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Out west, Chef Gourdet pushes fine dining frontier with new Haitian restaurant


Overview:

Kann, award winning chef Gregory Gourdet’s newest restaurant, in Portland, Ore., aims to blend Haitian cuisine with the fine dining expectations of an American palette. It’s already been named America’s best new restaurant by Esquire magazine.

By Noah August

Inside a corner brick building in Portland, Oregon, brews what some are calling a “future for Haitian cuisine” – the only indication of ties to Haiti being two palm trees out front.

Kann, the vision of award winning chef Gregory Gourdet, opened earlier this year in the Pacific Northwest. Already, it has made the list of Esquire magazine’s best new restaurants in America for 2022 and is considered among the first fine dining venues serving Haitian cuisine. 

Kann, Creole for sugarcane, has a heavy contemporary-American design: off-white, gold and oak colors and bright LED lights, colorful plating and presentation of regionally sourced, seasonal ingredients, according to its marketing materials. Gourdet also opened a Haitian inspired bar in the building’s basement, aptly called Sousòl, Creole for basement. Its matte-black, dimly-lit with pink lounge sofas – is in contrast to the dining area upstairs.

“This restaurant is a very personal project and while it was created to honor my heritage and its cuisine, it is very much a culmination of all the influences I have had in my life,” Gourdet said via a representative.

Growing up in New York, the chef was surrounded by world class restaurants where he spent his formative time as a cook. His style is built from that experience, having lived in Oregon the last 15 years and the idea that Haitian food doesn’t have to be served only in casual settings.

To bring his vision of Haiti cuisine, Gourdet worked with Dr. Berthrude Albert, who rose to social media fame making videos about Haitian history and culture. Over a two-day seminar in Portland, Albert helped train the chef’s 64-member staff to make sure everything is Haitian at its core.

On the first day, she taught the staff about the history of the country, the flavors that make up the culture – from the Taino, Spanish, French and Africans – and the spices, techniques and tastes each group brought. The second day, Albert went in-depth into the story of each dish on the menu. 

To prepare to open, Gourdet also took care to meet the needs of his staff, a diverse group of Black and brown, women and LGBTQ+ people with whom he’s worked for years – including during Covid and through a pop-up version of Kann in a Portland winter market. Gourdet has become a strong advocate for better treatment of restaurant workers, especially after a Portland restaurant he was managing got entangled in an employee mistreatment scandal, nearly disgracing Gourdet’s reputation in the process.

At Kann and Sousòl, Gourdet offers health insurance, paid time off and other benefits, which he hopes will become the standard for restaurants.

Early reviews are in

The efforts seem to be working for the atmosphere and food at the restaurant. Online, hundreds of customers on Google Review and Yelp gave Kann a collective rating of 4.7 stars, often gushing about it.

“This is one of the best meals we’ve had. Ever,” said a Yelp reviewer.

“Now it is not 110% Haitian food, but it is the closest you will get in this neck of the woods,” said a Google reviewer who goes by Jean-Baptiste.

Albert made another trip to Portland to dine at the restaurant this October, bringing with her Haitian models Pascale Belony and Lynn St. Germain and other members of her organization P4H, a non-profit group aimed at training Haitian teachers. 

When serving each dish, the wait staff told the food’s story just as Gourdet had envisioned.

“The dining experience moved us to tears, Albert said. 

Mixing tradition and the new 

Kann offers traditional dishes such as akra and griot ak diri kole a pwa as well more experimental creations common in the fine dining industry. Among them, beef short ribs rubbed with Haitian coffee and vanilla and a plantain based  brioche.

While Gourdet is not the only chef experimenting with Haitian food and attempting to bring it recognition, he is the most popular. “Rebél”  in Manhattan and Chef Chris Viaud’s “Ansanm” in New Hampshire opened in the last three years, a part of this trend exploring Haitian food’s possibilities while still sticking to a more traditional menu. 

Back in Portland, in Kann’s basement, Sousòl makes a variety of Haitian fusion bar food and drinks mixing Chinese, Scandinavian and African flavors. Gourdet, who is thirteen years sober, was motivated to design a non-alcoholic menu alongside potent drinks.

“Nightlife has always been a huge part of my life,” he said. “When I got sober I never gave it up, I just became able to handle myself in situations.”

“The optic of a sober person opening a bar may seem odd,” Gourdet added. “But our mission was to create a space where all can imbibe in something interesting, cultural, and delicious, whether you drink alcohol or not.”

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