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Chef Widza Gustin on Honoring, Supporting, and Celebrating the Haitian Community


Brooklyn native and culinary power Widza “Wiz” Gustin is a girl who leads along with her coronary heart and her heritage. When she was youthful, she spent summers visiting household and associates in Haiti along with her dad and mom and siblings, so she has a really deep understanding of her tradition and is aware of the significance of sharing that data. Widza’s admiration for her heritage conjures up and guides all she does. Whether or not she’s cooking for her daughter, catering an occasion along with her firm 180h4 Cuisine, or sharing recipes on her IGTV sequence Brunch Le Dimanche (created along with her workforce at manufacturing firm MissProduce), Widza makes certain to place Haitian flavors, strategies, and elements on the forefront.

I first met Widza in 2019, once we had been each interns at Meals Community. Within the quick time I’ve identified her, I’ve been in a position to see how she makes use of meals, particularly Haitian meals, to encourage, nourish, and luxury others. Through the COVID-19 lockdowns, Widza pivoted 180h4 Delicacies to supply meals to frontline staff and has continued to serve and provides again to her neighborhood. Just lately, Widza and I hopped on a video name to speak about summers in Haiti along with her household, Haitian delicacies, and the significance of getting the proper illustration for the Haitian meals neighborhood.

Thanks a lot for sitting down with me, Widza. Your work is inspiring and so true to who you’re and I hope we are able to present others that right here. To start out, I’d love to listen to extra about your loved ones and your summers in Haiti. 

My mother and pa had been each born and raised in Les Cayes, Haiti, which is south of the capital. I used to be born in America, however I take into account Haiti my dwelling as a result of as quickly as I used to be born, my dad and mom began taking me and my siblings there. As a younger child I hated it as a result of I used to be similar to, “Oh my god, I don’t get to play with my associates and I can’t see my associates in America as a result of I’ve to go to Haiti and spend time with my cousins.” I made it such a giant deal, however wanting again I perceive the significance. Although we had been born in America, we didn’t mechanically tackle American traditions. As an alternative we took all our Haitian heritage. We knew, from soups to nuts, all the pieces that must be identified about Haitian heritage and I recognize my dad and mom lots for doing that.

From after I was born to, I’d say, about 6 or 7 years previous they’d take us each single summer time. That’s when flights had been low cost. [Laughs] My older brother was born in Haiti and didn’t come to the USA till he was 9, so we might go see him and we might additionally go to different relations and my dad and mom’ associates. After we stopped going, I didn’t return till I used to be like 16 years previous — 10 years later. I remorse not having the ability to go to throughout that point as a result of if I may’ve gone each single summer time, I positively would’ve soaked up extra of my Haitian heritage. 

The Haitian heritage and tradition is wealthy. It’s so full of life, it’s simply colourful, the meals is superior. Once you go to Haiti it’s simply totally different. Once you style the rice and beans [diri kole] otherwise you style the contemporary goat that they kill in entrance of you and have you ever eat it, it’s tremendous totally different. It’s very, very totally different, but it surely’s one thing I loved.

Once I went again after I was 16, I attempted to go yearly after that. However it wasn’t till my late 20s that I instructed myself, “Perhaps I ought to attempt to decide up this custom,” particularly after I had my daughter (she’s 8 now). She hasn’t been to Haiti, however that’s one thing I’m wanting ahead to doing. I wish to begin her off younger so she will be able to have extra years to absorb the tradition. I might present her precisely what to like, particularly at this age, after I didn’t essentially recognize it. 

The final time I went to Haiti was in 2019, about 2 years in the past. I might like to go now, however with what’s taking place politically surrounding the assassination of Haiti’s president and the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, it’s simply not the fitting time. It isn’t secure proper now and my persons are determined and in want of assist. I promised myself that as quickly as issues begin getting higher that’ll be my subsequent ticket and I’ll go for per week or two. My mother is somebody who loves her nation. She’s at all times there six months out of the 12 months after which she comes again for six months, however she hasn’t been with what’s taking place.

