Nadege Fleurimond is a caterer and event planner based in New York City. The Columbia University graduate is of Haitian descent, and she caught our attention with her latest coffee table book project. We’ve been hooked since. The entrepreneur, dreamer, and author who is not afraid to embark on new adventures agreed to fit me in her schedule two Fridays ago. We sat comfortably at a coffee shop near Union Square like old friends catching up with life. At first our meeting started with her asking me all kinds of questions about my life, which made me think I was the one being interviewed. Then we got down to business, and she gave me some insights about what it means to follow your dreams and inspire others.
I watched her come in with her afro puff and a giant smile. She wore a pastel, floral pink blouse that complimented her deep brown complexion. And when I glanced at her feet, she just shrugged and told me the heels were in the car. She was completely comfortable in her running shoes, and I don’t blame her! She’s a woman on the go, and comfort is always best. We sipped on hot cocoa, and I watched the passion in her face as she talked about what she does. Her ability to mix Kreyol (Haitian Creole) and English beautifully made the interview even more interesting. Her facial expressions were full of life, and her sense of humor was refreshing. It’s always a good time to sit with down-to-earth people who are working hard to create amazing things.
I left my job when I decided I wanted to cater full-time. It was a two-week decision. And I had $800 to my name, but I left. To me, it’s not that failure is not an option. I tell people that I fail all the time. It’s just one of those things that if you put your all into, it will work out. It may be hard, it’s definitely going to be hard, but you have to give something your all.
FP: Where are you from originally?
NF: Ayiti! I am from Haiti. I’ve been here since 1989, I was about 7 or 8 years old when I came, and I’ve been in Brooklyn ever since. The only time I left Brooklyn was to go to college, and I only went across the bridge to Manhattan for four years. *laughs*
FP: Where did you go to college?
NF: I went to Columbia University. No, they don’t have a food major. *chuckles* I studied political science, but I love cooking! I grew up with a single father who is a phenomenal cook so I learned how to cook pretty early on. Then he stopped cooking, and I took over when I was eight years old, and I’ve been cooking since. Catering and food were purely accidental. You know I’m Haitian, so I had no plans to be in the food business in any kind of way.
FP: Where in Haiti are you from specifically?
NF: I was born in Port au Prince, but my family is from Au Cayes. Torbeck specifically is the city, they are proud southerners. I grew up hearing a lot of the stories. I’ve visited during the summers, but it’s not a place that I know too well, but I’ll be going back there soon.
FP: You grew up with a single father who knows how to cook? I’m not sure I know many people who can actually say that. Can you tell us what kind of cooking he did since you describe your cooking more as “world cuisine”?
NF: My foundation in cooking is definitely Haitian, don’t get that wrong. It’s just that having lived in New York, you can’t be in New York and love food, and not have experienced different kinds of food. Growing up, I had non-Haitian friends, but I always cooked Haitian food. My dad again, him and his brothers, they were on their own from an early age. He told me they had to learn how to cook, something they had to do for themselves. So he got really good at it, and he passed it on. What I realize is that everyone loves Haitian food. It’s tasty! It’s the best food on the planet. Thai is a close second, but Haitian is the best, and everyone always loves it. So when I started cooking more and meeting people from other countries, and eating other types of food, I was like, “OK, I know how to cook Haitian food, so how can I incorporate other things into it?”
FP: You said you were going to Au Cayes soon, but recently you went to Haiti to work on a book. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that project?
