The most famous Haitian in Los Angeles is a man of many names: Jean-Marie Monfort Hébert Georges Fils Laguerre. Most people just call him TiGeorges. It means "little George," since his dad was named George.
Since 2002, he has run TiGeorges' Chicken, a small restaurant in Echo Park near Bob Baker’s Marionette Theatre. In 2010, it burned down, but has since reopened and nearly doubled its size. Laguerre has published a memoir, “No Man Is An Island,” which recounts his journey from the beaches of Haiti to the city of Los Angeles.
The first thing you notice when you walk into his restaurant is the brick oven in the center of the room. Chickens rotate as fat drips into the crackling, spitting flames. TiGeorges is usually there, turning the wood, chatting with customers, checking on the kitchen.
"You had to be the 'haves' to consume chicken in Haiti on Sundays," TiGeorges says. "And then we will consume that with boiled plantain, white rice and puree of red beans. So if you were in the high society of Haiti, even up today, this is something that I guarantee you will find. Chicken is the dish."
What makes his chicken so special? TiGeorges's presence — and the fire. "You need flame," he says. "I used to go get wood in the alley of Los Angeles until I get to a point I couldn't find any more woods in the alley. And then one Sunday I was passing by an alley in Echo Park and I saw an avocado tree that had fell in somebody's backyard. So I walk to the owner and ask him if I could get few pieces because I didn't have any wood to cook on Monday. He said sure."
He still uses avocado wood. It's crucial to his approach of "bringing the outdoors inside."
"Haitian cuisine is probably one of the best cuisines that exist because we adapt the concept from the French, the African. We combine with what we already have and then that's what Haiti's is all about. So you go to Haiti, you go to the bottom of the barrel, you will have a nice dish. That's a sure thing," TiGeorges says.
His restaurant isn't just a place to eat. It's also a cultural center. "When people come to my restaurant," he says, "they leave really, truly with the Haitian experience. We play cards, dominos. We are great storytellers. We always have an issue to discuss."
He calls over a man sitting at a nearby table. It's Gary Senatus, better known as Cooper (after the actor Gary Cooper). A longtime friend of TiGeorges, he painted many of the works that hang on the restaurant's walls. Cooper is also a killer at dominos.
"I can never beat him," TiGeorges says. "He's trying to be diplomatical about it. He's a master at it."
Cooper's favorite dish is the chicken. He waits patiently as it turns on the spit, trying to convince TiGeorge not to throw it in the oven (the usual procedure) after its time in the open-air oven.
"I'm going to have a fight with him because he wants to change the recipe," TiGeorges says.
"What just happened with George calling Cooper over, that's what happens every time I've ever been here," says Jeremy Rosenberg. "It's like going to the barbershop or a house party. It's never just you're sitting here eating."
"Oh no, the camaraderie that comes with it," TiGeorges adds.
Another longtime friend, Rosenberg knew TiGeorges before the restaurant opened and he co-wrote his memoir, a project that started a decade ago.
The story begins in Port-de-Paix, a city on the north west coast Haiti, TiGeorges's grandmother taught him to cook.
"She was a street vendor," he says. "She used to cook food back then. 100 years ago there were a lot of European in my hometown. And then they say, "Oh, missus. You can cook so well. Why don't you come to cook for us? So my grandmother can read and write, left the sidewalk, went to work for rich people, rich Europeans that were in Haiti back then. And that's how my whole family started."
Her specialty was fried fish. And "fried plantains. Fried sweet potatoes. Things of that nature. And pikliz. You go to Haiti, if you are not served pikliz, then you didn't have a Haitian dish," TiGeorges says.
Pikliz is to Haiti as kimchi is to Korea or sauerkraut is to Germany. A tart peppery slaw made with shredded cabbage, carrots, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, vinegar, salt, and other seasonings. "You let that age and trust me, it will do wonders to your dish," TiGeorges says.
He was 16 when he came to the United States with his mother in 1970. "It was not my thing but your mother told you you gotta come, you follow your mother," he says.
TiGeorges studied filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York. But directing gigs were few and far between so he did whatever odd jobs he could find. He cleaned up the beach at Coney Island, drove a taxi (which paid for college), painted houses for $20 a room, parked cars in Manhattan, made deliveries.
Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles, where he became a restaurateur and unofficial ambassador of Haiti.
"Haiti is probably the only country, if you come to my house as a guest, I will give you my master bedroom and I will hit the floor," TiGeorges says. "You come to my house, oh, I'm gonna tell everybody in the neighborhood, I have a foreigner coming to visit me. And I'm gonna make sure you get the royal treatment. So this is the part of Haiti that people never know about."