In the Kitchen: Chef Randre Jean of Café de Marco
By JENINE C. OUILLETTE
12:02 a.m., Sunday, March 23, 2008
Cafe De Marco
244 Palm Street, Marco Island, FL
When he was growing up in Haiti, Randre Jean enjoyed fishing but he loved cooking the fish he caught even more. He always dreamed that some day he would come to America and cook seafood in a fine dining restaurant like the Café de Marco.
“From the time I was a little boy I loved to cook,” declared Chef Randre Jean. “We were a large family — seven boys, including myself, and two girls — and I was always helping my mother in the kitchen when I was growing up in my hometown of Fort Liberte in Haiti,” he said, noting that Jean was his family name and Randre was his given name. Nevertheless, many people, including a few of the staff at Café de Marco where he's been working for almost 10 years, still mistakenly call him Jean, thinking it's his first name.
Chef Jean recalled he was still pretty young when he was working in local Haitian restaurants. On his days off he still liked to go fishing to catch snapper or trap soft-shell blue crabs when they were molting in the shallow bay waters. Then he would come home and think of different ways to prepare his catch.
“One day, I remember I dusted the crab with fine bread crumbs and deep-fried it, but I didn't care for it. So next time, I sautéed the soft shell crab in a little olive oil with some fresh garlic then de glaze the pan with fresh lemon juice for a sauce,” he explained.
“That was one of my favorite dishes that I introduced at the restaurant where I was working at the time. It became one of our most popular menu items when soft shell crabs were available — blue crabs usually molted (shed their shells) around the time of the full moon.
“In Port au Prince, while I was at the university studying bookkeeping, I worked in several resort restaurants to support myself. We (the cooks) would challenge each other to see who could come up with the best dish and the other cooks would be the judges. If I was the best whoever I challenged would try to best me and I, of course would do the same if they challenged me – it was a game we played among ourselves in the kitchen,” he recalled.
Chef Jean mentioned that he always liked to cook seafood. In Port au Prince, located on the west coast of Haiti, there was an unlimited supply of all kinds of fresh seafood available in local waters, including langouste (Caribbean or warm-water lobster that lacks claws) that was popular with the restaurant's patrons.
“One of my favorite ways to prepare it was curry. I would sauté a few shallots in butter and de glaze the pan with fresh coconut milk. I'd then cut up the langouste and add it to the coconut milk mixture along with a good pinch of hot pepper and my special spices and serve it over rice pilaf. Sometimes I'd add diced custard apple to the mixture for variety.”
In 1986, after Chef Jean graduated from school, he decided to visit his mother who was now living in the United States. She left Haiti several years ago to move to the Bahamas and from there she moved to the United States.
“I wanted to get away from Haiti and the political unrest at the time, and also because some of my siblings had moved to the States — I wanted to see how it was for myself and maybe look for employment,” he related. Adding that he first came here on a visitor's visa, but found that things had really changed in Haiti when he went back in 1987.
“I was able to return to the United States in 1988 because my mother had applied to immigration for me to come here – at the time she was living in Naples and working as a seamstress. I got a job at Michelbob's and started at the bottom of the kitchen ladder. After working there awhile, I'd also been observing, and I saw where I could improve my status and I requested training so I could move up to line cook,” said Chef Jean, adding that one of Michelbob's chefs took him under his wing and he entered their training program and trained for a year and continued working there until 1991. During his Michelbob's years he was also attending night school classes and learning English at Lorenzo Walker Vocational Technical School in Naples.
“I met my first wife there. She was enrolled in the GED program to get a high school diploma that would help her get a better job. Our relationship created two beautiful daughters, the oldest will be graduating high school in June and my 16-year-old is still in high school. They both live with me and my present wife along with our wonderful four-year-old son. I'm teaching my daughters to cook all my traditional foods,” Chef Jean explained.
He used to go fishing, but now he goes to a good fishmonger and gets a whole red snapper and cleans and scales it himself and occasionally one or both daughters will observe how he marinates the snapper with his own jerk spice mixture and lets it sit at room temperature an hour before he bakes the whole snapper in a hot oven about 20 minutes, depending on the size. He's also taught the girls to make fried green plantains and black beans and rice to serve with the snapper.
“While I was working at the Eagle Creek Country Club, I also worked at Giuseppe's on the East Trail but I didn't stay there long. At the back of my mind, I was still looking to be employed at a fine dining restaurant that specialized in seafood. That's how I came to the Café de Marco.”
Through contacts he made on the island, Chef Jean found out that the Café de Marco was looking for a fine dining chef who specialized in seafood.
“I applied and was hired in March 1999. I started as sous chef and then when the executive chef left, I was promoted to that position,” Chef Jean explained.
He confided that some of the happiest moments of his career have occurred during the years he's been creating exceptional entrees at the Café de Marco.
“When I started working here, I incorporated many of my signature dishes into the menu as well as our specials using local shellfish and seafood like yellowtail. It's a very delicate fish that I like to prepare simply, encrusted with sliced almonds then pan-seared and topped with lemon chive butter sauce.
“I've always had a passion for cooking seafood, and here at the Café de Marco I can indulge in that pleasure everyday.”
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If You Go: Café de Marco, 244 Palm Street, Old Marco, FL, next to Olde Marco Inn & Suites. Phone: 239-394-6262
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