Waid Sainvil, who owns a Haitian restaurant and nightclub of the same name near Seattle University, grew up in Port-au-Prince, in a neighborhood called Bas-Peu-De-Choses, near the national palace that was “completely destroyed,” he said, by the earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 12.
He has not lived there since he was 17 — he is now 41 — and he counts himself among the last generation to enjoy Haiti. It was, back then, a poor country ruled by the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, but it was warm and beautiful and, as dictatorships often are, stable. Sainvil did not recognize recent photographs of his old neighborhood, the kind of place, he said, where “you left the doors open and everyone’s parents are your parents.” Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, sending the country into a chaotic cycle of further rebellion and political instability.
Sainvil was one of eight children. His father owned a furniture factory. The family was relatively prosperous. They lived in a comfortable house that happened to be one of the largest in the neighborhood. The children spent summers abroad and attended college outside Haiti. Sainvil attended City University of New York and later La Sorbonne, in Paris. He married an American woman he met in New York and settled there for a time, teaching school. The couple — they later divorced — moved 15 years ago to her hometown of Seattle, where Waid set out to open a restaurant.
He waited many years. He took jobs at countless restaurants, washing dishes, tending bar, cooking, learning the ropes, and getting fired from all of them because he does “not follow rules very well.” Three years ago, he finally opened Waid’s near the corner of 12th Avenue and East Jefferson Street, a large space with a long bar and a dance floor. He refers to the restaurant as the “house of love.”
His restaurant, open only for dinner, is one of the few places — maybe the only place — in Seattle that serves Haitian food, a Creole cuisine with French and African influences. Thoughtful explanations of the food are given on the menu. For instance, griyo, a marinated pork cutlet, is described as a popular street food, eaten at night in Port-au-Prince; Pumpkin soup was traditionally a special dish eaten on Sundays by slave owners but is now eaten by all Haitians as a way of commemorating freedom from slavery; Conch, or lambi, is considered an aphrodisiac in Haiti, and slaves blew into conch shells as a way of communicating from one plantation to another.
Haitian cooking makes liberal use of garlic, shallots, peppers, coconut milk and seafood. All entrees at Waid’s — most cost between $10 and $13 — come with rice, fried plantains, and pickliz, a kind of Haitian cole slaw. The most popular dish is taso, goat marinated with garlic, onions, pepper and clove.
In Haiti, Sainvil said, eating in restaurants is not common. Most cook at home or buy food from street vendors. A meal of chicken is a blessing, goat a relative luxury. The average Haitian relies heavily on beans and rice, more so now.
Spend just a few minutes talking to Sainvil, or read his restaurant’s Web site, and you realize he is a deeply philosophical and spiritual man. He writes on the Web site of his disillusionment, as a boy, of the Episcopal church, and his “awakening,” about the nature of God. He espouses love, tolerance and inclusion. In the spirit of love, he makes clear on the Web site, no one is allowed to eat or drink alone at his establishment. He will make sure you have company.
“We human beings are about to realize who we are,” Sainvil said. “We are all connected as one. We don’t need to, quote, die to share love with one another. I say quote, because I don’t really believe in death… We have a tendency to wait for a catastrophe to show love.”
This week, Sainvil started the Erzulie Haiti Relief Fund, named for the Voodoo goddess of love. He does not expect to collect millions or help millions. He plans to send the money he collects directly to people he knows in Haiti: friends, cousins, nephews, others he is directly connected to. People can give at the restaurant or mail donations (see address below).
“The rainy season is around the corner,” he said. “People need tents. I noticed big organizations are not doing much besides giving people water and rice. I wanted to start a grassroots thing that sends money directly to the people who need it.
All of Sainvil’s immediate family lives outside Haiti. But his father, who still frequently travels there, was in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck, standing on a balcony. Even though the balcony collapsed, he was lucky; had he been inside, he would have died, Sainvil said.
“I know how poor Haiti is already,” he said, “and I know it’s going to get worse now. Once the eyes of the world are gone, the people will be forgotten.”
If you go: Waid's Haitian Cuisine & Lounge, 1212 E. Jefferson St., 206-328-6493. Hours are 5 pm to 2 am, seven days a week. Donations to the Erzulie Haiti Relief Fund can be made at Waid’s, or sent to 11814 12th Ave. South, Seattle, WA, 98168.
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