When the doors to TiGeorges’ Chicken closed earlier this year, it was a big loss not only to the local Haitian community but also to the culinary landscape of Los Angeles. For nearly 15 years, the eponymous owner of the institution not only spitfire-grilled some of the best rotisserie chicken in town, but also served up a taste of Haitian culture.
Inside chef George “TiGeorges” Laguerre’s old Echo Park restaurant was a custom-made spit that could hold up to 18 birds at a time. It was a spectacle watching the fowl slow-cook over a pit of burning avocado wood. Making the chicken also required a laborious process. Laguerre would marinate the bird in garlic, chives, citrus juices, and apricot wine. The meat would be spiked onto the metal spit, where it would rotate over the fire for an hour and a half. Then it would go into a cooler so the “flavor of the smoke basically marinated the meat,” Laguerre says. The final step was throwing the chicken into the oven for another hour and a half along with more marinade and oils.
The result was succulent, fall-off-the-bone chicken, which when paired with Laguerre’s iconic ti malis hot sauce, and pikliz — a spicy and tangy cabbage-and-carrot slaw — over a bed of rice, it made for a perfect marriage of flavors.
Laguerre says that back in the day in Haiti, it was a special treat when locals would make chicken at the beach. It wasn’t quite the same process that he used in his restaurant, but they would partially cook the bird a day before the outing and finish barbecuing it on the sandy shores. “The reason for that is because back then we didn’t have any refrigeration, so things had to be preserved in a certain way so that the following morning you won’t end up having a meat that was not suitable to consume,” Laguerre says. If you go to a certain part of Haiti today — in the countryside, specifically — you’ll still find Haitians using that same cooking approach.
The spit-grilled chicken wasn’t the only main attraction at TiGeorges’. The meat was accompanied by a flaming ti malis sauce, a spicy concoction of scotch bonnet and habanero peppers, onions, thyme, olive oil and key lime juice. “The spices are something! We don’t play with that — it has to be spicy,” Laguerre says, “And that’s what gives it that extended flavor.”
There's a fascinating story behind each of Laguerre’s dishes, as detailed in his memoir, "No Man is an Island", which was coauthored by his friend Jeremy Rosenberg. In the book, Laguerre recounts how an early customer stepped into his restaurant and asked for the Haitian ti malis sauce to accompany his meal. Laguerre wanted to impress this man but was embarrassed that he had never even heard of the traditional Haitian condiment.
What Laguerre did recall was that in Haitian folklore, there was a childhood story about two guys named Bouki and Malis. Bouki, who wasn’t very bright, would be outsmarted by Malis, who would play tricks on him. Laguerre knew “ti malis” meant “little malice,” and says he realized, “It’s supposed to be a sauce that when you taste it, it’s ready to burn you.” On the fly, he whipped up the spiciest sauce he could. The customer loved it and ti malis ended up as a staple on TiGeorges’ menu.
Laguerre gives credit to his grandmother for sparking his passion for cooking. She would take him to the open-air markets in Haiti as a child, showing him what to buy and how to cook. “I didn’t go to the culinary school Le Cordon Bleu that people do in America, but in my case it was my grandmother who was Le Cordon Bleu and taught me how to cook.”
Ever since Laguerre closed TiGeorges’ in April after his landlord sold his building, he’s moved back to his native Haiti and spends his time between the island-country and Florida, both places where he has family. He’s been busy with his family’s coffee business, and selling his own products like spicy peanut butter made with scotch bonnet chilis, and jars of pikliz. Laguerre is currently in talks with the Little Haitian Cultural Center about opening a full line of restaurants in Haiti and Florida.
What Laguerre fondly remembers the most about TiGeorges’ was how Haitians who lived in L.A. found the restaurant to be a central community space. “Living in Los Angeles for 10 years, there was never truly a Haitian restaurant [except for mine],” Laguerre says. The impetus for launching the restaurant was out of love, “to create an environment where my people could come and socialize and also to spread and promote the Haitian culture,” he says. And he did that just right.