at the table

Chef Widza Gustin on Honoring, Supporting, and Celebrating the Haitian Community Through Food

published Sep 30, 2021
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Widza Gustin and family enjoying meal
Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

This story is part of our At the Table series, created by Kayla Hoang. She has curated this collection of interviews and recipes from BIPOC cooks who have something to say about how their specific cultures are represented (or not) within the wider world of food media. 

Brooklyn native and culinary force Widza “Wiz” Gustin is a woman who leads with her heart and her heritage. When she was younger, she spent summers visiting family and friends in Haiti with her parents and siblings, so she has a very deep understanding of her culture and knows the importance of sharing that knowledge. Widza’s admiration for her heritage inspires and guides all she does. Whether she’s cooking for her daughter, catering an event with her company 180h4 Cuisine, or sharing recipes on her IGTV series Brunch Le Dimanche (created with her team at production company MissProduce), Widza makes sure to put Haitian flavors, techniques, and ingredients at the forefront.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

I first met Widza in 2019, when we were both interns at Food Network. In the short time I’ve known her, I’ve been able to see how she uses food, specifically Haitian food, to inspire, nourish, and comfort others. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Widza pivoted 180h4 Cuisine to provide meals to frontline workers and has continued to serve and give back to her community. Recently, Widza and I hopped on a video call to talk about summers in Haiti with her family, Haitian cuisine, and the importance of having the right representation for the Haitian food community.

Thank you so much for sitting down with me, Widza. Your work is inspiring and so true to who you are and I hope we can show others that here. To start, I’d love to hear more about your family and your summers in Haiti. 

My mom and dad were both born and raised in Les Cayes, Haiti, which is south of the capital. I was born in America, but I consider Haiti my home because as soon as I was born, my parents started taking me and my siblings there. As a young kid I hated it because I was just like, “Oh my god, I don’t get to play with my friends and I can’t see my friends in America because I have to go to Haiti and spend time with my cousins.” I made it such a big deal, but looking back I understand the importance. Even though we were born in America, we did not automatically take on American traditions. Instead we took all our Haitian heritage. We knew, from soups to nuts, everything that needs to be known about Haitian heritage and I appreciate my parents a lot for doing that.

From when I was born to, I’d say, about 6 or 7 years old they would take us every single summer. That’s when flights were cheap. [Laughs] My older brother was born in Haiti and didn’t come to the United States until he was 9, so we would go see him and we would also visit other family members and my parents’ friends. After we stopped going, I didn’t go back until I was like 16 years old — 10 years later. I regret not being able to visit during that time because if I could’ve gone every single summer, I definitely would’ve soaked up more of my Haitian heritage. 

The Haitian heritage and culture is rich. It’s so lively, it’s just colorful, the food is awesome. When you go to Haiti it’s just different. When you taste the rice and beans [diri kole] or you taste the fresh goat that they kill in front of you and have you eat it, it’s super different. It’s very, very different, but it’s something I enjoyed.

When I went back when I was 16, I tried to go every year after that. But it wasn’t until my late 20s that I told myself, “Maybe I should try to pick up this tradition,” especially after I had my daughter (she’s 8 now). She hasn’t been to Haiti, but that is something I’m looking forward to doing. I want to start her off young so she can have more years to soak up the culture. I would show her exactly what to love, especially at this age, when I didn’t necessarily appreciate it. 

The last time I went to Haiti was in 2019, about 2 years ago. I would love to go now, but with what’s happening politically surrounding the assassination of Haiti’s president and the earthquake that has devastated Haiti, it’s just not the right time. It isn’t safe right now and my people are desperate and in need of help. I promised myself that as soon as things start getting better that’ll be my next ticket and I’ll go for a week or two. My mom is someone who loves her country. She’s always there six months out of the year and then she comes back for six months, but she hasn’t been with what’s happening.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

I’m so sorry. It breaks my heart to see what the Haitian community is going through both here and in Haiti. I hope you and your mom can safely make it there soon. That’ll be such a special experience taking your daughter to Haiti for the first time! Those summers seem like they were such formative experiences and have obviously had a lasting impact, seeing that you do so much to share your Haitian heritage with others.

With all that being said, what exactly led you to the food industry?

When we were young and would go to Haiti, my mom and my aunt would be the two people who would pretty much feed the town. They’d have their big stockpots set on top of wood fires cooking oatmeal in the morning for everybody. Also, in Haiti, there’s a dish called Peasant Pasta. It’s smoked herring with spaghetti and it was the first meal we used to have whenever we touched down. I used to watch them feed the town and see how people would be happy just to get a meal. My mom would come from the United States with her groceries and supplies and stuff to make sure she could feed as many people as possible. I saw that food made people happy.