I’m so sorry. It breaks my coronary heart to see what the Haitian neighborhood goes by way of each right here and in Haiti. I hope you and your mother can safely make it there quickly. That’ll be such a particular expertise taking your daughter to Haiti for the primary time! These summers seem to be they had been such formative experiences and have clearly had a long-lasting impression, seeing that you simply achieve this a lot to share your Haitian heritage with others.

With all that being stated, what precisely led you to the meals trade?

After we had been younger and would go to Haiti, my mother and my aunt can be the 2 individuals who would just about feed the city. They’d have their huge stockpots set on prime of wooden fires cooking oatmeal within the morning for everyone. Additionally, in Haiti, there’s a dish known as Peasant Pasta. It’s smoked herring with spaghetti and it was the primary meal we used to have at any time when we touched down. I used to observe them feed the city and see how individuals can be completely happy simply to get a meal. My mother would come from the USA along with her groceries and provides and stuff to ensure she may feed as many individuals as potential. I noticed that meals made individuals completely happy.

I love seeing my mother within the kitchen. Being the center of 5 youngsters, I used to be in all probability the one one within the kitchen with my mother. (My brothers and sisters had been slackers. [laughs]) I might watch my mother take only one ingredient and amplify it and make it into one thing wonderful. So a lot taste! The process for her to get to the ultimate dish could be very intricate and she or he takes her time and she is aware of what she’s doing. Simply watching her over time [in the kitchen] was one thing actually particular and one thing I bonded along with her over. That’s what obtained me began pondering that I might like to cook dinner.

I additionally used to observe Julia Baby. My sisters and I had a small 13-inch tv in our bed room. We didn’t have cable so the one channels that had been out there had been 2, 9, 7, and 13. PBS was the one channel my dad and mom would allow us to watch as a result of we had been younger. We’d watch the child reveals after which Julia Baby would come on. I might watch her and say, “Wow, that is wonderful. Have a look at a girl on TV simply proudly owning it and cooking wonderful dishes.” I used to inform myself that I’d like to be on TV in the future. I’d love to point out individuals Haitian meals as a result of I by no means used to see Haitian meals on TV. I simply felt there have been a variety of occasions, particularly after I was youthful, that there weren’t a variety of cooks, particularly feminine cooks, who seemed like me.

I obtained into the meals trade as a result of I like the way in which meals makes individuals really feel. Meals is so nostalgic. It makes individuals completely happy. It takes you to a particular place. I simply love the preparation of it. I like the truth that I can get in my zone within the kitchen. That’s my remedy and it positively is one thing I take very critically. I might have Meals Community on all day after faculty simply watching totally different cooks — this was in highschool once we determined to get cable — and after watching that and my mother and other people like Julia Baby, I knew meals was one thing I needed to get into. And I actually needed to get into the meals trade to amplify Haitian voices and Haitian meals. Lots of people didn’t actually learn about Haitian delicacies and I really feel like these days it’s positively one thing that lots of people are opening their eyes to. They’re taking the time to style it and see what it’s about. Once they eat it and understand, “Wow, that is good!” and ask the place it’s from, that’s when the dialog begins. I like that. I like that meals can do this.

Let’s discuss extra about Haitian meals. I’d think about that Haitian delicacies varies relying on the area. I do know you possibly can’t converse for the whole thing of the Haitian diaspora, however how would you greatest describe the Haitian meals that you simply grew up with?

The meals that I grew up with, like I stated earlier than, takes time. The preparation could be very intricate. Let’s say, as an illustration, proteins— we’re very severe about our proteins. I believe I can safely say that I converse for lots of Haitians with regards to washing your meat and ensuring it’s clear. Haitians grew up on an island the place they didn’t have packaged meat. They needed to kill the meat themselves. Utilizing acidity and water to scrub their meat is one thing very private, one thing that’s crucial. 

And likewise with Haitian meals, we at all times wish to be certain we all know what’s going into our our bodies. We at all times wish to guarantee that no matter goes in our our bodies is nice for us and that it’s not one thing that’s processed, packaged, or something like that.

