Feature,  Interview,  Spring 2020

Interview with Chef Elsy Dinvil

Interview with Chef Elsy Dinvil author of the cookbook, Cooking With My Mother.

Chef Elsy Dinvil is the author of Cooking With My Mother – a cookbook that shares many of the family’s recipes.

The chef is passionate about spreading the beauty of Haitian culture through food and her love for Haitian cuisine, as she describes, is the most understated cuisine in the world.

Elsy was born and raised in Jérémie, Haiti, to a very strict Methodist family, who, like most Haitian girls’ lives revolved around the three L’s: Legliz, Lekòl, Lakay (church, school, and home).

Her parents were two hardworking people who only expected of her and her siblings to do well in school. Her father was a carpenter who managed the carpentry shop of the Methodist church where they attended, and her mother was a vendor who sold bread, sugar, flour, shredded coconut brittles, and peanut butter at the flea market in town. She remembers her mother waking up faithfully at four o’clock in the morning to head down to the main flea market before school started at 8:00 am. 

After high school, she was awarded a full-ride scholarship to study Food Science Technology in the United States, and later landed a position in Haiti working for USAID and CARE Haiti. Following her second degree in Project Management, she is now on her way to completing her Masters in Business Administration with a concentration in strategy.

How long have you been living in Portland, Oregon?

I have been living in Portland since 1999, and have lived here longer than I have had in Haiti, but my memories growing up in Haiti are still vivid and palpable. 

Do you feel that there’s a real presence of the Caribbean in Portland, Oregon?

Yes, there is! There are reputable spots for Caribbean foodies in town and anyone curious about Caribbean cuisine. One can find Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Trinidadian, and foods from other parts of the Caribbean, but the most predominant cuisines in Portland are Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

My dream is to one day hold a Caribbean festival in Portland to showcase the rich cuisines from the Caribbean region and give the foodie community in Portland a live exposure to and a real feel for the different cultures and folklore. I am dreaming of that day and I know I am going to make it happen. Last year, I contacted Rara Lakay band so they could come to perform in our Haitian Flag Day celebration we were planning for this year. Not only we were not ready to host them, but COVID-19 would have put a halt on the event anyway as it did to our May 22nd Haitian Flag Day dinner.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As a child, I always dreamed to be a Pastor or a Deaconess to be more precise. Female pastors back then in the Methodist Church were called Deaconesses and there was only one up to the day I traveled to the United States. The dream has evolved and here I am today cooking it away. I used to hold church services in front of empty rows of chairs and pretended to preach to a congregation. I nourished that dream forever.

How long have you been a chef?

Until probably six to eight months ago, I didn’t feel comfortable with the title “Chef.” Somehow, I didn’t feel I belonged to that category. I remember how my heart jumped in my chest the first time someone addressed me with the title “chef”. I thought, “chef who? However, I have become used to being called Chef Elsy. 

I received professional culinary training at Ecole Hôtelière d’Haïti and I started cooking professionally in August 2017. Although my business strategies have been modified several times over the past three years, what I have done consistently is promote the rich Haitian culture through cuisine. 

I never professionally cooked in a kitchen as a cook, assistant cook, or assistant chef. All that I wanted to do was to cook food that was not going to harm people’s health. I wanted to cook Haitian food free of all sorts of allergens that people loved and enjoyed without the worry of getting sick ten or fifteen minutes later. That was my life and I didn’t want anyone suffering from food allergies to get sick eating the food I cook. 

My passion for cooking expanded after my major colon surgery back in 2011. I started getting sick in 2005 on and off with digestive issues. In 2007, my condition worsened, and it was going to take me a good three years of suffering, traveling back and forth to emergency rooms in town, and undergoing a series of medical procedures before I met a random lady in the store who is now my friend who referred me to her naturopathic doctor. I found out then that my symptoms were purely food allergen based. 

After my biggest stressors got removed from my diet, I felt much better in my digestive system, but it was too late to avoid the colon surgery. That was one of the most painful seasons in my life. When I started feeling better, I decided to offer flavorful allergen and preservative-free Haitian foods to the foodie community in Portland. The support I received from the beginning was incredible. I have been cooking by my mother’s side since I probably was five or six years old, and that went on until right before I left home for the United States. 

