Interview: Chef Ron Duprat Discusses Food, Fame and Philanthropy

Chef Ron Duprat
Chef Ron Duprat

Chef Ron Duprat fell in love with food as a child in Haiti helping in his Grandmother's kitchen. He moved to the United States at 16, went to culinary school (College Aimee Cesaire, La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine, The Culinary Institute of America), and became a household name in 2009 on Bravo TV's Top Chef: Las Vegas. Since then, he has traveled the world as a celebrity chef, prepared meals for notables including President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and signed on as Executive Chef at the Montauk Yacht Club. He uses his celebrity to help numerous causes, most notably in his dedication to Haiti, which is still rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 2010. Glamorosi Magazine recently caught up with Chef Ron to discuss food, fame and philanthropy.

Reese Amorosi: For people who aren’t familiar with it, tell me about the cuisine of Haiti. What ingredients or techniques make a dish uniquely Haitian?
Ron Duprat:
People often use the terms "progressive," "modernist," or even "new Haitian gastronomy.” For me, I describe Haitian food as "the food of life": fresh, energetic and classic. The cuisine of Haiti is influenced mostly by the Africans and the French with some Taino and Spanish that make our cuisine one of unique flavors. Perhaps it could be considered as a patchwork of our ancestors. Depending on the region, food may be stewed, grilled or most commonly fried.

Visitors and locals alike enjoy the roast goat called 'kabrit', the fried Pork 'griot' or poultry with a Creole sauce – poulet creole – to name just some of the most popular meat dishes. Haiti displays a general coastal cuisine, with fish meat, lobster, shrimp and seafood readily available. Fruit including guava, pineapple, mango, banana, melons, breadfruit is often used in fruit salads, compotes or other delicious desserts. The creole sauce is the base of a typical meal; we use a lot of organic herbs and hot peppers are an everyday condiment in the Haitian diet.

RA: What made you want to be a chef?
RD: Wow, there are so many reasons. My love for good foods, the American dream, understanding how to be organized, how to be efficient, the fact that you were a part of a team. My Grandmother really taught me a lot about what I do without even realizing it at the time. Throughout my childhood, I spent many summers working with my Grandmother. Cooking is at once one of the simplest and most gratifying of the arts, but to cook well one must love and respect food. Since I can recall, I was always attracted to the smell of fresh herbs and garlic being smashed in my Grandmother's mortar.

In the kitchen, I came to understand and appreciate the art of garde manger, which roughly translates as "cold kitchen," and the world of catering. I would have to say that the world of cuisine and pastry intrigued me as early as I can recall. Whether I was cleaning the sheet pans or learning how to make perfect marzipan roses, the passion, creativity, and flavors have always sparked my interest, captivated my thoughts, and inspired my dreams.

RA: Is being a chef a common profession in Haiti?
RD: No, it's not common to be a chef in Haiti. Only in the past two decades becoming a chef has been accepted by the Haitian society. For many years it was considered a woman's task. Nowadays being a chef is extremely prestigious, therefore better received by society.

RA: At age 16 you left your home in Mare Rouge, Haiti, and traveled for 27 days by boat to get to America. What was the mindset that made you get on that boat? Where did you land, and what is the first thing you did when you got here?
RD: I gave thanks to God and made myself a promise to never look back. It was not a personal decision, I was a young boy putting his faith in his family. I was scared at time, but the people singing on that boat eased my worries, the hope of a better tomorrow kept us going. We arrived in Miami, I kneeled and said a little prayer.

RA: You were a contestant on my favorite season of Top Chef – season 6 – how did your life change after the show?
RD: My life after Top Chef is still progressing. Having Will Smith's camp calling about doing a movie about my life, priceless. Becoming a successful industry professional is hard but rewarding work. Top Chef has allowed me to meet some amazing chefs, it has opened many doors to my career.