So far as what I grew up on, my mother used so many alternative methods to not solely elevate the dish, but additionally amplify the flavors. The produce that we use, the herbs that we use — herbs are important with regards to cooking. Haitians love their garlic. Once I was rising up there was a mortar and pestle that’s in all probability nonetheless in my mother’s home. It’s been there in all probability 20+ years and she or he makes use of that to crush up scallions and garlic. With all the pieces that I’ve seen my mother do, nothing’s packaged. Nothing’s pre-made. It’s at all times do-it-yourself and you’ll inform that she places a lot love into it, a lot time. Once you style that first chew you possibly can inform, “Oh, you took your time to stew this,” or “You took your time to let this simmer,” you realize? And I love that. If it’s one factor that’s for certain, there was not one bland dish that we ever had rising up as children. From the rice to the cornmeal porridges, all the pieces was simply filled with taste. 

Your mother clearly has had a giant affect in your love of cooking. Is she the one who taught you the best way to cook dinner Haitian meals? 

Sure. I owe all the pieces to my mother. My mother for certain is the blueprint with regards to my cooking. She’s the one who taught me what seasonings to make use of or what herbs to make use of. Rising up there was no McDonald’s. There was no consuming out if we had been out of the home.  It was at all times strictly Haitian meals. We wouldn’t actually exit as a household to eating places and stuff as a result of it was at all times, “There’s meals at dwelling and we may make Haitian meals and have that.” 

For dishes that she doesn’t know, like French dishes or Korean dishes or totally different cuisines that I discovered in culinary faculty, I simply tried to be taught to include the Haitian tradition and Haitian produce or recipes or the Haitian manner of making ready no matter into that sure delicacies. I like to merge two or three totally different cuisines collectively. 

Are there any particular dishes that instantly come to thoughts if you consider Haitian meals?

Undoubtedly black rice. The way in which that you simply get the rice to be black is from dried black trumpet mushrooms. They are often present in Haiti in huge quantities. Haitian cooks soak the mushrooms in water after which use that water to cook dinner the rice. Additionally stewed conch, which is known as lanbi.  It’s costly, so it’s a special-occasion meals. Each time there was a celebration or a child bathe, you could possibly anticipate conch.

We might have the peasant pasta that I discussed earlier. Haitians love consuming spaghetti and scorching canine within the morning, which isn’t for everyone, however that was breakfast for us. We additionally love plantain. Plantain is one thing that’s tremendous essential. Boiled plantain together with some eggs within the morning, that was breakfast for us, too. However I’d say the highest two for me are black rice and stewed conch. 

Oh and one other favourite is known as salade russe, which is a Haitian potato salad that they add beets to, which makes it look pink. Once I was youthful, I used to take a look at it and be like, “Ew, that is pink. That doesn’t make any sense,” but it surely at all times was so flavorful. I at all times questioned how they got here up with a few of these issues, however that’s what makes the delicacies distinctive. 

And what are (in your opinion) the most effective, most scrumptious elements of Haitian delicacies that you really want individuals to learn about?

Probably the most particular factor about Haitian meals for me is epís. Epís is a inexperienced seasoning that’s the muse of our cooking. Everytime you’re making your rice and beans, it’s important to have epís. Everytime you’re marinating your rooster, it’s important to have epís. Taste goes hand in hand with epís. In Haitian delicacies, you possibly can mechanically style that one thing was well-seasoned due to all of the contemporary herbs and produce that go into epís. Taste is that prime factor for Haitian delicacies and I need individuals to actually absolutely perceive that, like I stated, we take a very long time to cook dinner these dishes and there are not any shortcuts. There isn’t any substitution.

Let’s pivot a bit and speak about illustration of Haitian meals. Illustration in meals has been broadly mentioned up to now 12 months, with many criticizing the way in which BIPOC cuisines are represented throughout meals media, together with who will get to inform sure tales and the significance of offering cultural and historic context. How do you’re feeling Haitian delicacies has been portrayed in meals media?

