If Dimitri Lilavois were to be held hostage in a particular space in a home, and was given a choice by his captors, he would most likely choose the kitchen. Born and raised in Haiti, Lilavois holds a B.S. in Administration degree from Barry University, and received a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu Miami. It had always been his dream to return to Haiti and work in the hospitality industry there, and this goal was achieved last year when he moved back to the island, following a job offer. As a chef at an upscale restaurant in Port-au-Prince, Lilavois delights in creating stunning dishes for patrons, and it’s something he views as a privilege, not just a job.
Tell us more about yourself.
I’m the youngest from a family of three. I love movies, music, beaches and mountains. I’m a complicated, often confused, unnecessarily clumsy individual with one simple goal in mind: to cook my way through life. The kitchen is where I find my focus. Food is my zen.
Relax for a minute and take us back to a kitchen, food, or cooking-related childhood memory. The first one you can think of…or perhaps the most memorable you can think of.
My mom used to cook these amazing meals on Sundays. The one I remember the most was this menu wich consisted of a seasonal salad w/apples, home made garlic bread, lobster and shrimp with garlic/butter/herbs, cilantro and parsley rice, corn soufflé and Hawaiian chicken with pineapples, cherries, raisins. That’s what I want my last meal to be.
When you were growing up, who was the best cook you knew?
Between my godmother who made the best chocolate cakes ever, my great aunt who made the best chicken filled pastries, my mom’s djon djon rice, and Chef Martin Yan from the TV show “Yan Can Cook”, it’s kinda hard to pick…[Laughter] So that notion of “the best cook” relative.
Can you trace your love of cooking to one particular event?
When I was 7, I used to invent these sauces to eat with spaghetti. I would mix and match any and everything that was in the cupboard, like smoked ham in a barbecue sauce, mixed with honey and soy sauce. Some were successes; others were epic failures never to be spoken of.
What’s your ideal kitchen space?
My ideal kitchen space is functional, efficient and just big enough to move around comfortably. The counter top is equipped with a robot coup, hand blenders and mixers, Panini press. There’s an island with a stove, a grill, a fryer, coolers with drawers, sauteés pans and cast iron skillet hanging from the top.
What do you like most about being a chef?
I was able to develop an appreciation for basic ingredients and cultures because of my understanding of food. The creativity is endless. The ability to bring people together through food is amazing. I get to feed you, nourish your body, and if I’m lucky enough to evoke any emotions from what you just ate. That means I just touched a part of your soul. What’s more rewarding than that?
What are some things you’ve learned about kitchen and staff management?
The kitchen is a high energy, fast pace, heated environment with clashing personalities. Everyone is different; no two skill levels are the same and you have to respect that. I’ve learned a great deal of patience and self- discipline. It’s a tedious job with repetitive tasks, but no two days are alike.
Do you have any words of wisdom for those who are interested in becoming professional cooks?
Yes. I was eager to become a chef, wanting to manage a kitchen, create menus, place orders, etc… Until one day, one chef stopped me and said: “oh yea..? You wanna be a chef…? But first, learn how to cook well.” That stuck with me forever. So, my advice is to take the time to ask yourself “Why”? If your desire is as strong as your conviction, then go for it.
Above: A Chef Dimitri Lilavois creation—mahi-mahi, pickled veggies, umami cream, with herbed potatoes.
And what’s your advice to novice cooks?
There are literally thousands of ingredients and with millions of different flavor combinations. So never stop learning, ever. Read cookbooks, watch Youtube videos, look for a chef to admire and study their path. In the end, your goal is to find your own voice and perfect your techniques. Keep cooking.
You’re a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts. Do you think that culinary school is a necessary rite of passage for a professional chef?
I don’t think culinary school is a necessary rite of passage, but it does have its advantages. You learn techniques, history and the culture surrounding food. There’s a great deal of networking available to students. But what’s necessary to become a professional chef is the will. You have to want it. It takes discipline, courage, passion and enthusiasm. We work when everyone else is having fun, weeknights and weekends.
Do you ever dream of opening your own restaurant?