What is your favorite dish to make?

I don’t think I have a favorite dish per se. I love food and I love eating the food I cook. My love for a particular food goes in a wave. Sometimes, I love seafood like shrimps or salmon, and other times, I crave red meat in a good stew with yellow potatoes over steamed white rice. Some days, just a plate of rice and beans is as satisfying. When I am stressed and feel overwhelmed, I binge on a bowl of tonmtonm made out of fresh mashed breadfruit made with kalalou (okra stew) with meat or seafood.

Being that you are from Jérémie, a commune in Grand’Anse, Haiti, what does the dish tonmtonm mean to you? Is there a recipe for it in your last book?

Of course, there is a tonmtonm recipe in the book! A cookbook written by a Jérémienne must have tonmtonm included in the list of recipes. I went in detail in the book on how to nail a tasty okra stew and the different ways to enjoy eating it. 

I joke around with my non-Haitian friends that Haitian pikliz (spicy pickled slaw) gives me life. Besides pikliz, as a true Jérémienne, tonmtonm gives me more life and kisses my soul each chunk that I swallowed with the kalalou. 

We had a lot of breadfruit trees in the backyard of our house when I was growing up. My mother loved tonmtonm so much that she would cook it impromptu just because she wants to right in the middle of the day as soon as she could find a young man hanging around my father’s carpentry shop that could climb one of the breadfruit trees to get her a couple of fresh breadfruits. She could make her stew mostly out of anything, but smoked herring or salty sardines always hit the home run. If my mother made the stew, it didn’t matter what she used as meat for flavor, the stew would undeniably be tasty. 

Tonmtonm is not just regular food. Camaraderie and friendships were built around eating it. Friends were invited over. My mother would send bowls of tonmtonm with a fresh scotch bonnet pepper on top to her cousins and close friends, and, in between of jumping in the large basin to “bat dlo” (beat the water) to make all sorts of musical noise”. It just for the fun of it while the dogs join in to bark out of the excitement of the joy and energy of the moment.

You are a chef, food product developer, and most recently, an author with two books in your portfolio. How do you manage your time?

My schedule is crazy packed at times. I like staying busy, but at the same time, I know myself well enough to value my sleep and downtime. When I don’t sleep well enough, I cannot focus or be productive. I always manage to have time to sleep, breathe, and relax, and that usually happens at the end of the day. When I first started doing pop-ups and catering, I will agree to do any type of gig just to get my name out there, but as time goes by, I prioritize activities that match my core values and goals. Generally, I set the days and times I want to teach during the week. I also try to condense my meetings back to back in a day or two instead of spreading them throughout the week. That way, I pace myself knowing exactly the day of the week I am available to book my catering gigs, events, or other engagements. 

“I’m a good blend of introvert and extrovert. I can be the life of the party when I’m out working but need silence and a comfortable corner to replenish my energy.” 

What inspired you to write “Cooking With My Mother?”

I wrote the book in honor of my mother. I wanted to honor all the good times and memories she created with my sisters and me in the kitchen. Unfortunately, she died with a stroke a year the book got published. Oh! I was so disappointed in myself that she didn’t get to see the book or even know that I had written a book in her honor. In the book, I went into details about all the shenanigans that went down in the kitchen while cooking with her. In the first seven chapters, I spilled all the juice about everyone that played a role in my life as a child and during my adolescent years. Starting in chapter 8, I dived into the recipes I loved as a kid as I talked candidly about all the memories created around them.

In your book, you have more than 100 ‘secret’ family recipes revealed. How does your family feel about you sharing those recipes?

Every dish I enjoyed making when I was growing up is in the book. In the beginning, I was a bit apprehensive about what my close family members might think or say, but halfway through the project, I decided to remain authentic to tell stories from my childhood the way I perceived them and not the way my family intended for me to recall them when they lived and interpreted their experiences through their lenses. 

I want the reader to feel what I felt when I lived the stories I counted, and that was what I did. Writing the book that way also allows the reader to experience the Haitian culture for what it is through the moments I have lived as a child with real people, my family members, friends, and people that I encountered who somehow impacted me one way or another. That was the goal from the beginning, to show people that Haitians raised and born in Haiti are real people who have feelings like everyone else all around the world. As kids born and raised in Haiti, we played, studied, had fun, and got disciplined.

