FOR THIS CHEF TO THE STARS, THANKSGIVING IS ABOUT THROWING DOWN
Whether sheʼs cooking for chart-topping musicians or her friends, Manouschka Guerrier makes Haitian food inspired by her grandmother.
By ANDY WANG
Manouschka Guerrier is a private chef whoʼs cooked for Drake, Ariana Grande, Missy Elliott, Caitlyn Jenner, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre, so sheʼs used to extravagant celebrations with beautiful food. Sheʼs familiar with being in the middle of raucous family gatherings and over-the-top holiday parties.
In many ways, what Guerrier does for a living isnʼt so different than when she was growing up in a big Haitian family that migrated from Brooklyn to Cincinnati to Miami. Her grandmother Olga cooked every day, there were always a lot of people eating together, and dinner felt like a celebration.
And the pinnacle of every year was Thanksgiving.
“I think for my family, coming from a third-world country where food isnʼt abundant, Thanksgiving is a reminder that, ‘Wow, weʼre living the American Dream, we made it,ʼ” Guerrier says. “‘Letʼs eat like crazy and have a good time.ʼ Itʼs definitely my favorite holiday.”
There was always a turkey, made by Guerrierʼs uncle Jacques, at the familyʼs Thanksgiving feasts. But almost everything else that happened at Thanksgiving reminded Guerrier that she was part of a Haitian family.
Olga would make griot (crispy bits of pork shoulder), rice and beans and Haitian macaroni au gratin, and she would repurpose American food in a transcendent way.
“Oh my gosh, she used to get Kentucky Fried Chicken, like a big bucket of it, and then re-season it,” Guerrier says. “She kind of like put it in a creole sauce with peppers, and it was the best ever.”
Relatives would eat standing up, they would splay out on the couch, theyʼd take food out to the porch. They would groove to the Haitian music bumping on the speakers. They would scream and drink a lot and tell jokes and dance until they were hungry again. At some point during the celebration, Jacques would rip off his shirt and start doing a belly roll.
“Itʼs so trippy to me to watch those holiday movies where everybodyʼs sitting at a table,” Guerrier says. “I donʼt know anything like that. Our holiday parties were straight-up parties.”
Guerrier has thrown Friendsgiving bashes at her L.A. home. These parties resemble how she grew up celebrating Thanksgiving. Thereʼs always Haitian food, and things always get a little crazy.
“When I started introducing the way I do Thanksgiving out here, people were a little taken aback at how loud and rambunctious and not traditional it was,” Guerrier says. “I call it Spanksgiving because we throw down.”
For Spanksgiving, Guerrier likes to serve a bacon-weaved turkey, because “bacon, America, f-yeah!” Sheʼll make griot with pikliz (a pickled slaw loaded with scotch bonnet peppers) and rice and beans. There will be her take on macaroni au gratin, which is a dish that contains multitudes: Itʼs a creamy and crunchy symphony of Mexicanblend cheese, grated Parmesan, peppers and sausage. (This macaroni is, not surprisingly, also a big hit with her celebrity clients.) She might turn crémas, a popular Haitian drink with coconut, sweetened condensed milk and rum, into ice cream. She might reimagine pain patate, a sweet-potato bread, as a crème brûlée.
Guerrier was born to be a formidable party hostess and chef. While growing up, she always enjoyed seeing how her mother Jacqueline entertained guests. And Guerrier was deeply influenced by sitting in the kitchen with Olga day after day.
“I went straight to my grandmotherʼs house from the hospital, seriously,” says Guerrier, who was born in Brooklyn and spent most of her childhood in Miami. “My grandmother was like the typical island mother. She didnʼt drive. She didnʼt have any friends. Everything was about taking care of her family. I didnʼt have a babysitter or a nanny. I had my grandmotherʼs house.”
Guerrier had ADHD as a child, and Olga kept her close.
“I was very very hyper, so she needed to keep an eye on me,” Guerrier says. “So I had to sit right there on the counter as she was cooking meals for everybody.”
But Olga almost never let Guerrier touch anything in the kitchen. This was learning through osmosis. It was only until Guerrier was maybe 17 or 18 that Olga let her try to make rice and beans.
“I put too much tomato paste in it, and she lost it,” Guerrier says.
That was the end of the cooking lesson: “She went to the grave with that recipe, and Iʼve been chasing how to recreate it for years.”
It wasnʼt until Olgaʼs funeral in 2007 that Guerrier learned that her grandmother had gone to a prestigious culinary school in Haiti before starting a family.
About a year later, Guerrier, who had previously worked as a model, actress and dancer, started cooking for a living without any formal training. What she had learned from Olga and Jacqueline was enough.
“The greatest thing I learned from my grandmother and mother is that itʼs not about measurements,” Guerrier says. “You always taste as you go along.”
Cooking the way Olga did is about feel. Itʼs about knowing when things smell right, when “the meat bounces a certain way.” Itʼs about confidence in your own palate. Itʼs about figuring everything out on your own.
Both Jacqueline and Guerrierʼs father, Emile, moved to America in the early 1970s because their families were fleeing the oppression and bloodshed of dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalierʼs regime. In both cases, it started with a strong woman who came first, made some money and then brought over her relatives one by one. For Emile, this woman was his sister, Marie-Josée. For Jacqueline, it was Olga.
Olga got a job as a perfume maker in New York and then sent for her children one by one.
“My grandfather was supposed to follow, but he didnʼt,” Guerrier says.
Somehow, despite the fact that her husband had abandoned the family, Olga held everything down. She put one of her sons through Cornell, and another two sons through Syracuse. She was ready to support Jacquelineʼs college education, too, but Jacqueline dropped out to start a family.
“My companyʼs called Single Serving,” says Guerrier, who isnʼt married but has always been surrounded by love. “I got that sense of empowerment from my grandmother. Itʼs all because of the strength and resilience of this woman. Whenever people think about Haiti, they only think of the bad stuff, poverty, the earthquake, the hurricane, the fact we had two dictators back to back. But weʼre really resilient people, and I donʼt think thereʼs any better way to share your story and your culture than through food.”
So Guerrier cooks Haitian food for her clients, and something about the smells and sizzles and flavors will make Kanye West want to hang out in the kitchen. On the day Guerrier cooked for Selena Gomezʼs 18th birthday, Gomezʼs grandfather stood by the grill and talked to the chef about what she was preparing.
“I think my grandmother would get a kick out of how this is my profession,” says Guerrier, whoʼs made rice and beans that many A-listers have enjoyed but might not ever stop tweaking that dish as she tries to replicate Olgaʼs recipe.