This Saturday night after he closes the kitchen, chef Daniel Desir will clear the back dining room and burn the floor at his West Rogers Park restaurant Kizin Creole. Kizin is Chicago’s only Haitian restaurant, so it’s a good thing that only means he’ll be dancing—more specifically, offering the first of four weekly konpa classes leading up to the restaurant’s sixth annual Taste of Haiti festival, on Saturday, September 28.
Konpa (aka compas) is Haiti’s contemporary merengue, and Desir, who’s danced professionally, is the founder of Tamboula Ethnic Dance Company. But he’s first and foremost a chef. Along with his wife, Patricia, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, and his mother, Melicia, he’s been been cooking at Kizin since 2013, when they purchased and renamed the Haitian storefront Chez Violette. Two years prior, when I wrote about that restaurant, Desir was a regular and a business student advising its owner, Violette Adrien, on marketing and advertising. Even then, though, he was something of a renaissance man.
He’d been a schoolteacher back in Haiti, and during his training he took a culinary track. Before all that he grew up cooking at Melicia’s side in rural Jacmel, in the southern part of the country, mastering the foundations of the syncretic creole cuisine that predates and shaped our own Louisiana creole food. Indigenous, African, and French influences, along with bits of Spanish and Arabic, guided the foodways in Haiti.
The Desirs have a drink on the menu they call My Childhood that embodies the personal touch they put on classic dishes of their youth—literally in this case. It’s carrot, celery, and beet juice blended with coconut milk, and it’s the precise formula Melicia made Daniel drink every day as a tonic when he was young.
“I used to hate it,” he says, but he’ll drink it every once in awhile now—he knows it’s good for him.
The Desirs’ menu can depend on availability—they were out of conch when I visited—but they offer many of the essentials, like the flaky puff pastry pâté, stuffed with beef, chicken, vegetables, hard-boiled egg, or salted cod. These are classic, and they are baked, so they don’t embody the serious fry game at play at Kizin the way that griyo, the national dish of Haiti, does. For this the Desirs marinate chunks of pork shoulder in epis, the foundational Haitian seasoning base of onions, garlic, bell peppers, green onions, garlic, tomatoes, celery, parsley, thyme, and sometimes Scotch bonnet peppers, then slowly braise them before deep-frying the chunks to a gentle crisp. Plated along with golden-fried plantains, akra (aka malanga, or taro root fritters), and patat fri (slices of fried white sweet potato), they make up a kind of Haitian fritto misto known as fritay.
This only calls for a side of pikliz, the tart, piercing Scotch bonnet-spiced slaw that generally brings this cuisine’s richness into sharp focus, as it does with ke bef, stewed oxtail, kabrit creole, stewed bone-in goat tenderized and smothered in its tomato-boosted braising liquid, or diri djondjon, deep, earthy rice pigmented with black mushrooms; but especially with Patricia’s mac and cheese, a kind of baked ziti gratin bonded with melted cheddar and sauced with whatever stew you’re having alongside it. Even the largely vegetable-based legim—a mash of eggplant, chayote, carrots, cabbage, watercress, and spinach—seems incomplete without pikliz.
Most of the regular menu items won’t be available during the Taste of Haiti Festival. For that the Desirs are going off-menu, offering, along with the konpa, card games, and a cooking demo, rarities such as tchaka, a corn and red bean soup, and mayi moulen, a cornmeal porridge served with black bean sauce.
“We’re gonna have some stuff that people probably haven’t eaten for years,” says Desir—all the better to fuel the burning of the floor. v