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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

Chef Alain Lemaire on Florida’s Haitian cuisine

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A Haitian chef wants you to know his home country should be known for more than earthquakes and political upheaval.

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Alain Lemaire knows where your mind goes when you think of Haiti: earthquakes, political upheaval, crisis at the border…

But the Port-au-Prince native wants to showcase a different side of his homeland: beaches, music, waterfalls, food…

Especially the food.

Alain is executive chef and co-owner of Sensory Delights Catering in Pembroke Pines. He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, but not in the way you might think.

“I grew up cooking, but not the traditional story where your mom or your grandma taught you how to cook,” says Alain, who studied how the matriarchs cooked and then copied them, rather than actually cooking with them. “It was more that I wanted to cook for myself when I wanted to, and what I wanted to eat.”

What he wanted to eat was traditional Haitian cuisine: Breakfast pasta. (It’s a thing.) Cashew chicken. Black mushroom rice. And the most patriotic dish of all—pumpkin soup.

“The number one dish in Haiti is our soup, our pumpkin soup,” Alain says. “Our pumpkin soup is called Independence Soup. Soup of Liberty.”

As the story goes, French colonists forbade enslaved people from eating the soup, which was considered a delicacy reserved for the elite. So when Haiti gained independence on Jan. 1, 1804, they celebrated with soup. Today, Haitians around the world ring in the new year with a belly full of pumpkin soup, which is traditionally cooked with root vegetables, garlic, cilantro and other aromatics.

After high school, Alain moved to the United States to attend culinary school. The self-described “very shy person” found himself in the spotlight after a friend referred him to a casting agent. He competed on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped, and he has several other food TV projects in the works.

“I can’t wait for them to come out, for people to see it and to learn more about Haitian cuisine,” Alain says.

In the meantime, Alain 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, rather than ingesting only doom-and-gloom news about the country.

“That side is not really showcased in the news,” Alain says. “I know there is more to Haiti than that. Our culture is vibrant. Our food is vibrant and flavorful. We have so many beautiful sites.”

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