I love seeing my mom in the kitchen. Being the middle of five children, I was probably the only one in the kitchen with my mom. (My brothers and sisters were slackers. [laughs]) I would watch my mom take just one ingredient and amplify it and make it into something amazing. So much flavor! The procedure for her to get to the final dish is very intricate and she takes her time and she knows what she’s doing. Just watching her over the years [in the kitchen] was something really special and something I bonded with her over. That’s what got me started thinking that I would love to cook.

When we were young and would go to Haiti, my mom and my aunt would be the two people who would pretty much feed the town. They’d have their big stock pots set on top of wood fires cooking oatmeal in the morning for everyone.

I also used to watch Julia Child. My sisters and I had a small 13-inch television in our bedroom. We didn’t have cable so the only channels that were available were 2, 9, 7, and 13. PBS was the only channel my parents would let us watch because we were young. We’d watch the kid shows and then Julia Child would come on. I would watch her and say, “Wow, this is amazing. Look at a woman on TV just owning it and cooking amazing dishes.” I used to tell myself that I’d love to be on TV one day. I’d love to show people Haitian food because I never used to see Haitian food on TV. I just felt there were a lot of times, especially when I was younger, that there weren’t a lot of chefs, especially female chefs, who looked like me.

I got into the food industry because I love the way food makes people feel. Food is so nostalgic. It makes people happy. It takes you to a special place. I just love the preparation of it. I love the fact that I can get in my zone in the kitchen. That’s my therapy and it definitely is something I take very seriously. I would have Food Network on all day after school just watching different chefs — this was in high school when we decided to get cable — and after watching that and my mom and people like Julia Child, I knew food was something I wanted to get into. And I really wanted to get into the food industry to amplify Haitian voices and Haitian food. A lot of people didn’t really know about Haitian cuisine and I feel like nowadays it’s definitely something that a lot of people are opening their eyes to. They’re taking the time to taste it and see what it’s about. When they eat it and realize, “Wow, this is good!” and ask where it’s from, that’s when the conversation starts. I love that. I love that food can do that.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
All of the ingredients you need for diri djon djon (black mushroom rice) with fresh shrimp.

Let’s talk more about Haitian food. I’d imagine that Haitian cuisine varies depending on the region. I know you can’t speak for the entirety of the Haitian diaspora, but how would you best describe the Haitian food that you grew up with?

The food that I grew up with, like I said before, takes time. The preparation is very intricate. Let’s say, for instance, proteins— we are very serious about our proteins. I think I can safely say that I speak for a lot of Haitians when it comes to washing your meat and making sure it’s clean. Haitians grew up on an island where they didn’t have packaged meat. They had to kill the meat themselves. Using acidity and water to clean their meat is something very personal, something that’s very important. 

And also with Haitian food, we always want to make sure we know what’s going into our bodies. We always want to make sure that whatever is going in our bodies is good for us and that it’s not something that is processed, packaged, or anything like that.

As far as what I grew up on, my mom used so many different ways to not only elevate the dish, but also amplify the flavors. The produce that we use, the herbs that we use — herbs are essential when it comes to cooking. Haitians love their garlic. When I was growing up there was a mortar and pestle that’s probably still in my mom’s house. It’s been there probably 20+ years and she uses that to crush up scallions and garlic. With everything that I’ve seen my mom do, nothing’s packaged. Nothing’s pre-made. It’s always homemade and you can tell that she puts so much love into it, so much time. When you taste that first bite you can tell, “Oh, you took your time to stew this,” or “You took your time to let this simmer,” you know? And I love that. If it’s one thing that’s for sure, there was not one bland dish that we ever had growing up as kids. From the rice to the cornmeal porridges, everything was just full of flavor. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
Widza cooks the epís-marinated shrimp that will go on top of the rice.

Your mom obviously has had a big influence on your love of cooking. Is she the one who taught you how to cook Haitian food? 

Yes. I owe everything to my mom. My mom for sure is the blueprint when it comes to my cooking. She’s the one who taught me what seasonings to use or what herbs to use. Growing up there was no McDonald’s. There was no eating out if we were out of the house.  It was always strictly Haitian food. We wouldn’t really go out as a family to restaurants and stuff because it was always, “There’s food at home and we could make Haitian food and have that.” 

For dishes that she doesn’t know, like French dishes or Korean dishes or different cuisines that I learned in culinary school, I just tried to learn to incorporate the Haitian culture and Haitian produce or recipes or the Haitian way of preparing whatever into that certain cuisine. I love to merge two or three different cuisines together. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
The rice is cooked in a black trumpet mushroom broth. To make the both, you first toast the mushrooms and then grind them into a fine powder.

