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'When I make Haitian food, I feel home': Chef who fled Haiti cooks rich cuisine at Mass. pop-up

The smell of crushed eggplants and sizzling red peppers wafts in the air of the Mesa Verde kitchen.

But, it’s not the signature cuisine of this Mexican restaurant in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

Amy McMahan, the owner, scoops the dish called legume from a 10-gallon wok into a metal serving tray.

McMahan is Vietnamese-American and recognizes a kinship through the food — and how to keep it from spoiling in both countries' tropical climates.

“I think both Vietnam and Haiti share this kind of cuisine that has a lot of citrus and vinegar, so that it helps to mitigate against the heat,” McMahan said.

Once a week, McMahan is lending the wok station in her kitchen to a 32-year-old Haitian migrant known as Chef Tina, who’s staying at the Days Inn shelter in Greenfield.

We’re not using Tina's full name because she’s concerned about obtaining legal status in the country; she doesn’t want to jeopardize her application.

Tina has three comfort dishes including legume she’s hoping will soothe her customers. On a recent brisk, rainy fall Sunday, McMahan has been helping Tina prep the dishes all day.

A plate filled with all dishes Chef Tina had to offer—soup joumou or pumpkin soup, marinated chicken,
Nirvani Williams
A plate filled with all dishes Chef Tina had to offer: soup joumou (pumpkin soup), marinated chicken, and legume atop rice with lima beans, served with a side of pikliz or cabbage marinated with scotch bonnet peppers.

“I just put out the soup joumou and we have the rice with lima beans, which — I do not speak Creole — but I believe it's diri ak pwa. And then I'm getting the sauce ti-malice,” McMahan said.

Tina said soup joumou, also known as pumpkin soup, holds a special meaning in Haitian history.

“This is an independence dish in my country,” she said, in Haitian creole.

McMahan said that dish was historically reserved for slave masters in Haiti.

“So [after] the revolution happened [in 1804], it was pumpkin-soup time,” McMahan said.

Chef Tina said she left her home in Port-au-Prince because a gang demanded money she earned from her small business. When she refused, they killed her father and threatened to harm the rest of her family.

“It wasn’t my family that was the problem,” Tina said. “It was me, so I felt like I had to leave.”

She fled to Chile for six years, where she cooked Haitian food at a restaurant. Then, she went to Mexico for a year until she crossed the border and found her way up to Massachusetts.

Tina was introduced to McMahan through a friend, Pamela Adams, the executive pastry chef at UMass. Adams speaks Haitian creole and was helping out at the shelter.

That’s when McMahan said she saw an opportunity for her and Tina.

“This is mentorship until she gets, you know, papers and can work. We were able to trade,” McMahan said.

The trade: Chef Tina lends her expertise in cooking Haitian food, in exchange for McMahan letting Tina the restaurant space after hours. Tina and other migrants gather there to commune and relax away from the shelter.

A sign posted on the front doors of Mesa Verde restaurant informs customers of the Haitian food pop-up Sunday nights.
Nirvani Williams
A sign posted on the front doors of Mesa Verde restaurant informs customers to try the Haitian food pop-up Sunday nights.

The pop-up opens at 5 p.m. every Sunday, McMahan said, for the foreseeable future. It’s $12 a plate and the profits go to buy things the Haitian migrants need, like baby formula.

Kerlie Gedeon, the first customer of the night, walks in from the rain 15 minutes after opening, simply elated.

“My aunt told me that there's going to be Haitian food in Greenfield,” Gedeon said. “I said, ‘Where?’ She wasn't sure where, but she said somewhere near Chapman. I said, ‘OK, well, I'm going to go find it.’”

Gedeon is from neighboring Turners Falls, and of Haitian descent.

“It’s just so fantastic. I hope it's able to stay on like this, because you can't really find Haitian cuisine in western Mass.,” Gedeon said. “You'd have to go all the way back to Boston to get Haitian cuisine. So this is it.”

Gedeon received the plastic bag wrapped with her favorite meals — legume and rice — and whispered, almost in disbelief, “Oh, my goodness. It's home.”

She said she had to meet Chef Tina.

“I [told her] that I love the idea. The food smells wonderful. And I'm so glad that she's doing this. And I'm going to do it every Sunday,” Gedeon said.

More people — including those who are less familiar with Haitian food — started trickling in and ordering off the pop-up's makeshift menu.

Amy McMahan spoon a cup of soup joumou (pumpkin soup) for a customer.
Nirvani Williams
Amy McMahan spoon a cup of soup joumou (pumpkin soup) for a customer.

Kate Hunter, McMahan’s roommate, went for a cup of the pumpkin soup.

"It's super flavorful," she said.

Earlier, Hunter tried pikliz, a cabbage side dish marinated with scotch bonnet pepper.

“I said it was too spicy and it felt too spicy, but I kept eating it and I got used to it,” she said.

During the dinner, Chef Tina runs out of the kitchen with plates of food for a group of Haitian migrants gathered near the back of the restaurant. Their plates are free.

But just like Tina can’t get paid for her work here, she can’t start building toward her dream: opening a restaurant of her own someday. The federal government still hasn’t processed her work permit.

“All of our families have, especially Haitian-creole [families], have been through the first stage of interviewing with the lawyers and their paperwork," said Marisa Perez, the program director at the Days Inn shelter. "It's in the process."

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency in August due to rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving in the state.

“I think about what's happening in Greenfield with a partnership with the community and it's really wonderful to see,” Healey said in an interview with NEPM.

Healey credits local communities for their efforts, but said the federal government needs to step up with more funding — and faster approvals for migrants.

“We need the Biden administration to expedite our work authorizations,” Healey said.

That way, Healey said, individuals and families can afford to move out of emergency shelters.

Moving out of the shelter is something Chef Tina is striving for. But, for now, she’s putting her hopes in her cooking. She said she wants all Americans to try Haitian food.

"When they eat Haitian food, they will see the difference," she said. "Because when I make Haitian food, I feel home. I put myself entirely in it."

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.

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