Dreamers bring ideas, projects to post-quake Haiti
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Ron Duprat, a robust celebrity chef decked out in skull-and-crossbones Crocs and a navy blue apron, pauses from his mango-slicing duties at the Karibe Hotel to introduce what he says is a simple recipe for his impoverished country, still battered nearly two years after a devastating earthquake.
What the country needs right now, he declares, is a culinary school, a place to train chefs who can work at a future restaurant showcasing Haitian staples such as rice, beans and goat.
"I hope to give hope to some of the chefs that have no hope," Duprat, 42, said, laying down his steel knife next to neon-orange slices of the tropical fruit. "We all say we want to build Haiti better and stronger but no one talks about the hospitality part."
On its face, such a project might seem counterintuitive in Haiti, a nation where high food prices and chronic shortages keep large parts of the population hungry. But Duprat, a Haitian-American professional who starred on the sixth season of Bravo TV's Emmy-nominated show "Top Chef: Las Vegas," says it is just this kind of creative endeavor that can help to transform his flattened country into a nation of hope and progress.
He's not alone. The chef is just one of several entrepreneurs and survivors of the devastating January 2010 earthquake promoting ideas that strive to elevate Haiti's goals beyond the basic needs of food and shelter, which they acknowledge must also still be addressed.
Their ideas include establishing a conservatory that introduces Mozart and Tchaikovsky to children, a center that issues loans for socially conscious businesses, and an insurance program that grants small loans to families suffering hardships as a result of natural disaster or who have fallen ill with cholera. The disease emerged the year of the quake, sickening nearly 500,000 and killing more than 6,500, according to Haiti's Health Ministry.
Antoine Romel Joseph is another Haitian American with ambitious plans for post-quake Haiti. After surviving 18 hours under earthquake rubble, the Juilliard-trained, nearly blind violinist was inspired to introduce classical music to young Haitians. His goal: a modern performing arts center.
But the tough reality of Haiti intervened, and Joseph, 52, realized he needed to first show potential donors that the country's children need Mozart.
So this week he organized two concerts, one to introduce school children to musical instruments, and the other to perform the music of George Handel and Franz Schubert through a series of solos that will culminate with a piano quintet.
In order for the events to take place, however, he had to find transportation for visiting musicians as well as for a cello and a double bass. He tried for three weeks, but found that most car rental companies in the country didn't have vans available.
He finally secured a vehicle, but the children's program began two hours late due to Port-au-Prince's impenetrable traffic.
"Everything is difficult here," Joseph said. "The challenge is to overcome it. ... You have to have nerves and determination. And patience."
Joseph concedes that classical music is not as much a priority for Haiti's hardpressed citizens as food, health and shelter, but he insists that it has an emotional and intellectual value that can actually help children become smarter.
Non-Haitians are trying to lend a hand.
Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate who pioneered the concept of microcredit loans for the poor, has chosen Port-au-Prince as the home for a new branch of his Germany-based Grameen Creative Lab, which issued an $80,000 loan to a new vocational and computer-training school.
The center is Yunus' latest "social business," a startup that hews to his vision of alleviating widespread ills by using profits to expand the business. The Creative Lab plans to fund eight other projects through next year with grants from $20,000 to $100,000 each, said Claudine Francois, the lab's representative in Haiti.
Among those proposals is a plant that will extract oil from Jatropha seeds and convert it into a biodiesel fuel for generators — a must here because the government can only provide sporadic electricity. The fuel will also serve as an alternative energy source to imported gas, which sells in Haiti for $5 a gallon.
"We are very excited to get this going," Francois said.
In Miami, Florida, a group of former students who raced sailboats at the University of Miami established a nonprofit known as Sails for Sustenance, which aims to help Haiti's coastal fishermen by giving them real sails to replace the rice sacks and charcoal bags many typically use.
Incorporated in 2007, the group has collected about 365 sails worth from about $200 to $400 each, from Cape Cod, Rochester, New York, and other places. Sails for Sustenance suspended its work when the quake hit but started back up in August of last year, said Michael Carcaise, president and co-founder. This past week, the group planned to send 63 sails.
"It allows the fishermen to move a little faster," said Carcaise, 28.
For his program, Duprat envisions not only the culinary school and restaurant but also a bakery and a garden for harvesting herbs. The cost? $50 million.
The program would train female prisoners in an effort to keep them out of trouble after they are released, said Duprat, who has already thought of a possible slogan: "From prison to kitchen."
Duprat and others pitched their ideas earlier this month at an international forum of investors at the Karibe Hotel, where he volunteered as a guest chef.
Like Joseph, the chef acknowledges that concepts such as culinary schools and musical schools might not sit so well in a country where more than 500,000 people haven't even been able to find decent housing two years after the quake.
But he believes both needs can be met at the same time.
"I think we are ready for hospitality," he said. "If we are going to rebuild Haiti better and stronger, we need hospitality."