I really feel that we don’t have a voice in meals media. We don’t have the right individuals to symbolize us. Haitian meals isn’t one thing that you would be able to learn up on and be an knowledgeable in. Effectively, you can examine Haitian delicacies and attempt to comply with the recipe, however that’s totally different than having a Haitian chef or cook dinner who absolutely is aware of the meals. In Haiti, whether or not you’re a boy or a woman, you’ll know the best way to season a rooster if you’re 5 years previous. That’s simply the way you’re introduced up, you realize? I really feel like within the boardrooms or at any time when they’re having these culinary conversations, they should have an individual from that tradition to symbolize the meals. 

I additionally really feel that with Haitian meals, you don’t actually see that a lot on the market, and if you do the recipe isn’t proper. Soup joumou is one thing that involves thoughts due to the recipe that was published in Bon Appétit in December 2020. There have been simply so many issues that lacked, so many issues that didn’t belong in there. They did acknowledge the error and tried to appropriate it, however it’s important to ask your self, “Who made the choice to symbolize Haiti with such an inaccurate model of a dish that’s so essential to Haitian tradition?” 

In all honesty, it actually damage, too, to see soup joumou misrepresented. It despatched the Haitian neighborhood into an uproar as a result of soup joumou is one thing that represents us and has a variety of historical past. That was the primary dish that we had on January 1, 1804, once we gained our independence. There was a lot bloodshed and so many tales related to that day and that dish that it was hurtful to see it finished incorrectly. I wish to be certain individuals perceive the damage that may come from not being represented appropriately.

Like I stated, there are tales behind a few of these dishes and our soup joumou has a entire huge story behind it. We would like individuals to grasp it and we would like individuals to, you realize, ask questions so we are able to reply and train them. However we would like the proper individual to have the ability to reply them.

Transferring ahead, how would you prefer to see Haitian meals represented?    

I might simply like to see Haitian cooks on the market. Issues transfer slowly and take time, but when we’re going to place Haitian meals on the map and share how wonderful the delicacies is, then we’d like Haitian cooks. We want extra of those younger Haitian cooks and likewise the older Haitian cooks who’ve been doing it for years and haven’t had their voices heard. They need to be exhibiting precisely how we put together meals and what goes into our meals and the explanation why we take this time to make sure dishes, you realize? Transferring ahead, I wish to see individuals like me. I wish to see people who find themselves from Aux Cayes. I wish to see people who find themselves from Jérémie or Port-au-Prince who can provide me a narrative about how they grew up or what they discovered from their grandmas. Or generally there are individuals who stay with their aunts in Haiti and, you realize, I simply wish to hear from OGs about what their households taught them.

I couldn’t agree extra. I believe acknowledging how meals holds these tales is so essential right here. A lot of our lives, be it our particular person tales or elements of our tradition or items of historical past, are embedded in these recipes and it’s so essential that the individual representing us understands that. 

Precisely! If you wish to speak about Bangladeshi meals, I need somebody who’s from Bangladesh to go forward and speak about it. For those who’re speaking Haiti, give me a Haitian individual to speak about it as a result of it’s going to create a disconnect if it’s another person. A white individual can’t inform me what Haitian meals is rather like a Bangladeshi individual can’t inform me what Haitian meals is and I can’t let you know what Bangladeshi meals is. And within the meals world, we’re attempting to create a language the place we are able to perceive one another. However, I’m not going to grasp you if you happen to’re giving me the flawed directions, you realize?

In fact. You do a very nice job at connecting your meals to the Haitian tradition, like by incorporating Haitian strategies and elements into all the pieces you make as you talked about earlier, however particularly with 180h4 Delicacies. Are you able to inform us somewhat about how your catering firm took place and what it stands for? 

I went to culinary faculty whereas I used to be working a company job. After being in culinary faculty, I instructed myself that issues want to vary and that I wasn’t going to be within the company world for a very long time. I wanted to place my two ft within the meals trade full power. Like, ten toes down, it’s time to get actually severe about it. So, I began 180h4 Delicacies. 

