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His island of Haitian culture

Times Staff Writer

SOMETIMES in restaurant whites, sometimes in a tropical shirt, George Laguerre wanders from table to table schmoozing with diners, sometimes pausing to turn up the bouncy soundtrack of Caribbean dance music. TiGeorges’ Chicken is his domain -- a place of roast chicken, fricasseed goat, vanilla-spiked limeade and coffee roasted with sugar until it smokes. Haitian food, in short.

During the last two months, “Haiti” and “food” have taken on a less cheerful association. In the land of Laguerre’s birth, where the price of food has jumped 40%, several people have died in food riots.

“Haitians knew something like that was going to happen sometime; so many people are living hand to mouth,” Laguerre says. “This is something that started back in the ‘60s. It was probably one reason my parents left Haiti.”

Members of Los Angeles’ tiny Haitian community, meeting periodically at his restaurant, were organizing charitable programs for the old country even before the current crisis. Laguerre says, “Most of my buddies say, ‘George, we must help those people grow food.’ So we’re introducing portable propane burners to people so they won’t have to use wood as fuel, which causes deforestation, which harms the agricultural land.

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“We’ve already delivered a dozen of those burners to key people to influence the public. We are in the process of getting a 501(c) [nonprofit designation] so we can get donations. Everybody wants to do something. This is what we’re doing.”

Now, L.A. is not exactly where you’d expect to find a Haitian restaurant -- there are only about 2,200 Haitians in all of Southern California. So how did Laguerre end up here?

It’s a tangled tale. Dreams of Hollywood figure in it, and the 1984 Olympics, and a Haitian grandmother’s determination that her family was going to live in America, whether they wanted to or not.

Laguerre grew up with 10 brothers and sisters in Port-de-Paix, where his father was a coffee grower. In the beginning, except for his grandmother, who ran a restaurant in the back of her grocery, no one in the immediate family thought of emigrating.

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“My grandmother . . . visited my uncle in Akron, Ohio, where he was teaching carpentry,” Laguerre says. “So she knew how the U.S. functioned, although she couldn’t read or write, and most of the English words she learned had to do with cooking ingredients.

“When she came back,” he recalls wryly, “she tried to impose American culture in Haiti. She announced that, from then on, dinner would be after 5 p.m. [instead of midday]. We all cried, because we were so hungry. But she said we needed to do this because ‘One day you’re going to move to America.’ ”

In 1970, her equally iron-willed daughter, Laguerre’s mother, insisted that the family move to Brooklyn. “My father came reluctantly, I would say,” Laguerre remembers.

It was a harsh transition, because none of the family could speak English, and their main income was what his mother earned as a nurse’s aide. His father delivered sandwiches to Wall Street offices and later operated a mimeograph machine for a Brooklyn nonprofit.

Despite the rocky start, all the brothers and sisters went to college. Laguerre studied film at the City College of New York with the idea of being a cameraman, and he followed his dream to Los Angeles in 1980.

Like many another newcomer to our town, though, he failed to break into the industry. He worked as an accountant (one of the jobs he’d had in New York was at a bank). At his lowest ebb, he fried chicken at a fast-food restaurant.

Olympic inspiration

He WAS keeping the books for a party rental service during the 1984 Olympics when he noticed how much money there seemed to be in providing canopies in the “Festive Federalism” colors that were then blanketing Los Angeles. He started his own party rental company out of his garage, soon moving into a storefront on Glendale Boulevard, where he continued successfully for more than 20 years.

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Although Laguerre had enjoyed cooking alongside his mother and grandmother when he was young, nothing up to this point had seemed to be leading him toward opening a restaurant, least of all that reluctant stint in a fast-food chicken place. But in the late ‘90s, Laguerre decided it was time to find a new line of work.

He went back to Haiti, where his grandmother’s “one-day” restaurant, so called because it was open only on Sunday morning, catered to people after Mass at the local church. It served only one dish, an elaborate squash soup, which Laguerre now also makes.

There he had the idea of opening his own limited-menu restaurant. Home in L.A., he settled on roasted chicken and worked up a recipe.

Hedging his bets

And HE put a restaurant together, piece by piece, working with a Texas company to convert a gas rotisserie to wood-burning -- it stands in the front window like a Ferris wheel of roasting chickens -- and gathering avocado wood from as far away as Santa Barbara wine country. In 2002 despite his uncertainty as to whether Angelenos would go for Haitian cuisine, he opened TiGeorges’ Chicken (TiGeorge, or “little George,” is his nickname) in the storefront next to his party rental business. Hedging his bets, he kept the party rental business open.

