Gregory Gourdet Wants America to Respect Haitian Food
The Portland chef was planning to open his dream project—a wood-fired restaurant called Kann, or "sugarcane" in Haitian Creole. Then COVID-19 happened.
In Haiti, saltfish patties are a staple snack. Desalted cod, stewed with spices and tomato with a bit of kick from Scotch bonnet peppers, is encased in freshly fried pastry dough. They’re perfect for eating while walking to school or heading home after work, offering a bit of nourishment in between meals.
In 2015, chef Gregory Gourdet called on his childhood memories of eating these patties while planning and hosting a Haitian dinner in his adopted home of Portland, Oregon. Short on time, he used frozen puff pastry dough from the walk-in at Departure, where he’s culinary director, hoping it would mimic the flaky texture he remembered. “It wasn’t successful,” Gourdet says.
Memories romanticize flavors and experiences, dulling their edges and removing some of the vibrancy that comes from immediacy. In order to do right by this cuisine, he needed to go to the source and see the food up close, studying all of its intricacies. “I went back to Haiti and just started cooking with my mom in Florida anytime I could and my sister in Atlanta,” he says. Three years later, he hosted another Haitian dinner at the James Beard House with a “more dialed in,” lucid interpretation of Haiti’s food, a deeper understanding of the country’s appreciation of spice, textural complexities, and rich umami flavors. Crispy plantains were topped with coconut cream and caviar alongside chicken stewed in kreyòl spices. He made the dough for deep-fried salt cod patties by hand this time. It went much better. The evening buoyed him and gave him clarity.
He began dreaming up his own project, a wood-fired restaurant called Kann, or "sugarcane" in Haitian Creole. The menu would be a mix of what he cooked at Departure and his take on Haitian cuisine. Portlanders were excited to hear the Top Chef alum would be opening a restaurant in 2020, serving dishes like duck with plantain crepes and wood-fired yucca with garlic, lime, and black pepper. He started looking at commercial spaces and continued his search into March 2020, when COVID-19 hit and decimated the restaurant industry.
Last September he filmed Top Chef All Stars, where he debuted a streamlined version of Kann for the show's judges and a dining room of 100. But by the time the episode aired, his plans had stalled, so Gourdet joined some 949,000 viewers of Top Chef All Stars ‘Restaurant Wars,’ watching as he ran the restaurant of his dreams.
"Haitian food is extremely underserved in America,” he said during the episode. “It's still probably very mysterious to a lot of people." At the beginning of the dinner, guests received a detailed menu about the meal they were about to have and the memories that informed it. “Our restaurant is inspired by memories of meals shared with family” the text read. “Through the streets of Haiti, the sugar cane vendor can be heard yelling ‘kann.’”
A parade of family-style plates of griot, roasted red snapper marinated in Scotch bonnets and cilantro with Caribbean root vegetables, fried green plantains, and pikliz followed soon after, immersing diners in Gregory’s vision. “I knew exactly what I needed to do and I went into that challenge, like just really not scared,” he says on the phone recently. His team won the challenge and Gregory earned $10,000 in the process.
On social media, viewers offered sympathy and appreciation. Karen Brooks, food critic for Portland Monthly, tweeted, “How utterly inspiring and heartbreaking to watch (Gregory) cook his Haitian heart out on #Topchef for a restaurant wars challenge. It wasn’t just a game: his dream place was slated to open in 2020.” Another viewer tweeted, “Thank you for always representing our culture ever since you first entered Top Chef.”
The support has motivated Gourdet to dig even deeper into Haitian cuisine and learn more about the flavors and cooking techniques.
“Haitian Twitter was the best part,” he says. “I think me making those dishes, that every single Haitian person knows exactly what those dishes are, I think that spoke to a lot of people.” And although—spoiler alert—he’s out of the competition, he’s still pushing forward with Kann and hoping to open in 2021 in Portland.
“I'm excited just to have more time to plan,” he says. He’s using the rest of 2020 to create a to-go Kann pop up and a socially distanced, sit-down pop up space later in the year after the city has reopened.
And he’s still learning, working with and learning from fellow Haitian chefs in Oregon. “My friend Elsy Dinvil, she's a Haitian woman and she's actually helped me with pretty much all my popups,” he says. He also points to Bertony Faustin, Haitian-American winemaker at Abbey Creek Winery as part of his growing community.
“We have like a little crew and we all definitely stay in touch and support each other.” The goal is to bring others along with him, exposing them to his take on Haitian cuisine, making them want to learn more. It worked on Top Chef. After eating at Kann on the show, Tom Colicchio said “it made him want to go to Haiti.”