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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”