There are such a lot of items that contribute to 180h4 Delicacies. The story of how we gained our independence is one. 1804 is the 12 months that Haiti gained its independence and it’s a vital 12 months for Haitian heritage and tradition as a result of we had been in a position to take away ourselves from slavery and grow to be the world’s first black-led republic, making us the primary Caribbean state to achieve our independence. I take that very critically, so I began 180h4 Delicacies to honor the meals that my ancestors used to make again then. 

In Brooklyn, the place I’m from, if you go to a Haitian restaurant you get a giant styrofoam platter of meals. It’s lots, it’s wonderful, and the flavour is bomb, however I needed to additionally elevate that and present individuals that you simply don’t must serve it solely that manner. Haitian meals tastes good, however I wish to be certain it appears lovely as properly. I at all times beloved meals styling and making meals look fairly — I simply love fairly stuff [laughs].

The way in which you incorporate the historical past and tradition of Haiti into 180h4 is admittedly lovely and admirable. The meals additionally appears so wonderful and I’m certain it tastes even higher. 

Meals represents such quite a lot of our respective cultures. For me, it’s actually been my connection to each my Bangladeshi and Vietnamese sides. Has meals affected your connection to your individual ethnicity and tradition — and in that case, how?

It completely has. As I stated earlier, meals is huge in Haitian tradition. Music and artwork are additionally positively components in Haitian tradition, however the meals is one thing particular. That’s one thing that I maintain close to and pricey to my coronary heart. I need to have the ability to present the subsequent era what I discovered from my grandma and what I discovered from my mother. I’ve a daughter who’s half Haitian and half Trinidadian and I wish to guarantee that she absolutely understands the time that it takes to make Haitian meals and what goes into our delicacies. I wish to guarantee that the subsequent era will have the ability to absolutely perceive what I grew up on and guarantee that they’ll proceed to convey it down era after era.

Passing these recipes and their tales down is so essential! What you’ve shared in the present day was actually unbelievable and raised so many essential factors in how our meals is consultant of so many alternative elements of our cultures and the way it can really feel to not be represented in the fitting manner. Earlier than now we have to wrap up, inform me in regards to the recipe you’re sharing in the present day.

Diri djon djon might be my favourite Haitian meals of all time. It’s black mushroom rice utilizing the dried black trumpet mushrooms. You normally have it with lanbi, which is the stewed conch, however the way in which I used to be introduced up, my mother would put dried shrimp within the water, so that you’d see little shrimp floating round. I made a decision to kick it up a notch and use contemporary jumbo shrimp as a substitute with the intention to actually style it within the dish and as a nod to the dried shrimp my mother makes use of in hers. 

What does sharing this recipe with me and with readers imply to you?

Sharing this recipe means you realize me and in flip know a bit of Haiti. You possibly can say, “Hey, this younger woman who has dad and mom from Aux Cayes, Haiti, grew up on this wonderful dish,” and assume, “Why haven’t I tasted one thing like this earlier than?” And I really feel like that’s the response that lots of people have as soon as they style black rice. They at all times say, “What have I been lacking?” and that’s the factor — Haitian delicacies has been round for years, years, era after era. So for somebody to style it for the primary time and say, “What have I been lacking?” Then they’ll begin to perceive. I’ve grown up the place individuals have put Haitians down or put a variety of damaging connotations on us. We take satisfaction within the meals we put together. So for individuals to style it and simply be like, “Wow that is wonderful!” and for them to wish to analysis extra on the place they’ll get the meals means lots. I really feel like that’s even going to place totally different Haitian eating places on the map and this opens the dialog for the Haitian neighborhood.

Kayla Hoang


Kayla Hoang is a contract recipe developer, author, and baker. She is a graduate of Johnson and Wales College’s 4-year Baking and Pastry program and has coaching from Alain Ducasse’s Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie in Yssingeaux, France. Her love of meals comes from her dad and mom and their Bangladeshi and Vietnamese roots. In her free time, she will be able to normally be discovered within the kitchen ready for a contemporary batch of cookies to return out of the oven or taking up a brand new baking venture.

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