A Taste of FLORIDA
A Rich Melange
Chef Alain Lemaire gives a modern spin to Haitian Creole cuisine.
By Dalia Colón
Featured image above: Chef Alain Lemaire, Maybelline Photography.
Alain Lemaire knows where your mind goes when you think of Haiti: earthquakes, political upheaval, crisis at the border. But the South Florida chef wants to showcase a different side of his homeland: beaches, music, waterfalls, food.
“There is such a big community of Haitians in South Florida,” Lemaire says. “People just love good food, especially the Caribbean flavors. And since there is not much representation of Haitian food on a higher level, I take it upon myself to present it as such.”
Lemaire is executive chef and co-owner of Sensory Delights Catering in Pembroke Pines. Born in 1981, he grew up in Port-au-Prince, the youngest son of Herve Lemaire, an accountant and funeral home director, and Marie Danielle Lemaire, a nurse practitioner and teacher.
Known for fresh, earthy and assertive flavors, Haitian cuisine draws on indigenous ingredients, from tropical fruits to seafood. But it’s also been influenced by dishes and techniques imported by enslaved Africans and French colonists, creating a rich melange known as “Creole.”
Lemaire’s heritage reflects those influences. He grew up speaking French and Haitian Creole and watching his mother and grandmother prepare classic dishes.
“I grew up cooking, but not the traditional story where your mom or your grandma taught you how to cook,” says Lemaire. Instead of cooking with them, he studied how the matriarchs cooked and then copied them, often adding touches of his own.
“I wanted to cook for myself when I wanted to, and what I wanted to eat,” he says. Much of what he wanted to eat was traditional Haitian cuisine: Cashew chicken. Breakfast pasta. (Google it.) And the most iconic dish of all, soup joumou.
“The No. 1 dish in Haiti is our soup, our pumpkin soup,” Lemaire says. “Independence Soup. Soup of Liberty.”
Every family has its own version of the soup, made of calabaza squash—or pumpkin, as it’s called in Haiti— beef, vegetables and pasta, and seasoned with “elis,” Haiti’s version of the ubiquitous Caribbean green seasoning paste, a blend of herbs, scallions, onions, green peppers and more.
As the story goes, when France ruled Haiti, the enslaved natives were forced to grow squash for the soup, but since it was considered a delicacy, they were banned from eating it themselves. When Haitians gained independence on Jan. 1, 1804, they feasted on the once forbidden dish. Today Haitians around the world, including in Florida, ring in the new year with a belly full of pumpkin soup.
After high school, Lemaire moved to Miami for culinary training at Johnson and Wales University. But to cater events and visit family, he made frequent trips back to Haiti. In 2012, he met Neima Belancourt there at a food festival. He cooked; she did the wine pairings.
The two became friends and business partners. In 2015, they opened Sensory Delights Catering, a Pembroke Pines-based company specializing in Haitian- and Caribbean-inspired dishes. Lemaire enjoys the variety of crafting events for as few as two people and as many as 2,500, and he says catering gives him more freedom to innovate than running a restaurant.
“I love our traditional cuisine. I was fed traditional dishes. But I want to elevate it, using additional techniques, like molecular gastronomy, while keeping true to the essence of Haitian food,” he says.
“He’s willing to take a risk,” Belancourt agrees. “He’s willing to take traditional ingredients and use them in different preparations.” For example, the Haitian black mushrooms known as “djon-djonevolve” are traditionally used in rice dishes. But Lemaire cooks them into everything from gnocchi to aioli.
As impressive as Lemaire’s creativity, Belancourt says, is his work ethic—a sentiment echoed by his friend McAlex Joseph.
“His professionalism is on another level,” says Joseph, a Haitian-born chef who owns Kassav Catering in Wesley Chapel, just north of Tampa. “He’s like the Kobe [Bryant] of the industry. He’s very confident and humble at the same time. I couldn’t have a better friend and mentor.”
Lemaire himself has been mentored by some impressive names, including Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s “Chopped.” In 2015, after a friend referred Lemaire to a casting agent, he was chosen to compete on the show. “I used to be a very shy person,” Lamaire says with a laugh. “But after I did [the show] once, I was hooked!” Since then he’s appeared on the Food Network in “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and again on “Chopped,” most recently in 2021. He has two other TV shows scheduled for 2022.
“I can’t wait for them to come out, for people to learn more about Haitian cuisine,” Lamaire says.
In the meantime, Lemaire encourages Floridians to explore Haitian culture on their own. Support the state’s Haitian restaurants, shops and cultural attractions, such as the Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami, he says, rather than ingesting only doom-and-gloom news about the country.
“There is more to Haiti than that,” says Lemaire. “Our culture is vibrant. Our food is flavorful. We have so many beautiful sites.”
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 pound beef shank, meat cut off bones into 1-inch cubes
1 pound stew beef (preferably chuck) cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup Haitian epis (you can find recipes for epis online)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 lime)
15 cups beef or vegetable broth
1 pound beef bones
1 medium calabaza squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, cubed (butternut squash or regular pumpkin can be substituted)
3 large russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), finely chopped
3 carrots (about 1 pound), cut on the bias
½ small green cabbage (about 1 pound), very thinly sliced
1 medium onion, julienned
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 leek, white and pale-green parts only, finely chopped
2 small turnips, chopped
1 green Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper
1 ½ cups rigatoni
6 whole cloves Kosher salt and black pepper
1 parsley sprig
1 thyme sprig
1 bunch culantro
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- In a large bowl toss beef shank and stew beef with 1 cup of vinegar. Transfer beef to a colander and rinse with cold water.
- In a new bowl, mix epis, lime juice, salt, beef, and let marinate at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.
- Heat 5 cups of broth in a very large stock pot over medium. Add marinated beef and bones, cover, and simmer until meat is beginning to soften, about 40 minutes.
- Add squash to pot on top of beef, cover, and return to a simmer. Cook until squash is fork-tender, 20–25 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer squash to a blender. Add 4 cups broth and purée until smooth. Return to pot and bring to a simmer.
- Add potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onion, celery, leeks, turnips, hot pepper, cloves, parsley, culantro, thyme, and remaining 6 cups broth. Simmer, uncovered, until vegetables are 80 percent done, 20 to 25 minutes. Add pasta and let cook another 10 minutes until pasta is done.
- Add butter and remaining 1 Tbsp. vinegar. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until beef is very tender, 15–20 minutes more.
- Taste and adjust seasonings. Divide soup among bowls and serve with bread alongside.
Fried Breadfruit Wedges
Yield: 4 servings
¼ breadfruit, cut into 4-inch wedges
1 cup all purpose flour
½ tbsp chili powder
½ tbsp coriander
1 large egg
7 oz cold water
½ tbsp cumin
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbsp cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper
Oil for frying
- Cut breadfruit into wedges, and place in water bath with lemon juice and salt.
- Mix flour with chili powder, coriander, cumin, salt and pepper, egg, and water until smooth.
- Heat up a frying pan with oil and bring up to 350F.
- Dip pieces of breadfruit in batter, and gently drop in heated oil, fry until golden brown and fork tender.
- Remove from oil, and place on paper towels to drain excess oil. Toss in cilantro, salt and pepper mixture.
Dalia Colón, an Emmy-Award winning multimedia journalist, produces WUSF Public Media’s food podcast, The Zest. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times and on NPR.
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