He also hedged his bets on the menu, which was limited to roast chicken, rice, black beans, salad and French fries. But he grew more confident when he discovered that Americans liked Haitian foods, such as the sly hot sauce ti malis (“little malice”) -- minced onions, garlic and habanero chiles mixed with lime juice.

So he’s expanded the menu to include fricasseed pork, goat and conch and fried red snapper with an elegant lime and shallot sauce. He’s started bottling Haitian hot cabbage relish (pikliz) and “grapefruit jam” (which might better be described as candied lime peel mixed with pineapple and raisin juices). He imports coffee from the old family plantation in Port-de-Paix and roasts it at the restaurant.

As business has expanded, he’s been converting his party supply shop into more restaurant seating. He no longer has to do everything -- now he has a waiter and two people working in the kitchen. At Friday lunch, TiGeorges’ has live Haitian music and on Saturday afternoons Cuban jazz. And Laguerre is about to close the party rental business at last.

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It’s been a long, strange trip. Has he ever heard the Haitian saying “Lavi se you otomobil san ba direksyon”?

Laguerre doubles up with laughter. “Yes,” he says, “yes, I know that proverb very well. ‘Life is a car without a steering wheel.’ ”

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charles.perry@latimes.com

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Sweet potato pudding (pain patate)

Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes, plus overnight refrigeration

Servings: 10

Note: Adapted from a recipe by Goerge Laguerre. Canned sweet grated coconut is available at Liborio markets and select Latino markets and grocery stores, as well as online at cubanfoodmarket.com and latinpantry.com.

1 pound yams

Half of a (2-pound, 2-ounce) can of sweet grated coconut

1 pound (about 4 medium) ripe bananas, peeled and mashed

1/3 cup lightly packed raisins

3/4 cup (6 ounces) evaporated milk

2/3 cup (7 ounces) condensed milk

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted, plus extra for buttering the pan

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon Key lime zest (from 1 or 2 limes)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Peel and grate the yams into a large bowl. Mix in the coconut, bananas, raisins, evaporated milk, condensed milk, butter, ginger, vanilla, lime zest and salt. Pour the mixture into a large, heavy-bottom saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it comes to a strong simmer, about 30 minutes.

2. Heat the broiler. Pour the mixture into a buttered 8-inch square metal baking pan. Flatten the top by pressing down on it with a rubber spatula, and place it in the oven until the mixture is bruleed to a rich, dark brown color, 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold, preferably overnight, to allow the pudding to set completely.

3. To serve, heat the pudding in the oven at 350 degrees until warmed through, about 15 minutes. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, if desired.

Each serving (without ice cream): 512 calories; 6 grams protein; 61 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 29 grams fat; 22 grams saturated fat; 36 mg. cholesterol; 206 mg. sodium.

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Red snapper with Charlotte sauce

Total time: 25 minutes, plus 1 to 2 hours marinating time

Servings: 2

Note: Adapted from a recipe by George Laguerre of TiGeorges’ Chicken

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon parsley

3 teaspoons fresh Key lime juice

1/4 cup olive oil

1 (2-pound) red snapper, cleaned

Canola oil for frying

1/2 cup flour

1. In a shallow glass (or other nonreactive) baking pan, mix the garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, parsley, lime juice and olive oil. With a sharp knife, make three shallow slashes (a couple of inches apart and 1 1/2 to 2 inches long) on each side of the snapper. Place the fish in the pan and rub the marinade over the fish on both sides. Cover the pan loosely with plastic and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

2. In a large saute pan, add enough oil so that it comes 1 to 1 1/2 inches up the sides of the pan. Heat until the oil is shimmering and a thermometer inserted reads 350 degrees. Remove the fish from the marinade, brushing off the excess flavorings and reserving the marinade. Dredge the fish in flour and place it gently in the saute pan, frying it on both sides to a crisp golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Remove the fish to a paper-towel-lined pan and set it aside in a warm place while you make the sauce.

Sauce and assembly

1/4 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, finely sliced

1 shallot, peeled and minced

1/4 bell pepper, thinly sliced

2 whole cloves

Reserved marinade

1. In a small saucepan, combine the pepper, shallot, bell pepper, cloves and the reserved marinade. Heat the pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

2. Place the fish on a platter and pour the sauce over the fish. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 683 calories; 52 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 43 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 88 mg. cholesterol; 1,218 mg. sodium.


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