RA: For many chefs, travel is part of their training and education – what countries have had the most influence on your style?
RD: Well, as a Caribbean chef I have been to every corner of the Caribbean, but also as a world traveler I have experienced a lifetime of eating: Le Suquet (Laguiole, France), La Grenouillère (La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil, France), Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark), Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain), Karavalli (Bangalore, India), Iggy's (Singapore), Caffè al Bicerin (Turin, Italy), Overture (Stellenbosch, South Africa), Attica (Melbourne, Australia), Papaye Restaurant (Port-au-Prince, Haiti), just to name few.

I cherish every opportunity that I get to travel the world and experience its myriad of culinary treasures. My stay in Italy has influenced my repertoire, yet the techniques learned in East Asia have made me a better Chef. Going back home to Haiti brings back childhood memories that allow me to create new simple dishes with complex flavors.

RA: At this point you've traveled the world, you've cooked for celebrities and dignitaries, you've earned credentials and awards, you've been featured on television shows, you've written a cookbook… at what point did you realize your dream of becoming a chef had come true?
RD: After a life-changing experience to be United States Culinary Ambassador. I try to remain very humble: not one particular experience has made me realize my accomplishments, it’s a series of little and big things. I will be honest to say that being chosen as a Culinary Ambassador.

RA: You recently signed on as Executive Chef for the Montauk Yacht Clubwhat brought you to the Hamptons, and what changes can patrons look forward to with you at the helm?
RD: The Montauk Yacht Club (MYC) has always held a special place in my heart. With the news of a new executive team joining MYC in 2015, came a prime opportunity to share in the exciting future of this legendary property. I have an opportunity to customize new menus, design F&B “foodie” events and bring a level of renewed enthusiasm and attention to the Food & Beverage segment of this acclaimed resort. Many years ago I was working at the MYC; coming back has been a rewarding experience, new staff, new challenges that allow me to grow every day. Did I mention that Montauk is beautiful and its people charming?

RA: What is your current food obsession? Do you have an ingredient or food you can't get enough of lately?
RD: Wow, I have to say Petit Mill and Bulgar Wheat cooked properly, toasted with beautiful roasted vegetables. Lately I have been exposed to delicious and freshly caught lobsters, I have been trying new recipes to impress the Montauk crowd.

RA: In 2010, Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake, and since then you've used your position to help. How has life changed for the citizens there?
RD: Haitian people are the most resilient people I have ever met. When you meet someone, history is told as pre or post-earthquake. We have become closer as a nation, people are also more aware about natural disasters, they do seem to be more concerned about planting trees for instance. I strongly believe in giving back to a community, the world will be a better place if every day we give back to the less fortunate: a dollar, an advice or a smile.

RA: In 2013 you talked to the Caribbean Journal about wanting a "sustainable food future" for Haiti and said, "Haiti must reduce its reliance on imports in favor of local production." How is that progressing?
RD: The national production of Haiti is a very delicate subject to me. I wish that more people would get involved in the fight against hunger. No country should have to rely on importation to feed its people yet the problem is greater than one might think. Some efforts have been made, but the natural conditions are not favorable to growing enough to feed even half of the nation (arid lands, insecurity, and lack of infrastructure).

RA: What are your goals for Haiti, both personally, and for the country as a whole?
RD: I have a dream that one day I will retire in Haiti and devote my time into teaching our future Top Chefs. I have a dream that the power will not allow our rulers to forget about their people. I have a dream that nobody is forced to risk their life during a journey looking for a better tomorrow.

On Tuesday, July 21 and Wednesday, July 22, Chef Ron Duprat will participate in the Great American Chefs Rally at Expo Milano in Milan, Italy (events will take place at Casa America and at the USA Pavilion). On Sunday, July 26, Chef Ron will host the Taste of Montauk at the Montauk Yacht Club (32 Star Island Road, Montauk, NY), and on Saturday, August 22 he will appear at Dan's Harvest East End Wine & Food Classic at McCall Wines (22600 Rt 25, Cutchogue, New York).

Photo courtesy of Ron Duprat

Posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2015