Do you have a peculiar habit when writing?

I don’t think I do. What I know for sure is, I cannot set a schedule to write. I must be inspired to write and when that inspiration wants to flow, I stop everything to free my imagination to flow and put my feeling into words. That urge to write can happen anywhere. When I am busy, I preciously hold onto the thoughts to let them burst on anything accessible to write on, a piece of paper, a notebook, or a laptop as soon as the opportunity presents itself. 

During that first round, I do not worry about my grammar or vocabulary. I free myself from overthinking to let my imagination run free and occasionally pause to reflect and ensure that I am translating my feelings in the best words and images possible that could take the reader on a journey. I write when I have the urge to write because I intend for whatever I write to be loaded with feelings to entice the reader’s imagination and keep them glued to my own emotions as the writer.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing or in the kitchen?

When I am not writing or in the kitchen, I am probably completing some type of sewing project. A few years back, I wanted to be a clothing designer. I was focusing on tricking sewing patterns to create clothing styles that I loved. My best seller pieces were children’s clothing and hats, and aprons. When I am not playing on my sewing machine, I am probably listening to worship songs and independent analysts on YouTube. My life currently revolves around cooking, cooking, and more cooking to continue building my business and promoting the beauty of the Haitian culture through cuisine.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating this book?

The most surprising thing I have learned in putting this book together is that writing is fun, but putting a book together is gruesome. I remember when I was close to the launch date of Cooking With My Mother and I was crying through the pain of wrapping up on the last few details, a friend commented on how publishing a book was like birthing a child. She was right! I don’t think I was mentally prepared for the intensity of the work that was at hand, but now, I am getting used to it. Writing is all fun, but putting a book together requires focus and commitment.

Is a hard copy of this book available or is it only digital?

For now, Cooking With My Mother is only available on Kindle. My people and I have been working for a while on formatting the hard copy, but it is taking longer than we thought. I am going with the process instead of feeding on frustration, but the book will be available in paperback sooner than later.

What advice or tips would you give to someone who aspires to become a cookbook writer?

The tips I would like to give someone who aspires to write a cookbook are the following:

  1. Make a plan – Define the audience they want to reach and the type of cuisine they would like to showcase in the book
  2. Make a list of the recipes – They need to make a list of the recipes they want to feature in the book to remain focused instead of just cooking just any recipe
  3. Collaborate with a professional photographer – There are plenty of photographers who want to build a portfolio for their photography business and will be willing to take professional food photos for free or at a minimal cost so they can get their name out there. The downside might be that the photographer is not available the day the chef is cooking. Maybe, they can find two or three different photographers who want to assist with photography. I didn’t go that route, but this is a hard lesson I learned in the process
  4. Research and shop for an editor who understands the writer’s vision – an uncommitted editor can be the writer’s biggest obstacle in completing the cookbook. I recommend writers to shop for a professional editor who is willing to buy into the vision, understand the vision, and ready to commit to the project
  5. Set a budget – It is encouraged to set a budget to cover the main costs of writing and publishing a book: graphic designing, editing, photography, formatting and layout, publishing, and printing
  6. Pace yourself when cooking – The prospective cookbook writer needs to make a schedule on the food groups they want to feature in the book! For example, they can cook all the pasta recipes back to back or the rice recipes together, so that they don’t feel scattered and swimming in an unending labyrinth
  7. Start cooking as soon as possible – There will never be a perfect time to start cooking, but now; therefore, start cooking as soon as the list of the recipe is ready.

Chef, thank you so much for taking the time away from your busy schedule to conduct this interview. The whole team at CCM is excited for you and your future projects.

Thanks for your consideration! I appreciate you sharing my story.

As stated, Cooking With My Mother can be found on Amazon Kindle. We highly recommend it if you are a lover of good food as I am. 

Also, you can catch up with Chef Elsy on the KATU2 Live TV show in Portland, Oregon. She is a regular, and she is booked until the end of 2020. Starting in May, she will be participating in live segments on the show remotely.

Written by Carl Bazelais