I first encountered Haitian Chef Jane Cajuste on Instagram. We began corresponding once I decided to try her line of Haitian condiments. I am so glad I did, because she is a gem and her products are delicious. She was happy to speak with me about her desire to highlight Haitian cuisine in the United States.
Chef Jane made a huge pivot, opting to leave her career as an accounting manager and follow her culinary passions. She currently works as a personal chef and culinary instructor, bringing food and knowledge to the masses. We discussed her company Paula’s Kitchen, her culinary journey, as well as quintessential Haitian dishes–a few of which I hope to replicate in my own kitchen.
A Conversation with Chef Jane Cajuste
When did you start cooking, and what made you fall in love with it?
I always tell the same story. I kind of got pushed in the kitchen the same way a lot of Caribbean girls get forced into the kitchen. You’re a girl, so you’re going to get in the kitchen and cook. I would spend time cooking with my stepmom, and I started to realize, I really like being in here.
There was something about being in the kitchen and turning something into nothing. Creating recipes means people have this reaction once they taste [my] food and like it. The first dish I learned to make was rice. Rice is essential to Caribbean households. My stepmom taught me how to make white rice, but my first attempt ended up looking like oatmeal. After a bit, I learned the proper water to rice ratio.
There was something deep inside me, and I started figuring [cooking] out by trial and error. I was wasting ingredients that would end up in the trash. My parents did not know I was wasting their groceries. But as an introvert with strict parents, cooking felt like my happy place. I would watch Food Network shows and read cookbooks. It was my little outlet as I taught myself to cook.
What shows and cookbooks did you enjoy growing up?
I remember watching Good Eats and Alton Brown’s scientific approach to cooking. Tyler Florence was a big one. Julia Childs. A lot of the older folks. That kind of pushed me toward looking at different cookbooks and tinkering with recipes from the library. My older brother would taste my experiments.
I enjoyed The Joy of Cooking. Honestly, I read whatever I could get my hands on. I would flip through the books and learn a lot of the words. My stepmom was cooking Haitian and French food. We ate a lot of Italian food. Chinese takeout was typical on a Friday or Saturday, but it was Americanized Chinese food, not authentic at all. The cooking shows and cookbooks opened my eyes to global cuisine.
On Being a Haitian Chef
Can you talk about your Haitian background and how that influences your perspective on food?
I was born in Haiti, in a town called Petit-Goâve. It is pretty far from [the capital of] Port au Prince, so we would mostly visit the city on the weekends. I have really great food memories of Haiti. I remember going to the market super early in the morning and things being really, really fresh.
We ate a lot of fresh food on a schedule. So on Monday we ate this. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were the best eating days. On Fridays, we had fried food and fun takeout food. Someone would go to the market and bring back fried plantains, fried yams, and a lot of fish. Friday was a fish fry. On Saturdays, we ate seafood. Sunday was kind of like a fancy soul food dinner day. We’d get a chance to eat the food we otherwise would not. We did not have a grocery store [in our town]. So somebody would go into a supermarket in Port au Prince and get pop. We would only have a glass of Coca-Cola on Sundays. Dinner would be things like baked macaroni, chicken, and salad.
Even though I would come to visit as a young child, I came to stay officially in the U.S. when I was 11. I grew up primarily between Chicago and Boston. In Boston, I started getting into cooking. We lived in Brockton, which is a Caribbean neighborhood with lots of Jamaicans, Haitians, Belizians, and Cape Verdeans.
Since moving to the U.S., I’ve only been back to Haiti once for a family reunion. I was in my early twenties then. I remember eating the food–some of the same food I cook here–and noticing the difference in freshness. For example, I ate pigeon peas and rice there. The peas were grown right in the hotel. As for the chicken, I just remember it being very small and only enough to feed two people. What I miss the most about Haiti are the fresh ingredients.
Being that you spent most of your childhood in Haiti, how did you adjust to living in the United States?
My experience wasn’t too bad. I had a nice community around me. My family lived with two other families in a three bedroom apartment. When you think about it, it’s like wow, we were pretty poor. But when you’re in it, there is so much community and so much love and happiness that you don’t think about all the things you don’t have. As for my school experience, I had to learn a whole new language and culture. However, when you’re young, you are able to pick up language pretty quickly.
On the other hand, when it came to food, I remember being teased any time I brought our food [to school]. I became very embarrassed and I just wanted to fit in. I vividly remember not wanting anything to do with Haitian food unless I was at home or around other Haitians.
Even in my twenties, I remember bringing this fish and pigeon pea dish [to work]. It is one of my favorite dishes. When I went to warm up my food, this guy and his friend came into the lunchroom and said, “OMG what is that? It smells disgusting!” I was so embarrassed that I left my food in the microwave and didn’t eat. I came back to eat it later once everybody had gone.
