It’s 2:30 p.m. in the sun-drenched St. Roch Market in New Orleans, where it’s just about shift-switching time for the team at Fritai, the Haitian food stall run by Charly Pierre and Minerva (Eva) Chereches.
St. Roch Market — an 1800s-era market-turned-food-hall lined with birch stalls, marble countertops, and 30-food ceilings — gives diners a unique perspective. The open kitchens and stalls’ layout mean that visitors can see owners of these small restaurants actually working. It’s all out in front and every emotion is on display. Some operators are intense and focused. Some are frazzled. Chereches’s face radiates joy as she buzzes around quickly to wrap up her shift, winding the cord around the immersion mixer, laughing and chatting with an employee at the same time.
The duo only hires locals, especially those “who really need help and especially those without a chance.” If they have a “willingness to learn,” they’re in. The lunch rush is over and there may finally be a moment to breathe, but Chereches doesn’t pause. When a late lunch customer walks up, she greets her like a friend she’s been expecting.
Pierre shows up a few minutes later, fresh from entertaining friends on a swamp tour — “They threw marshmallows to the alligators,” he says, clearly in disapproval of the treats the guides chose to feed the gators. Food is always on his mind.
For two to three hours a day, Pierre and Chereches’s schedules at Fritai overlap before they change shifts and Pierre takes over for the night. Being a couple and running a restaurant means spending a lot of time together, so the two tend to work different shifts and focus on different areas of the business.
“We happen to have a good team. We have a super ethical base. We’re not from here and we can’t just make financial decisions,” Pierre adds. Chereches and Pierre want their restaurant to fit into and expand upon the food narrative in New Orleans, rather than change it. They also want their restaurant to belong and contribute to the New Orleans community, which means hiring locals in need and making sure that New Orleanians that live near Fritai can afford to eat there.
It’s hard to define what a “super ethical base” is, but it is clear that for the Fritai team, it involves a lot of respect: respect for their adopted New Orleans community, respect for Haitian and New Orleans cuisines, respect for their employees and their employees’ experiences, and respect for each other.
While Pierre is the chef and Chereches, with a background in front-of-house, manages the business and the books, in a small restaurant, everyone has to help with everybody’s work.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their niches. Though their spaces often overlap, they’ve organized Fritai so each partner operates one part of the business and enjoys being in charge of that realm. “I hate dealing with any kind of numbers,” Pierre says.
And Chereches “had to learn to be a line cook — but I had to work under my boyfriend,”she remembers. She says that running a business and being a couple is one of the hardest things they’ve done and this is just one example of it. She doesn’t dwell on the hard parts though. “Pierre is very self-driven. He has a goal in mind. That’s why he is my inspiration. I just try to keep up with him.”
Chereches has a ton of respect for Pierre, and he has the same respect for her. The stall’s signature dish — pork stuffed between two fried plantains, called fritai on the menu — was Chereches’s idea. It was also the dish that caused the couple’s first real fight and the dish that spearheaded a change in their lives. “I wanted a sandwich between two plantains,” Chereches explains. At first, Pierre was against it because he didn’t consider it authentic Haitian food.
In Haitian cuisine, fritai means ‘fried’ and is used to refer to fried foods, generally street food. The introduction of the dish also marked a change in their approach to Haitian cuisine — they began to be more playful with it. That creativity is one of the things that makes Fritai so successful: Chereches and Pierre are considering both Haitian cuisine and New Orleans cuisine and exploring the flavors in a new way.
Pierre continues: “It isn’t a dish you would find in Haiti, but all the flavors of Haiti are there together and you can relate to it. Anyone can taste it and know that it is Haiti.”
The Haitian version of fritai is called the griot plate, braised and fried pork, avocado, pikliz (a spicy relish-like condiment), colè rice (jasmine cooked with red beans), and Creole sauce (a tomato-based sauce with peppers, onions, and garlic) all served separately on a plate. In Haiti, fritai (which simply means fried) is generally used to describe the many food stalls found along the main roads and in the city centers.
The flavors of Haiti have a lot in common with the flavors of New Orleans. “Food is culture. You bite into [a dish] and can see there is a connection between Haiti and New Orleans. Why is that? All these flavors have paths that follow each other,” Pierre says.
“Haitian food is an ancestor of New Orleans food,” Chereches says, noting that a lot of the traditions have been lost in translation. But now, there’s been a “reawakening in the city, and we are rediscovering our connection with the Caribbean.” In addition to the couple’s version of fritai, they serve “red rice” — jasmine rice cooked with red beans — in a rendition that’s common in Louisiana. Their tangy, spicy pickliz, made with habanero peppers, lime, carrots, and vinegar, doesn’t immediately resemble Louisiana hot sauce, but there’s a similar vinegar-and-heat flavor profile. And Pierre points out that Haitian Creole sauce is almost identical to the kind found in New Orleans.
This exploration of Haitian cuisine is also an exploration into the couple’s roots. Pierre is Haitian-American, the son of two immigrants (his parents were both born in Haiti). Chereches spent a few years of her childhood living in the Caribbean while her parents studied to be veterinarians, an experience that left a lasting impression on her. And as they explain the menu, it’s clear they love talking about the food they serve — and all food, really.
Chereches’s front-of-house experience has given her an ability to calmly and passionately explain dishes. At St. Roch Market, where diners have plenty of options, people aren’t always looking for the background and the history behind dishes.
“The food court mentality is saying it’s good. But we come from a server mentality, and we want to talk about the food. I can explain a dish in detail, and when I’m done, someone will look at me and say, ‘But is it good?’”
The plan for the team is to outgrow the St. Roch Market.
“We’re really hard workers. Generally, we’re trying to grow as fast as we can,” Pierre says. “We want to have a hole-in-the-wall with a bigger menu and a really cool bar menu. We try to make things affordable and accessible for the community here.”
“We’re like Yes Men,” adds Chereches. Just two days after the Eater Young Guns party in New York, the couple is bringing the food stand to a two-day Caribbean festival in New Orleans. In fact, a shared work ethic brought the couple together as business partners. (A shared sense of humor brought them together as a couple after working together at a pizza restaurant near MIT in Boston.)
They moved to New Orleans, their favorite food city, to have some fun. “They know how to cook here,” Pierre says about New Orleans. “Everyone does. Mamas, sisters, everyone.”
Pierre and Chereches ended up working 50-hour weeks after they got into town. Working so much made them wonder why they weren’t putting all that time into building something of their own. Fritai was born.
“New Orleans is very receptive to creativity in food. Here, it doesn’t matter if you are a rundown place with chairs that don’t match or a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant,” says Chereches. In New Orleans, food and hospitality come first in all restaurants. As long as your food is excellent and you’re bringing something to the community, you’re good to go.