NF: Oh yes! I’m working on (to me) an amazing project called “Haiti Uncovered.” It’s a coffee table cookbook, focusing on the regional cuisine of Haiti. As I stated, I’ve been here from an early age, and most Haitians who grew up here, I think we have a limited sense of what Haitian cuisine is really about. We love it! The things we know, we absolutely adore, but there’s a lot we don’t know. And I want to find out for myself, so it’s a research and a selfish project. But in developing it for myself, I realized that it meant a lot to other people. People that are not Haitian that really just care about the culture, they want to know more about the food because food is a big aspect of culture. People that are Haitian, but that are from a specific part in Haiti. If you’re from the north, you’ll know what you cook in the north, but you don’t really know what they cook in the south. So this book is really a way of basically transferring that kind of information, and also it’s a way of leaving something behind, our legacy as Haitians on this planet, not just in the US. People call me from all over asking about the cookbook. Some people call me from Germany, and I have to tell them that it’s not there yet! But I really feel like it’s kind of a community project. I did an Indiegogo campaign, like a fundraiser, and within a month, we raised $14,000. That’s what my initial trip in January was about. It was that initial research of exploring the North. So I went to Au-Cap, Cap-Haitien, Hinche, and St. Marc to name a few, and just really talking to the people. At first, it was really about finding recipes, but it became really about the people. The stories connected to the food. About the people who cook the food. Seeing those merchants on the side of the roads, and that in itself to me… I told my friends that those people and their stories gave me nanm (soul). Li banm nanm liv la (it gave me the soul of the book). M tap pale ak Emeline (I was talking to Emeline), she asked me about the trip, I told her I found the soul of the book. More so than recipes, I found the soul of the book through those people. I loved it! That’s why I can’t wait to go back to visit the south.
FP: How many trips do you think you’ll need in order to complete the project?
NF: I think those two should be good. Haiti is not that big of a country I learned. I didn’t know that! You knew that, and you didn’t tell me?! *laughs* I was thinking I would need like months to travel, and within a day we covered so much ground. There are a lot of Haitians in New York and Miami so I can get recipes. I can get good authentic cooks here, but what the trips in Haiti really do is put it in that Haitian culture perspective. I don’t want it to be a book where it’s just recipes and how you make it in a picture. It’s important because more than anything, as well as a caterer, I’m an even planner, so I care about how things look. That’s why I wanted a cookbook that had those photos. I also want people to understand when you open that book, you have an inside perspective of what Haitian food culture is about.
FP: You could just smell it!
NF: *laughs* You could just smell it! So that’s what I think those trip do. So visiting and talking to people really add to the project because the recipes are not the most important aspect. It’s kind of like: How do the people interact with each other? The male and female interactions. Father and daughter. You know like the grandmother in the kitchen who cooks. When do they cook and what? It’s really those. That’s what those trips are about. So, I think one more trip, which I plan on making before July, should take care of it.
FP: When exactly did you come up with that idea? I know you wrote a book before, which I bought. And that one is more of a recipe book, but with relationships with people. You love people! And as you said, food brings us together. So when did you wake up and decided to make this coffee table book about Haitian cooking?
NF: I think it developed in stages. The first part was just a cookbook. I wanted a recipe book that had things besides du riz ak pwa (rice and beans), sos pwa (bean sauce) and the basics. I thought the books that were out there were too limited in terms of the recipes they offered. Then I found that none of them really had pictures! And, I grew up here, and when it comes to food, I mean we have food porn so everything is about the visuals. And being the caterer, I always present my food so I’ll present mayi moulin (cornmeal) and people are surprised by the presentation. I really wanted to present that artistic and visual component. Like you said, I’m a people person in that sense. I always tell people it’s my background because originally I was supposed to be a doctor. Then, I was supposed to be in policitics, then I was supposed to be a lawyer, so I always look at how things connect. The project was never a one day thing. Early in 2013, I told myself that I had to get this done. By mid June, I really pushed myself to get it out there and get it done. I’m so impulsive. This project is like a 50-60 thousand-dollar project because m renmen bel bagay (I like pretty things). It needs to be hard-cover. Photos all over the place. The research has to be done. The photography has to be on point. Then, two weeks later, I forced myself to do this Indiegogo campaign, and trying to get the community involved. Fundraise some of it, rob, steal. Whatever I got to do to make it happen! That’s just how I get.
FP: You’re one of those people when you say you’re going to do something, you do it.