When I think about where my business is now and what I’m doing now, I’m a different person. At the time, there weren’t a lot of people representing Haiti [in America]. Now you see people representing where they come from and being super proud. You see Haitians on TV and in televised food competitions. Even for people who know absolutely nothing about Haiti, they will take a cooking class [on the cuisine]. I tell them the history of a dish like pikliz, and it resonates with them. That is the shift that I like when I think of twenty-something year old Jane versus now. I was timid and shy about speaking [my native] language and sharing my [Haitian] background. But now, that’s all I do.
What are some of your favorite Haitian dishes?
Independence day soup, soup joumou, is pretty big. Griot [fried pork] which you typically eat with pikliz. Kremas, an alcoholic beverage you typically drink during the holidays.
Haitian cuisine is often pigeonholed with rice, fried food, and a lot of meat. This is actually not true because a lot of people can’t really afford meat. It is traditionally very vegetable based and healthy. Most of the stuff is vegan!
How does the history of Haiti, particularly its role as the first Black country in the Western Hemisphere to gain independence as well as the devastation after the 2010 earthquake, influence the cuisine? How does it impact you as a chef?
As soon as I tell people I’m from Haiti, media narratives are the first things they think about. There is this narrative, and it’s typically the only narrative: we are a third world country, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, the earthquake, poverty.
The Haitian Revolution is not talked about. That took years and the people that made it happen were brilliant and not given the credit they deserve. America would not be America without the Louisiana Purchase, which only happened because of Haiti and the fact that Napoleon [Bonaparte] sold Louisiana to the United States, which doubled the size of the republic. People either don’t know or don’t want to talk about Haiti’s great accomplishments.
Haitian people in general, we are really proud people. There’s this sense of pride that radiates. No matter how little you have in Haiti, [you think], I have a lot to give. When I think about what I do with food, I think about my culture, and our history is a driving force in that. I was a timid twenty something when it came to my culture. Now that I’m forty, everywhere I go, you’re going to know that I’m Haitian. Something as simple as a cooking class can help to inform people. I’m so happy that food has allowed me to be able to connect with people and highlight my country.
On Haitian Chef Jane Cajuste’s Journey to Professional Cooking
Did you always know that you wanted to be a chef?
With African and Caribbean parents, there are certain career paths you follow. [When I was growing up] it was not like it is now, where there are a lot of celebrity chefs, tv shows and such. At that time it wasn’t the case. Being a chef never crossed my mind because for one, I didn’t see anyone like me represented in food media. Two, in my culture, with my family they wanted you to be an accountant, lawyer, doctor, nurse, teacher, or engineer. You had to pick a “practical” career that guaranteed you could make a good living. Being a chef was not practical in their eyes.
I did not ask my parents about culinary school. No one really made a big deal about me knowing how to cook so early. No one let me know that I should follow my passion and that cooking school was an option. To appease them, I went to school for accounting with the thought that I’d make good money and people always need accountants. [In hindsight], it’s bad to steer a child toward something when they already have a passion for something else. Now that I have a fourteen year old daughter, I support her in what she wants to do.
I went to college and got my business degree. I began working at a nonprofit as an accounting manager. However, my side hustle was catering and cooking for a few families. The passion [for food] never went away, even though I wasn’t doing it full time. I started feeling unfulfilled at work. Eventually I found my way back to cooking.
I decided to change careers about four or five years ago. You start meeting different people that introduce you to people that push you to the direction you want to go anyway. I spoke to my boss who is also a friend, and she said, we support you. You do a great job here. I was working full time to take care of my daughter, and going to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago at the same time.
In culinary school, the things you’re learning about are mostly centered around the cuisines of Europe. I didn’t see myself in the books. Never did I hear anything about the Caribbean or Africa’s contributions to the culinary canon. You go into the kitchen and don’t see yourself, but [when it comes to] the techniques they’re doing, you’re like, this isn’t new. Take the farm to table concept [for instance]. In Haiti, everything we ate was fresh. It is nothing new, but it is being pushed as if it is new. My cuisine is not being celebrated. You don’t really hear Caribbean cuisine being discussed as elevated or haute cuisine. It’s usually French, Italian, or Spanish.
After culinary school, I worked in an Evanston [Illinois] restaurant for a year and a half. It was eye opening. I’d been cooking forever but not in a professional space. Working in a restaurant allowed me to see how restaurants work and understand what it takes. I loved it, but it was really difficult. It is not a typical 9-5 and you’re working weekends. I’m a mom. The hours working at a restaurant are really grueling and I had to ask for a lot of support from my family.
You are now a private chef and caterer. Can you talk about why you chose to work for yourself?
Working in the kitchen as a woman was an awesome experience because that restaurant kitchen was mostly run by women. [This was a lot different than the norm, as] restaurant leadership is mostly men, and typically mostly white men. Ultimately, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to work in a restaurant and raise a child. So I was soaking in as much as possible, learning the ingredients, techniques, and recipes. I knew that I would move on to something else that was more conducive to raising a family. It is hard as a woman, especially a Black woman, working in those types of spaces.
