Tigeorges gestures to an almost barren hillside that was clear-cut long ago for firewood. All this used to be coffee. As you can see, the bigger trees are gone.
I ask if perhaps the local farmers could cultivate new coffee plants here.
Replanting is difficult, to bring that into their soul, because they think theres no need, Tigeorges answers. What Im doing, I know its not short-term.
We return down the trail, wade through a river, and then arrive at the small isolated village of Anse-à-Foleur, which is literally the end of the road on a map.
Theres little in the way of electricity and potable water, but the modern world has definitely intruded here. Teenagers wear Tupac and Florida Marlins T-shirts. A boy talking on a cell phone (it seems everyone has one) rides by on a bike. A truck with a loudspeaker drives through announcing that a soccer match will be shown later on the big screen in the next town.
When we get to the central square, we stop at a food booth Tigeorges recommends. The cook is a young man named Richard, and Tigeorges wants to encourage him -- because in the villages, cooking is for the women. Richard has a skill, though, and Tigeorges wants him to know it.
Sitting on a bench, we eat fried fish and a fantastic Haitian cabbage slaw called pikliz thats spiced with habanero peppers and key lime juice. We wash it all down with bottles of Prestige beer as we watch a funeral procession of mourners in their Sunday best followed by a New Orleansstyle brass band.
Although Tigeorges grew up in Haiti, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, for high school; in 1980, he got a film degree from New Yorks School of Visual Arts. He then moved to Los Angeles to find work as a cameraman, and a few years later, he started a party-rental business out of his garage that provided tables and chairs for private events. It was profitable for a while, but then it slowly succumbed to the growing competition. Finally, a friend at a party suggested he get back to his roots.
I took his advice, Tigeorges says. I flew to Haiti searching for any pieces that had been left behind. If I could put them together, I could put myself back together.
Upon returning to Haiti, Tigeorges suddenly remembered that his grandmother had owned a restaurant and that when he was a boy, he had helped her cook -- especially when shed made squash soup. Then, it hit him: He was going to do exactly what she used to do.
After endless wrangling with permits and equipment, he finally opened Tigeorges Chicken restaurant in 2002 on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park, Los Angeles. He served only a few dishes and didnt even have a menu. Nevertheless, local press and bloggers got wind of the unique cuisine the restaurant served, and it started attracting more customers. One of them happened to be a percussionist for the legendary Haitian Konpa group Tabou Combo.
This guy called me, and he says, Im selling CDs of Haitian music and Haitian coffee. He sent me a humongous bag full of coffee and CDs. People start falling in love with the coffee. People kept buying, and I kept selling. Then, I ran out of coffee. I call him and say, Hey, I need more coffee. He says, No, Tigeorges, it was a one-time deal. I do not have coffee anymore. I said, Wow, the product that people fall in love with, and I dont have the product to sell.
The enterprising Tigeorges quickly found a replacement, albeit one that came via a complicated route. It starts in the hills above Anse-à-Foleur. From there, the coffee travels along a six-mile stretch of brutal potholes that is charitably called a road to the northern city of Port-de-Paix, where its loaded onto a commuter plane and flown to Port-au-Prince, Haitis capital. Then, UPS flies the coffee to the United States, and its roasted at a California facility. Tigeorges is the first to admit that its a torturous way to bring in coffee.
His patrons in Los Angeles arent aware of all this; they just salivate over the coffee. Some customers even request that Tigeorges be the only person to prepare their coffee and will call the restaurant before driving there to make sure hes in. The popularity is a bit strange. But then, people sometimes do weird things when it comes to their coffee.
We finish our fish and walk back through the village, passing rows of extremely simple houses made from concrete, wood, and tin. Women are sweeping the dirt in front of their doors. Boys are playing soccer barefoot on the gravel road. Little girls in orange school uniforms are walking home in noisy packs. Its a polite society. Everyone says hello, and they expect you to respond.
We arrive at the house of Tigeorgess brother Reginald, which doubles as the local office for Tigeorgess coffee business. The front room is filled with paperwork and sacks of fragrant green coffee beans. As far as I can tell, this is the only residence in town with electricity, and its powered by solar panels on the roof.