NF: Yes! I left my job when I decided I wanted to cater full-time. It was a two-week decision. And I had $800 to my name, but I left. To me, it’s not that failure is not an option. I tell people that I fail all the time. It’s just one of those things that if you put your all into, it will work out. It may be hard, it’s definitely going to be hard, but you have to give something your all. You can’t do something you love on a part-time basis. That’s really what it is. You can, but it’s never going to be what you want it to be. I know people who say they’ll do something on the side for 10 years, and that’s why it’s taking 10 years! Because you’re only doing it on the weekend, you’re only doing it when your other job is not taking over. I had no kids. It was just me and my bills, and I figured I could eat ramen noodles if I needed to, so I did it. And I understand not everyone is going to be able to make that kind of sacrifice at every stage of their life. I was so I’m grateful for that.
FP: So, right after you graduated from Columbia with a degree in Political Science, when did you realize that event planning was your calling?
NF: I never did. *laughs* I still don’t know if it is. I study for the LSAT like every couple of years. I study for my MBA exam every couple of years. I still tell people I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. It sounds so funny when you say that at 32. But then again, I came from a Haitian household, so my options were: docteur (doctor), avocat (lawyer), engineer. Just those three! And I bought into it, I really did. I attended Brooklyn Tech, which had a good math program and went to Columbia University, and I was supposed to conquer the world in those fields. Cooking was just something I did because I loved it. In college, my friends loved my food so they asked me to cater. Administrators would come when I catered student events and asked me to cater outside of campus. It was just something that made me money on the side to buy books and have fun. It was never a career option. I couldn’t picture being Haitienne (Haitian woman) and map fe manje (I cook) for a living. It was not something that I could present in my household. And then for a year after I graduated college, I worked for an elected official, congresswoman, Yventte Clarke. She was in the city council at that time. So I still did catering on the side because politics pa gen kob (doesn’t have money). So it was extra money, and one day it just clicked. It was like, ”it’s now or never, let me try this for a specific time, period.” When I told my dad that I was thinking of catering, he was like, “Machann manje? Mwen voye’w lekol, ou deside ke…” (Food vendor? I send you to school, and you decide to…) *laughs* And it’s hard to explain this to American people because we as Haitians understand the weight of those words. It basically means I’m standing on the side of the road, selling food. When I told him that Martha Stewart was a caterer, he told me that I was not her. “You’re not blan (white). What are you talking about?” His whole thing was, in his head, all doctors are rich. As a caterer, you could be rich. That’s why I tell kids all the time who tell me their parents are bugging them about their professions, that all the parents mean is to have security for them. They don’t hate you, they just want you to have security. So when you tell them you want to be a basketball player, they’re thinking: you can possibly be Shaq, but most people are not. And some Haitian parents don’t understand that there are so many career options here. You can be dressing mannequins and make tons of money. It’s an education piece for our parents. So, I never knew, and I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But it has been 12 years now and 10 years full time since I’ve been doing this.
NF: Thank you very much!
FP: You also started this web series with cooking, and the first one you launched was with Emeline Michel. Basically, are you just looking to find prominent figures in the Haitian community and cooking with them?
NF: I’m looking forward to cooking with everyone, eventually. I just wanted to bring these figures initially. Of course it’s a new show. People that people already know but really don’t have an inside look into their world. I’ve been friends with Emeline for like 8 or 9 years, and I think she’s one of the funniest and coolest human beings around. People always see her on stage singing. She was the ultimate first guest because she loves food too. We’re always dining. Even in my first book, her chapter was about us always exploring different restaurants. So, I really wanted people to see her and how funny she was. She can cook. She knows food. She’s so smart, and that’s what everybody said from the episode. Our next guest was Doctor Jeff Gardere. People know him as “America’s psychologist”, but he’s funny! Just bringing in those people… It’s kind of like talents we already know about, whether they’re a singer or doctor. We have *Edwidge Danticat as our next guest. We have Mona Scott Young. So I like bring an inside look of who they are, but also with cooking.
FP: So is it a monthly series?
NF: Eventually it’s going to be monthly. It’s probably six weeks not because we have some shows I taped while I was in Haiti with Carel Pedre. We’d love it to be bi-weekly. So we’ll see how it goes. It’s part of the Haiti Uncovered project- bringing Haitian food to the world stage.