The food industry itself, especially working in high volume restaurants, there is a push for you to burn out. Burn out is something that is celebrated: “I just worked 80 hours. I slept 2 hours and now I’m going to work a 16 hour day.” It’s insane but celebrated. [It’s about] paying dues, what’s going to lead to working for some star chef at a Michelin star restaurant and your career taking off. For me, I found my way out by working as a personal chef. The nonprofit I worked for became one of my biggest supporters and catering clients. It paid better. The hours were better. I was my own boss even though at first I was working for a company. I created the career and the life that I wanted working as a culinary instructor and caterer.
You conduct your business through your company, Paula’s Kitchen. What inspired your company?
Paula is my mom’s nickname. Her full name is Marie Paula Anna, but most people that know her affectionately call her Paula. The kind of service that we give, the kind of food that we cook, it just reminds me of being in my mother’s kitchen. All of the things I learned about being kind and warm and hospitable to people is from watching my mom. Looking back at my professional journey, I think it’s inspired by watching my mom interact with people and how she used food to build community.
I was trying to do everything within Paula’s Kitchen, but then the pandemic happened. I do cooking classes through a platform called Cozy Meals. My most popular classes focus on vegan food and Caribbean food. Now people are more into experiencing global cuisine.
The pandemic changed a lot of stuff, so I’m still trying to figure out where I want to take the business. Through social media, the way that I use it, I’ve been able to see so many chefs tell their story and their background through food. It’s shifted the way I want to run my business and the story I want to tell with Paula’s Kitchen. For a long time, I was worried about pushing my Caribbeanness or my Haitianness to the forefront. About pigeonholing myself. I was worried that people would be like, “Can she only cook those foods?” I can cook way more than soul food or Caribbean food.
Haitian food is not as known as Jamaican or other foods. I want to shine a light on our cuisine and our culture through a variety of different foods. I have had a lot of time to think during the pandemic. I want Paula’s Kitchen centered around me and my storytelling.
As part of your company’s brand, you recently started a line of Pikliz Spices and Marinades. Can you talk about the products as well as their importance to you as a Haitian chef?
Anytime I did a class or an event on food that is used a lot in our cuisine, people gravitated a lot toward it. I feel like every culture has something spicy and pickled. So I decided to sell it as a means of introducing people to Haiti.
I wear an apron with a Haitian flag on it, and people are like, what flag is that? A lot of people don’t even know that Haiti exists. You should know about this island and that we have done a lot of amazing things. We should focus on being more global citizens.
What are five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
Garlic. Thyme. Some kind of hot pepper. I always have scotch bonnet pepper but a variety of peppers. Onions. Coconut milk. Coconut milk is so versatile. We like to use it in rice and soups.
What’s your favorite dish to make at home?
Rice and gravy. It just hits the spot. It is something I can make in 20 minutes. I might search the fridge for scraps of meat or fish and top it with pikliz.
What is your dream food destination?
I really want to go to Senegal or anywhere in West Africa. A chef I know traveled to both West Africa and Haiti. He told me the cultures are very similar, and that certain parts of Senegal resembled Haiti.
What legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry?
For other Haitian chefs to be proud of their stories. My story is my story. There is a lot of pressure to assimilate. The more people that bring out their cultures, the more we all benefit. It makes our lives richer.
Ultimately, I would like to open a brick and mortar Paula’s Kitchen as a source of community. I also want to grow my own food. My boyfriend and I manage a garden in Chicago’s South suburbs. There is an organization called Urban Growers Collective with a humongous field and a dome that allows them to grow food all year round. They rent 10×10 community plots for $25. Last year we did one, and this year we have three plots. We’re growing a ton of okra, tomatoes and other vegetables. Our goal is to eat from our garden and share the abundance with others.
Are you working on any projects now that you would like to share?
I am working on and growing my Etsy shop. I eventually want my own website. I am continuing to teach cooking classes, but eventually want to house everything in one space. I’m just tweaking and learning. The pandemic has made us have to shift a lot of stuff with cooking and face-to-face interaction. I’ve been thinking a lot about what has changed and being ready for when we “return to normal”.
Follow Haitian Chef Jane Cajuste @chefjanec and @eatatpaulaskitchen for updates!
For more interviews, check out my conversations with Soul Food Scholar Adrian Miller and Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam.
That amazing thing jesus christ keeps going guy’s.
Rose Vielot says
Thank you so much for sharing and bringing out the “jem” of Haiti. I am a very proud Haitian. Thank you.
My pleasure 🙂
Serge Fouche says
Are you related to Fritz Cajuste from Petit-Goave and Brockton
That’s a good question! I am not sure if Chef Jane is related to this person, but you can contact her on Instagram.