Are there any specific dishes that immediately come to mind when you think of Haitian food?

Definitely black rice. The way that you get the rice to be black is from dried black trumpet mushrooms. They can be found in Haiti in massive amounts. Haitian cooks soak the mushrooms in water and then use that water to cook the rice. Also stewed conch, which is called lanbi.  It’s expensive, so it’s a special-occasion food. Whenever there was a birthday party or a baby shower, you could expect conch.

We would have the peasant pasta that I mentioned earlier. Haitians love eating spaghetti and hot dogs in the morning, which isn’t for everybody, but that was breakfast for us. We also love plantain. Plantain is something that’s super important. Boiled plantain along with some eggs in the morning, that was breakfast for us, too. But I’d say the top two for me are black rice and stewed conch. 

Oh and another favorite is called salade russe, which is a Haitian potato salad that they add beets to, which makes it look pink. When I was younger, I used to look at it and be like, “Ew, this is pink. That doesn’t make any sense,” but it always was so flavorful. I always wondered how they came up with some of these things, but that’s what makes the cuisine unique. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
Widza, her mom, and her daughter work with the dried ground mushrooms.

And what are (in your opinion) the best, most delicious aspects of Haitian cuisine that you want people to know about?

The most special thing about Haitian food for me is epís. Epís is a green seasoning that’s the foundation of our cooking. Whenever you’re making your rice and beans, you have to have epís. Whenever you’re marinating your chicken, you have to have epís. Flavor goes hand in hand with epís. In Haitian cuisine, you can automatically taste that something was well-seasoned because of all the fresh herbs and produce that go into epís. Flavor is that top thing for Haitian cuisine and I want people to really fully understand that, like I said, we take a long time to cook these dishes and there are no shortcuts. There is no substitution.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
Once the broth is infused with the flavor of the mushrooms, shrimp shells, and thyme, it's strained into a large bowl.

Let’s pivot a bit and talk about representation of Haitian food. Representation in food has been widely discussed in the past year, with many criticizing the way BIPOC cuisines are represented across food media, including who gets to tell certain stories and the importance of providing cultural and historical context. How do you feel Haitian cuisine has been portrayed in food media?

I feel that we don’t have a voice in food media. We don’t have the correct people to represent us. Haitian food isn’t something that you can read up on and be an expert in. Well, you can read about Haitian cuisine and try to follow the recipe, but that’s different than having a Haitian chef or cook who fully knows the food. In Haiti, whether you’re a boy or a girl, you’ll know how to season a chicken when you’re 5 years old. That’s just how you’re brought up, you know? I feel like in the boardrooms or whenever they’re having these culinary conversations, they need to have a person from that culture to represent the food. 

In Haiti, you’ll know how to season a chicken when you’re 5 years old. That’s just how you’re brought up, you know?

I also feel that with Haitian food, you don’t really see that much out there, and when you do the recipe isn’t right. Soup joumou is something that comes to mind because of the recipe that was published in Bon Appétit in December 2020. There were just so many things that lacked, so many things that didn’t belong in there. They did acknowledge the error and tried to correct it, but you have to ask yourself, “Who made the decision to represent Haiti with such an inaccurate version of a dish that is so important to Haitian culture?” 

In all honesty, it really hurt, too, to see soup joumou misrepresented. It sent the Haitian community into an uproar because soup joumou is something that represents us and has a lot of history. That was the first dish that we had on January 1, 1804, when we gained our independence. There was so much bloodshed and so many stories associated with that day and that dish that it was hurtful to see it done incorrectly. I want to make sure people understand the hurt that can come from not being represented correctly.

Like I said, there are stories behind some of these dishes and our soup joumou has a whole big story behind it. We want people to understand it and we want people to, you know, ask questions so we can answer and teach them. But we want the right person to be able to answer them.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
The sautéed shrimp are placed on top of the cooked rice, then the lid goes on the pot until the shrimp are cooked through.

Moving forward, how would you like to see Haitian food represented?    

I would just love to see Haitian chefs out there. Things move slowly and take time, but if we’re going to put Haitian food on the map and share how amazing the cuisine is, then we need Haitian chefs. We need more of these young Haitian chefs and also the older Haitian chefs who have been doing it for years and haven’t had their voices heard. They should be showing exactly how we prepare food and what goes into our food and the reason why we take this time to make certain dishes, you know? Moving forward, I want to see people like me. I want to see people who are from Aux Cayes. I want to see people who are from Jérémie or Port-au-Prince who can give me a story about how they grew up or what they learned from their grandmas. Or sometimes there are people who live with their aunts in Haiti and, you know, I just want to hear from OGs about what their families taught them.