FP: Tell us about the fabulous events that you always host? As you said, you are all over the place…
NF: *Laughs* Yep, I am. Our main event is our annual gala, which is a simple event that started off as a $25/person event at 49 Grove six years ago. It was a nice way to come network. Now, it’s like a $150 and ball gowns! People our age group love to dress up. There aren’t too many opportunities to do that. This year we’re holding it April 19th. We always do a theme, and this year’s theme is “Bal a Versailles: A Royal ball”. Gowns, tuxedos and masks! It’s a masquerade ball with masks that are either all gold or with hints of gold. We also do a December/holiday, more fun cocktail event. People always compliment us on our crowd about how beautiful it is. Right now, we’re also working on the culinary festival. I don’t know if you know that Haiti has this food festival. Stephane Durand started “Gout Et Saveurs” a major food festival in Haiti, and we’re bringing it here. I’ll be part of it as well as Haitian Recipes Magazine. It will be held here on June 29th as part of Creole Fest. These are the events I’m looking forward to doing this year. You better come.
FP: Besides your book, catering company, events, and show, what else are you involved in within the Haitian community?
NF: I became Haitian in college. It’s the funniest thing. I grew up in a Haitian household, but I attended schools where the majority of the people weren’t Haitian. And so it was in college, where there was really a small number of Haitians that I knew I was Haitian. In college, two things happen to minorities, either you become extremely immersed in whatever background you’re from or you go the opposite direction. Haiti was what made me special. I realized that, and I think that’s when I discovered it. Ever since then, everything became about Haiti. So now whatever I do, even when most of my clients are not Haitian, I sneak some Haitian food into their menu. Music wise, I used to book for Emeline Michel, Bethova, and Yole Derose because I’m more into the old cultural… The real stuff. The best stuff! Haiti Cultural Xchange to me is the best thing that happened because they’re really doing things to keep the culture alive. I’m involved with Haiti Cultural Xchange because I love their work.
FP: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Nadege Fleurimond and her many adventures through life?
NF: My main mission is really… Before I used to be part of a lot of Haitian organizations, and they’ve always mentioned giving me an award, I’ve never felt like I deserved one so I pushed the idea away. Now, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think I’ve arrived, but I think I’ve finally reached a place where I can say that whatever I’ve been doing for the past 12 years has been meaningful to at least someone. I see it now. When I started talking about food before, no one cared. Now I do cooking classes, and Haitians and non-Haitians are coming….
FP: Tells us about that. How often do you do the classes?
NF: We start when it gets warmer. *Laughs* We start around April, and it’s every two weeks in Brooklyn. To finish answering your previous questions, people deem my event worth coming to, and sometimes, they’re coming from Florida to attend our galas. Food is part of the conversation! I was recently invited to Harvard to speak about food identity and culture. Just seeing that room! I was doing a shiktay (smoked herring) demo, and seeing how engaged everyone was, I thought: Wow! Food really does matter. Because at the end of the day, there’s that thing that connects us, and it’s culture. I think it took Haitians a long time to really value their food. It was something that was always in the backdrop, and now it’s in the forefront. In a small way, I think I had something to do with that, I hope. And, I’m happy about that.
FP: What’s your favorite Haitian dish?
NF: Oh. Du riz blanc (white rice), Legim crab a lambi (crabs and conchs vegetable stew). Mwen pa menm bezwen sos pwa ( I don’t even need the beans). *Laughs*
FP: If you were to be anywhere right now doing what you love, where would it be?
NF: It would be Haiti. I grew up here. Most of my life was in New York so I never saw myself living in Haiti. But now, as I got older, I told you before, I became very Haitian in college. Everything I do has to contribute to my Haitian culture. And I’m always looking for a way to add something to make Haiti better. Whether it’s doing events, writing, talking, and teaching people about food in some way, if I were to do anywhere else to do these things, it would be in Haiti.
For more information and to purchase tickets to Nadege’s masquerade ball, click HERE.