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His island of Haitian culture

PROFILE

April 23, 2008|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

SOMETIMES in restaurant whites, sometimes in a tropical shirt, George Laguerre wanders from table to table schmoozing with diners, sometimes pausing to turn up the bouncy soundtrack of Caribbean dance music. TiGeorges' Chicken is his domain -- a place of roast chicken, fricasseed goat, vanilla-spiked limeade and coffee roasted with sugar until it smokes. Haitian food, in short.

During the last two months, "Haiti" and "food" have taken on a less cheerful association. In the land of Laguerre's birth, where the price of food has jumped 40%, several people have died in food riots.

"Haitians knew something like that was going to happen sometime; so many people are living hand to mouth," Laguerre says. "This is something that started back in the '60s. It was probably one reason my parents left Haiti."

Members of Los Angeles' tiny Haitian community, meeting periodically at his restaurant, were organizing charitable programs for the old country even before the current crisis. Laguerre says, "Most of my buddies say, 'George, we must help those people grow food.' So we're introducing portable propane burners to people so they won't have to use wood as fuel, which causes deforestation, which harms the agricultural land.

"We've already delivered a dozen of those burners to key people to influence the public. We are in the process of getting a 501(c) [nonprofit designation] so we can get donations. Everybody wants to do something. This is what we're doing."

Now, L.A. is not exactly where you'd expect to find a Haitian restaurant -- there are only about 2,200 Haitians in all of Southern California. So how did Laguerre end up here?

It's a tangled tale. Dreams of Hollywood figure in it, and the 1984 Olympics, and a Haitian grandmother's determination that her family was going to live in America, whether they wanted to or not.

Laguerre grew up with 10 brothers and sisters in Port-de-Paix, where his father was a coffee grower. In the beginning, except for his grandmother, who ran a restaurant in the back of her grocery, no one in the immediate family thought of emigrating.

"My grandmother . . . visited my uncle in Akron, Ohio, where he was teaching carpentry," Laguerre says. "So she knew how the U.S. functioned, although she couldn't read or write, and most of the English words she learned had to do with cooking ingredients.

"When she came back," he recalls wryly, "she tried to impose American culture in Haiti. She announced that, from then on, dinner would be after 5 p.m. [instead of midday]. We all cried, because we were so hungry. But she said we needed to do this because 'One day you're going to move to America.' "

In 1970, her equally iron-willed daughter, Laguerre's mother, insisted that the family move to Brooklyn. "My father came reluctantly, I would say," Laguerre remembers.

It was a harsh transition, because none of the family could speak English, and their main income was what his mother earned as a nurse's aide. His father delivered sandwiches to Wall Street offices and later operated a mimeograph machine for a Brooklyn nonprofit.

Despite the rocky start, all the brothers and sisters went to college. Laguerre studied film at the City College of New York with the idea of being a cameraman, and he followed his dream to Los Angeles in 1980.

Like many another newcomer to our town, though, he failed to break into the industry. He worked as an accountant (one of the jobs he'd had in New York was at a bank). At his lowest ebb, he fried chicken at a fast-food restaurant.

Olympic inspiration

He WAS keeping the books for a party rental service during the 1984 Olympics when he noticed how much money there seemed to be in providing canopies in the "Festive Federalism" colors that were then blanketing Los Angeles. He started his own party rental company out of his garage, soon moving into a storefront on Glendale Boulevard, where he continued successfully for more than 20 years.

Although Laguerre had enjoyed cooking alongside his mother and grandmother when he was young, nothing up to this point had seemed to be leading him toward opening a restaurant, least of all that reluctant stint in a fast-food chicken place. But in the late '90s, Laguerre decided it was time to find a new line of work.

He went back to Haiti, where his grandmother's "one-day" restaurant, so called because it was open only on Sunday morning, catered to people after Mass at the local church. It served only one dish, an elaborate squash soup, which Laguerre now also makes.

There he had the idea of opening his own limited-menu restaurant. Home in L.A., he settled on roasted chicken and worked up a recipe.

Hedging his bets

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