I couldn’t agree more. I think acknowledging how food holds these stories is so important here. So much of our lives, be it our individual stories or parts of our culture or pieces of history, are embedded in these recipes and it’s so important that the person representing us understands that. 

Exactly! If you want to talk about Bangladeshi food, I want someone who’s from Bangladesh to go ahead and talk about it. If you’re talking Haiti, give me a Haitian person to talk about it because it’s going to create a disconnect if it’s someone else. A white person can’t tell me what Haitian food is just like a Bangladeshi person can’t tell me what Haitian food is and I can’t tell you what Bangladeshi food is. And in the food world, we’re trying to create a language where we can understand each other. But, I’m not going to understand you if you’re giving me the wrong instructions, you know?

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Of course. You do a really great job at connecting your food to the Haitian culture, like by incorporating Haitian techniques and ingredients into everything you make as you mentioned earlier, but especially with 180h4 Cuisine. Can you tell us a little about how your catering company came about and what it stands for? 

I went to culinary school while I was working a corporate job. After being in culinary school, I told myself that things need to change and that I wasn’t going to be in the corporate world for a long time. I needed to put my two feet in the food industry full force. Like, ten toes down, it’s time to get really serious about it. So, I started 180h4 Cuisine. 

There are so many pieces that contribute to 180h4 Cuisine. The story of how we gained our independence is one. 1804 is the year that Haiti gained its independence and it’s a very important year for Haitian heritage and culture because we were able to remove ourselves from slavery and become the world’s first black-led republic, making us the first Caribbean state to gain our independence. I take that very seriously, so I started 180h4 Cuisine to honor the food that my ancestors used to make back then. 

In Brooklyn, where I’m from, when you go to a Haitian restaurant you get a big styrofoam platter of food. It’s a lot, it’s amazing, and the flavor is bomb, but I wanted to also elevate that and show people that you don’t have to serve it only that way. Haitian food tastes good, but I want to make sure it looks beautiful as well. I always loved food styling and making food look pretty — I just love pretty stuff [laughs].

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano
A handful of peppery microgreens are the perfect counterpoint to the earthy rice.

The way you incorporate the history and culture of Haiti into 180h4 is really beautiful and admirable. The food also looks so amazing and I’m sure it tastes even better. 

Food represents such a great deal of our respective cultures. For me, it’s really been my connection to both my Bangladeshi and Vietnamese sides. Has food affected your connection to your own ethnicity and culture — and if so, how?

It absolutely has. As I said earlier, food is big in Haitian culture. Music and art are also definitely factors in Haitian culture, but the food is something special. That’s something that I hold near and dear to my heart. I want to be able to show the next generation what I learned from my grandma and what I learned from my mom. I have a daughter who’s half Haitian and half Trinidadian and I want to make sure that she fully understands the time that it takes to make Haitian food and what goes into our cuisine. I want to make sure that the next generation will be able to fully understand what I grew up on and make sure that they can continue to bring it down generation after generation.

Passing these recipes and their stories down is so important! What you’ve shared today was really incredible and raised so many crucial points in how our food is representative of so many different aspects of our cultures and how it can feel to not be represented in the right way. Before we have to wrap up, tell me about the recipe you’re sharing today.

Diri djon djon is probably my favorite Haitian food of all time. It’s black mushroom rice using the dried black trumpet mushrooms. You usually have it with lanbi, which is the stewed conch, but the way I was brought up, my mom would put dried shrimp in the water, so you’d see little shrimp floating around. I decided to kick it up a notch and use fresh jumbo shrimp instead so that you can really taste it in the dish and as a nod to the dried shrimp my mom uses in hers. 

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

What does sharing this recipe with me and with readers mean to you?

Sharing this recipe means you know me and in turn know a piece of Haiti. You can say, “Hey, this young girl who has parents from Aux Cayes, Haiti, grew up on this amazing dish,” and think, “Why haven’t I tasted something like this before?” And I feel like that is the reaction that a lot of people have once they taste black rice. They always say, “What have I been missing?” and that’s the thing — Haitian cuisine has been around for years, years, generation after generation. So for someone to taste it for the first time and say, “What have I been missing?” Then they’ll start to understand. I’ve grown up where people have put Haitians down or put a lot of negative connotations on us. We take pride in the food we prepare. So for people to taste it and just be like, “Wow this is amazing!” and for them to want to research more on where they can get the food means a lot. I feel like that’s even going to put different Haitian restaurants on the map and this opens the conversation for the Haitian community.

Credit: Paul Crispin Quitoriano

Diri djon djon (black mushroom rice) is probably my favorite Haitian food of all time.
Get the recipe: Diri Djon Djon with Shrimp