From Haiti to New Orleans, By Way of Massachusetts: Fritai Restaurant

At Fritai, chef and co-owner Charly Pierre embraces his heritage and the inherent connection between New Orleans and Haiti one dish at a time.

Often called the “northernmost Caribbean city,” New Orleans shares many characteristics with the great archipelago to the South, particularly Haiti. In the early 1800s, both during and after the most successful slave uprising in the Americas, 10,000 Haitians made their way to the Port of New Orleans and brought their rich, vibrant culture with them. Their influence can be seen in our city’s architecture, heard in our music, and, of course, tasted in our food. Red beans and rice, one of the city’s most iconic dishes regularly prepared in homes and restaurants across the Greater New Orleans area, can be traced back to the Haitians who brought the recipe with them.

Regardless of the obvious historical influences found in New Orleans cuisine, our restaurant scene has been decidedly lacking Haitian food with only two or three restaurants in the area. But the times they are a-changing and over the past seven years, Chef Charly Pierre and his restaurant Fritai have been an integral part.

Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pierre’s love of food was a family affair. Pierre’s parents emigrated from Haiti, his mother from Carrefour, a commune near Port-au-Prince, and his father from Jacmel located along the southern coast. “Both my parents were cooking on a daily basis,” says Pierre. “My mom at home everyday and my father doing it for an actual job. It was something that always surrounded me.”

While attending Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a public high school known for its nontraditional approach to the learning process, Pierre was able to major in culinary arts, entering a program called Future Chefs (formerly CCAP). At the tender age of 17, Pierre won a scholarship which enabled him to attend Southern New Hampshire University. “I owe a lot [to Future Chefs],” says Pierre. “I always talk about them and how they really helped pave the way for me.”

Pierre fell in love with New Orleans after his first trip down in 2009 when he did a stage (unpaid internship) at Herbsaint Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. “I met Susan Spicer, Emeril, Besh – and I fell in love with the place,” says Pierre. “I called my mom, I said ‘Mom, I’m not leaving!’” Fortunately, his mother made him return to New Hampshire to finish school. Before moving to New Orleans in 2015, Pierre earned his chops in restaurants around Boston such as the now defunct French restaurant L’Espalier and the South End Parisian bistro Aquitaine.

In New Orleans, Pierre earned local cred working in spots like Sucre’s shop in the French Quarter, Alex Harrel’s Angeline (now closed) and Susan Spicer’s flagship restaurant Bayona before he decided to go in a different direction. In 2016, Pierre launched Fritai Haitian Street Food at St. Roch Market with business partner Minerva Chereches. “The original idea for Fritai was that, making sure people understand the idea of Haitian street food. But then it grew to be more, ” says Pierre. “every time I go [to Haiti], every time I eat any type of Haitian food, especially like like my grandma’s, auntie’s . . . I’m always inspired and get ideas I can bring back.”

After a five-year stretch at St. Roch Market, Pierre and his partner Eva were ready for the next step. In 2021 they launched Fritai Restaurant on the corner of Basin and N. Robertson in the historical Tremé, one of New Orleans oldest neighborhoods which is well-known as a center for the city’s African-American and Creole culture, and one in which Pierre has taken an active part. “I’m a member of the Tremé Neighborhood Association and I am happy to be a part of that and helping to make sure the Tremé is moving in the right direction.”

Diners walking into Fritai are greeted with cool Caribbean hues, gracious smiles from the staff, local (and not so local) rhythms, and enticing aromas emanating from the kitchen. If you’ve never enjoyed Haitian food, dishes of black beans and rice, smothered chicken, and stewed greens may be the comfortable and familiar choice, but the seasonings are just a little bit different. “Epis is a main component found in most of our cuisine. It’s like trinity or miripoix, but made of parsley, green onion, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, olive oil, and citrus,” says Pierre. “Everyone has their own individual style of epis but that’s the one that we cook, and the one my parents always had in the fridge.”

Since Pierre opened Fritai almost three years ago, he has been nominated to win a James Beard award twice; in 2022 Fritai was a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant, and just this past year Pierre was nominated for Best Chef: South. Chefs and restaurateurs across town are all too familiar with multiple nominations without reward, but it doesn’t seem to faze the young chef, nor lessen his enthusiasm for cooking. “I don’t cook to win a James Beard,” says Pierre. “ I just cook because I enjoy cooking stuff I like and people just so happen to like it!”

While genuine in his aim to cook what he loves, Pierre also recognizes the impact of awards ceremonies and being in the public eye. “More people, on a national and global level, are understanding and enjoying Haitian cuisine and they like what I’m doing, and that’s beautiful. It brings tears to my eyes,” admits Pierre. “What it also does is it’s kind of putting me on a pedestal, in a sense, which means I am representing Haitian cuisine. It’s not an easy cuisine to cook, and Haitians are highly critical, as they should be, because our food means a lot.”

*Lead image courtesy of Ellis Anderson

**Article originally published in French Quarter Journal

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