There’s something about the flavors of Caribbean island food: the fusion of French, Spanish, African, and indigenous traditions; prepared with citrus, slow-roasted in broths, peppered with fresh herbs and fragrant spices, and finished with spicy condiments and served at a table set for your whole family.
Celebrity chef Cynthia Verna, better known as Chef Thia in culinary circles from Miami to Port-au-Prince and beyond, knows the power of well-prepared island food. Hailing from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Verna recently adapted traditional island foods to be vegan-friendly, resulting in a 30-pound weight loss.
At 42-years old, Verna looks better than ever and is promoting healthy Haitian cuisine in her cookbooks co-authored with Jamaican Chef Irie “PBS’ Taste the Islands” host and a new TV show. Her goal is to lose another 10 pounds and then slowly introduce lean meats back into her diet. One of the staple dishes of her vegan diet is the beloved Haitian mais moulin (polenta) with spinach, tomatoes, riz djon djon (black mushroom rice) and black beans.
In the Verna household, the kitchen is the de facto living room, where conversations begin with “Grab the tomato paste, measure the rice, and dice this for me, please.” Her three children, ranging from 21 to 7, are sous chefs. “Everyone opens up in the kitchen. By the time we’re down cooking, I know everything I need to know for the day.”
“Everyone’s involved in meal prep at home,” says Verna. “Making a meal at home is the best way to bring everyone together. We never say ‘Oh, I’m too tired to cook,’ instead it’s a family activity of dividing up responsibilities – a labor of love.”
Verna’s culinary love was instilled by her mom’s side of the family growing up in Haiti. “The Leroy and Mangonès (from her mother’s side) families have great cooks. Sunday was always church, followed by a big family meal,” Verna reminisces. “Even in the islands, growing up with maids, everyone was still involved in the whole production.”
“Haitian food is one of the best culinary experiences in the world,” she says. There you have it.