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Chef Tina feeds fellow immigrants traditional Haitian food weekly in Massachusetts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Haitian migrants living in a western Massachusetts shelter are slowly acclimating to life in the U.S. They are layering up for cold weather and sampling American food. But once a week, they get to have a taste of home, traditional Haitian cuisine. New England Public Media's Nirvani Williams takes us to a Sunday night pop-up.

NIRVANI WILLIAMS, BYLINE: The smell of crushed eggplants and red peppers sizzling wafts in the air of the Mesa Verde Kitchen, a restaurant in Greenfield, Mass. But it's not their signature cuisine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

WILLIAMS: Chef Tina is using a long, metal spoon to scoop the dish, known as legume, from a ten-gallon wok into a silver serving tray. She's a 32-year-old Haitian migrant. We're not using the full names of the Haitian migrants because they're concerned about obtaining legal status in the country. Tina's preparing three meals - legume, soup joumou and slow-cooked marinated chicken - in an attempt to soothe customers on this brisk, rainy Sunday. Tina says soup joumou, also known as pumpkin soup, holds a special meaning in Haitian history.

TINA: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: "This is an independence dish in my country," she says. The dish was historically reserved for slave masters in Haiti, but as soon as the revolution happened, Haitians reclaimed it. Chef Tina seized an opportunity to trade her expertise cooking traditional Haitian cuisine to use the restaurant space as a place for her and other Haitian migrants to gather away from the shelter they're staying at in town. Amy McMahan owns the restaurant.

AMY MCMAHAN: I'm pretty much volunteering my time and my space with the hopes that we can build it up and get a steady stream of income so that we can hire, you know, Haitian people and also represent Haitian cuisine.

WILLIAMS: Chef Tina isn't being paid. She's still waiting for the federal government to approve her work permit. But in the meantime, Tina happily runs plates of food out to other Haitian migrants, her friends from the shelter. Their plates are free.

JUNIOR: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: Forty-year-old migrant Junior says it makes him really happy to be able to come here and meet other Haitian people. He says the food is also very good.

TI MAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: "Sundays are a very special day for us," says 38-year-old Haitian migrant Ti Maz. She says it's like an appointment they have.

TI MAZ: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: "It's special because we know we're eating food from home, and it's being prepared by someone from home. It's authentic," she says. But their reasons for leaving home hold an entirely different feeling. Chef Tina says she left Port-au-Prince because a gang demanded money she earned from her small business. When she refused, they killed her father and threatened to harm the rest of her family.

TINA: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: "It wasn't my family that was the problem," Tina says. "It was me, so I felt like I had to leave." She fled to Chile for six years, where she cooked Haitian food at a restaurant. Then she went to Mexico for a year until she crossed the border and found her way up to Massachusetts. That's when Tina was introduced to McMahan, and the idea to create the pop-up was born.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi.

KERLIE GEDEON: Hi.

WILLIAMS: At 5 o'clock, the first paying customer of the night shuffles into the restaurant from the rain. Kerlie Gedeon is from the neighboring town and of Haitian descent. She receives a takeout bag with her favorite meals, legume and rice, and whispers almost in disbelief.

GEDEON: Oh, my goodness. It's home.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: She says she has to thank Chef Tina.

GEDEON: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

TINA: (Laughter) OK.

GEDEON: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

TINA: (Speaking Haitian Creole).

WILLIAMS: What did you say to her?

GEDEON: I just said that I love the idea. The food smells wonderful, and I'm so glad that she's doing this. And I'm going to do it every Sunday (laughter).

WILLIAMS: Tina hopes to own her own restaurant someday but says she has to move out of the shelter first. All she can do now is put her hopes in her cooking.

TINA: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLIAMS: Tina says the richness of Haitian culture comes out in its food. "When I make it," she says, "I feel home. I put myself entirely in it." And she hopes everyone who tries it can experience a little of her home, too. For NPR News, I'm Nirvani Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTIN TEBBUTT SONG, "(IN.) FADING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nirvani Williams // New England Public Media