Nine years ago Violetta Adrien began to build a nest egg selling the pastries every Haitian knows as pâtés. Every week she'd stuff doughy pockets with beef, chicken, salt cod, or vegetables and bake them by the dozens for church gatherings and private parties. If "you don't have it at parties it is not Haitian," she says. "I start making my piggy bank, and every time I do a party I take it home and I drop in $50, $100." Back then she was working full-time at Evanston Hospital as a surgical technician, but she knew she wanted to open a restaurant someday. She gradually invested her nut in the equipment she'd need to do it—pots, pans, plates, glassware—all of which she stored in her small Evanston town house and in the larger homes of her siblings.
The 50-year-old didn't even know how to make the pastries—descended from the French pâté en croute—before she came to Chicago in 1981 from Fort-Liberté, a small town in coastal northeastern Haiti. But she certainly knew her way around a kitchen. As the oldest daughter and second child of seven, she was her family's primary cook growing up, before and after school and on lunch breaks, while her parents tended the family's large garden. They grew their own vegetables and raised their own chickens and goats, and Adrien got in the habit of cooking for large groups with the bounty. As a teenager she wanted to attend culinary school, but her father, who'd emigrated to Chicago in 1979, insisted on secondary school instead. She followed him here, and after she took English courses and earned her GED, he helped her land a job at Evanston Hospital, where he worked in housekeeping.
Over the years she too worked in the housekeeping department, then the transportation department, and then the technician's job, sterilizing surgical tools. But she didn't stop cooking for her family, and she never gave up on her dream of culinary school. In 2000 she took a year off to attend the professional cooking program at Kendall College, which was still in Evanston at the time. After graduation a friend showed her how to make a pâté dough with all-purpose white flour, Crisco, and eggs. It took her a long time to master—her first batches came out like hard pizza or empanada dough. But once she learned to produce a more malleable dough, she began cranking them out. She also cooked other dishes to serve at monthly postservice meals at her church, First Haitian Baptist. After she catered a series of political fund-raisers for state senator Kwame Raoul, her reputation spread among the Haitian community.
"I continued to cater parties," she says. "And everybody say, where is your restaurant? That's pushing me of opening Chez Violette."
In 2009 she enrolled in Kendall's personal chef program, and racked up so many electives in pastry and cake-decorating classes she had nearly enough for a third certificate in pastry. It was then that she discovered the recipe for a classic pâte feuilletée, puff pastry, a labor-intensive process she adopted for her own Haitian pâtés. With bread flour, unsalted butter, water, and salt, it requires five rolling-and-resting cycles, and can take up to six hours to make. But it turned out a more reliably flaky and beautiful egg-washed pastry than her old recipe.
"Whenever I have a big event I'd take four, three days, or a week off from my job to do it," she says. "I got to a point I couldn't handle both." About three months ago she quit the hospital and she and her husband, Samson—a cabdriver—took out a loan and sunk their savings into a storefront on the Chicago side of Howard in West Rogers Park. "I have been bugging my husband for a long time so we can try," she says. Her brother and sister hauled in her pots and pans from storage and she got down to business.
Haitian food isn't unlike that of other Caribbean islands, though there's certainly a stronger French influence on it than, say, Jamaican or Cuban cuisine. With Chez Violette one of only two Haitian restaurants in the area (Sweet Nick's lies less than a half mile to the west on Howard's Evanston side), you'd think Adrien had found a niche.
But after a busy initial few weeks, business slowed, and she had to let go some of the cooks she'd hired, also former Kendall students. Now it's just Adrien and a part-timer in the kitchen, and it's been hard for her to anticipate how much to prepare each day. Not wanting to waste, she's been running out of classics like griot, deep-fried pork chunks served with crispy plantains and spicy habanero slaw, or cabrit creole, the currylike stew she makes from goats she buys on Devon Avenue.
She marinates her roast chicken in green onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, and red and yellow pepper—a creole master blend she uses in many dishes—and plates it with a roux-based pepper sauce made with her own chicken stock. Legume de boeuf is a semisolid stew of minced beef, mashed cabbage, carrot, and chayote with an accent of shrimp or crab legs, meant to be eaten with red beans and rice or steamed white rice with sauce pois, a thin sauce of black beans. Saturday nights are for Haitian consommé, not a clear broth but a hearty soup laden with goat meat, shrimp, dumplings, yams, plantains, carrots, and spinach. Sunday's the traditional day for thick pumpkin soup brimming with penne noodles, cabbage, carrots, and potato.
It's advisable to call ahead to see if she has these dishes on hand—if she doesn't, she'll make them on request, along with off-menu items like tassot, the goat version of griot, or du riz djon-djon, a mushroom-rice dish dyed inky black by special dried fungi her aunt sends her from back home. The same applies to the pâtés, which go especially fast. "The Haitians, they really like pâté," she says. "And every time they come here, if I don't have it they feel really disappointed."