussaint directly from … well, the source.
“It’s soul food and it’s more traditional food,” Toussaint explains, noting that he moved to Montreal in late 2017 after being offered the job.
“For me, it’s very good. I love it, but it’s not the kind of fancy cuisine, but it’s more like soul food.”
Toussaint is described by his colleagues as more of an artist than a typical chef — always going the extra mile to bring out unique flavours, while satisfying Haitians with comfort food “just like my mother used to make.”
“What I can say is it’s more a spicy food, but not hot. When I’m talking spicy, I mean it’s a mix of spices,” he tells Global News.
“That’s why in Haitian culture, you’ll see people are going to braise after they’re going to fry or roast. They always try to have the best flavour for the food.”
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To offer an example, Toussaint, holds up a mason jar of pickled cabbage.
“This is the pikliz, I don’t know how to describe that,” he says.
“It’s power,” offers Patrice.
“Yeah,” Toussaint agrees.
“Power!” Patrice quips for emphasis.
Sitting in the restaurant, sharing plates of griyo (or griot), chicken, rice and beans and legumes, Toussaint tells Patrice and Nadege how he overcame his own hardships — having had to convince his father he wanted to be a chef instead of a lawyer.
“He told me, you can’t stay in my house if you want to go in that direction,” he remembers.
“I believe you,” Nadege answers.
If there’s one thing the three agree on it’s that no food can ever come close to what your mum makes at home.
“There’s that passion, there’s that love,” Nadege explains.
“Being around the spices and the odours in your house, it’s part of your DNA,” Patrice adds.
“Wherever else you go, that’s the number one. The standard is placed number one and that’s what you compare everything else to.”
Toussaint says the greatest compliment is when Haitians say, ‘it’s just how my mother makes it.”
“I’m so happy. I feel like I got that customer,” he said.
“I feel that person’s going to come back. Like, he or she can say, ‘OK, I can come to Agrikol.'”
Nadege explains that for women, who are still seen in traditional domestic roles, it’s a source of pride to cook.
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“When you invite people over and you have different types of food, people taste them and like them, it’s pride,” she tells Global News.
“I’ve been in the kitchen all day and I made all this food and everybody’s enjoying it, so it’s passion and pride.”
At Agrikol, Toussaint admits only about 20 per cent of the restaurant’s customers are Haitian because most people walk in, curious to know what Haitian food actually is.
“This is the best way to sell your culture. Through food, you can bring everyone together,” he says smiling.
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Just Like Home is a series that discovers the restaurants and places Montrealers from all walks of life go to have a little, nostalgic taste of their home countries.