As a chef, my mind is constantly consumed with food. I spend a lot of my time chasing flavors and ingredients and seeking inspiration for my next dish. The jobs I am hired for usually have minimal budget restraints, and the ultimate goal is to create a memorable, beautiful experience. While I love my job, I recognize that I am cooking from an immense place of privilege, where I have a nearly endless choice when it comes to what I want to prepare for diners who also have seemingly limitless options on what they want to eat on a given day.
But I know that is not the reality for so many. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.50 a day or in extreme poverty. For them, the next meal is a struggle. Rather than dreaming up exotic dishes as I do, they simply dream of having a full belly. No one should have to decide between education, medicine, or food. I feel a responsibility to help change this.
When Concern Worldwide, an organization working in 27 of the poorest countries in the world, asked me if I would challenge myself to live on $1.50 a day for five days to raise funds and awareness to fight extreme poverty, I felt a moral duty to participate. But before taking on the challenge, I wanted to go deeper and experience its work firsthand and meet with people living in extreme poverty. Concern invited me to visit its programs in Haiti last month, and I was soon on a southbound plane to what is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
I was unsure of what I would find in Haiti. I knew it would be an adventure in which I got a glimpse into what it means to live in extreme poverty. Little did I know my life and perspective would be changed forever.
When I arrived in Port-au-Prince, the country’s seaside capital, the level of poverty floored me. We visited Grand Ravine, a gang-ridden slum that is home to some 20,000 of the poorest people in the city. Everyone seemed to be scraping by, carving out an existence in whatever way they could. The streets are lined with vendors selling everything from avocados and bananas to secondhand clothes and live chickens. The buildings are pieced together with scrap metal and materials that we in the U.S. would throw away.
In Grand Ravine, I met Nerline, 23, who is attending a nearby cooking school along with eight other young women from the slum with the support of Concern. As a chef, it was inspiring to witness firsthand how these women use cooking and food as their opportunity to make a living and inch their way out of poverty.
Little did I know my life and perspective would be changed forever.
I also traveled deep into the Haitian countryside to a town called Saut d’Eau, roughly two hours’ drive north of Port-au-Prince. The poverty there was different but no less grinding. Many people survive on what food they can grow and produce themselves. The town is sleepy, but every July, tens of thousands of people flock to Saut d’Eau in a spiritual pilgrimage to a beautiful waterfall nestled in the hillside.
Concern is working with community members to harness the potential for Saut d’Eau to become a local tourist destination. It has helped families create bed-and-breakfasts in their homes, trained young people in hospitality, and built a community center and public park. I had the pleasure of meeting a few of the young tourism trainees, some of whom dream of one day running a five-star hotel in Saut d’Eau—a goal I sincerely hope to see them realize someday.
Whether urban or rural, extreme poverty is grueling. In Port-au-Prince, the conditions for the poorest residents are packed and dirty, while in Saut d’Eau, it is an isolated subsistence existence.
Three days later, boarding the plane back to New York, I was filled with a slight sense of relief. I would soon be back to the basic comforts of a hot shower, drinkable tap water, soft sheets, and endless food options. But at the same time, I feel like I only scratched the surface. I wanted to stay and keep learning, keep experiencing.
I returned to New York with a newfound respect for what it means to live on the margins of a society, of how resourceful you have to be just to scrape by. Traveling to Haiti and cooking and living on $1.50 a day is out of my comfort zone, a far cry from my day-to-day life as a chef in New York, but it is reconnecting me to what food is on the most fundamental level: a universal human right.
The process of creating recipes for less than 50 cents a serving was quite challenging. How do I keep it healthy, fresh? How do I maintain integrity of ingredients? In my process, it came down to creatively approaching the idea of a meal and thinking about how limited ingredients could come together to create something that was not only satiating but truly delicious. My experience in Haiti exposed me to the creativity used to maintain joy and pleasure around the table, even with the little resources residents here have. They are true chefs.
[Living below the line] is reconnecting me to what food is on the most fundamental level: a universal human right.
I am taking on the “Live Below the Line” challenge to stand in solidarity with the wonderful souls I met in Haiti. I encourage you to join me on this journey, to go outside your comfort zone, to challenge yourself and the systems that exist.