New Hampshire chef serves up Haitian-inspired sampler at 2023 James Beard Awards
Christopher Viaud has racked up his fair share of accolades. He was a contestant on Top Chef in 2021 and was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2022. Most recently, he was invited to serve food to the stars of the culinary world at the 2023 James Beard Award ceremony in Chicago.
Viaud has been known for serving up traditional Haitian cuisine with modern takes at Ansanm, a restaurant he owns in Milford. His second restaurant in Milford, Greenleaf, serves seasonal dishes with local ingredients sourced from farmers in New Hampshire. He also has a similar concept in Wolfeboro, with a restaurant called Pavilion.
When Viaud serves Haitian cuisine at his restaurants, he said he looks to educate diners and those in the kitchen on the complex palette of his heritage. For the award ceremony, Viaud didn’t miss the chance to show the depths of his culture to the main stage.
“It was an incredible experience having the opportunity to be surrounded by so many incredibly talented chefs who I look up to," he said. "And they continue to inspire me daily."
Viaud prepared enough food to plate 900 samplers for those in attendance — a process, he said, that started in New Hampshire and involved lots of planning and preparation. He said he had to consider when to start ordering products, how to prepare food to factor in cooling times for packaging and what will hold over on a flight.
“And then the whole other challenge is how do I bring the product with me?” Viaud said. “Do I ship it out there and risk it being lost or damaged? Or do I know that it's coming snug and just travel with many coolers to the airport and look like a crazy person trailing all these things behind you?”
Viaud went with a menu that would easily ship. He served confit pork belly in traditional Haitian spices, cooked in duck fat, served on a sweet plantain and cashew bread with pikliz – a spicy cabbage slaw.
As a contestant on Top Chef, Viaud said he learned a lot about how to present Haitian cuisine to a broader audience. He said he served Haitian dishes to the judges during two challenges in the competition. One went over smoothly, and he won a quickfire challenge using a dish he grew up eating. But the other Haitian-inspired meal didn’t pan out.
While he didn’t walk away a winner on Top Chef, he used the experience after the show to reset.
“After going through filming, that's when I wanted to take that step back and really learn more about the classic approach of the cuisine and not so much taking the modern approach until I could fully understand the flavors, the history, the techniques behind the cooking,” Viaud said.
Viaud said being part of the reality show cooking competition was challenging on multiple fronts: It occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests following the murder of George Floyd and wildfires on the west coast. He said it was also hard to be away from home and work for two months during filming, and at that point his first restaurant, Greenleaf, had only been open for just over a year.
“All those little things factored into one of the most stressful cooking competitions that you can imagine,” Viaud said, “being away from family, being away from your businesses, not knowing what's going on back home.”
Since then, Viaud has moved forward with a focus on building out his brand of restaurants. Within his restaurants, he said, he sees people who want to stay in the industry — and he wants to help them succeed.
“I'm just building the next generation of chefs and managers to kind of see the whole picture of restaurant operations,” Viaud said.
It’s been exciting, he added, to watch people who’ve worked in his kitchens or other parts of his restaurants move onto exciting new opportunities elsewhere.
“It brings me joy to know that by building these brands, I'm also building a legacy where these chefs or these managers, these bartenders, servers, have a story to tell by saying, ‘This is where I started my career, and this is where I've gone from there,’” he said.