He was running a few minutes late, but once Chef Ron Duprat arrived at Whole Foods' Lifestyle Center on Saturday night, he got right to business.
Scuttling through the door in his bright red Birkenstocks, Duprat introduced himself and apologized for being late. "I'm on Haiti time," he said with a grin.
Then he hit the kitchen immediately, prepping whole filets of Chilean sea bass for a dish of jerk sea bass with vanilla rum butter. This would be the second time many of the 30-odd people in attendance would see Duprat cook the dish -- before that, it nearly won him a quickfire challenge on the first episode of Top Chef Las Vegas.
For the next two hours, Chef Ron cooked as he fielded question from the crowd on his upbringing, his chops in the kitchen, and what it was like being on Top Chef (well, as much as he could say).
One thing you'll notice about Duprat right away is his affable nature. He's got a big, warm smile and a hearty laugh that echoes throughout the room. As he joked about the size of the crowd being small (well, half-joked), Duprat started in on his background. He was raised by his grandmother in Haiti the slave of a French family. It was from her that Duprat developed his love for cooking.
He picked up a boniato, known in Haiti as a sweet yam, and placed the softball-sized tuber in the palm of his left hand "My grandmother made [boniato] almost every day," he said as he peeled the tuber. "I swore when I came to America that I'd never eat one again. But I make them all the time."
In Haiti, Duprat attended school in Port-au-Prince. In 1986, revolution came to Haiti, and Duprat was forced to return home with his grandmother. It was then, surrounded by his grandmother's loving, French cooking, that he decided he wanted to be a chef. But there was a problem. At the time, there was a belief in Haiti that men could not be chefs. "We weren't allowed in the kitchen," said Duprat. "In Haiti, everyone wants their boys to become doctors. I was told I couldn't be a chef. But I didn't care. I wanted to do it."
With no money or possessions, Duprat decided to come to America and pursue his dream. He found a boat that was leaving Haiti and spent the next 27 days on board in a struggle for survival. "Every day was a Sunday," he joked. Amazingly, Duprat survived the trip. He landed in Miami, homeless, penniless, and unable to speak a word of English. All he could think to do is try to contact relatives that lived on the west coast. Eventually he reunited with his uncle, who brought him to Immokalee to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. With his foot in the door, Duprat worked hard and eventually got a shot at working in the kitchen. His employer saw enormous potential, and sent Ron overseas to study classical French cooking. When he returned, he worked at the restaurant for five more years before heading to the CIA.
From there, Ron worked hotels and clubs across the United States. He cooked at the exclusive Montauk Yacht Club in the Hamptons for seven years before landing a job as executive chef with the Hollywood Beach Marriott where he operates his restaurant, Latitudes.
Duprat spent about seven-and-a-half weeks in the Top Chef house, where he survived six episodes. Nearly two weeks ago, the Haitian-born chef was excised from the house, in part by a guest judge, Miami's own Michelle Bernstein. As Duprat whisked butter into a pan of reduced vanilla rum sauce, he talked about what it was like to leave the show. "That was my favorite part," he said with a boisterous laugh. "When they said 'pack your knives and go,' I was so happy, let me tell you."
Not that Ron was unhappy on the show. He says he was simply homesick. "I didn't tell anyone where I was," he revealed. "The hotel, they thought I was on a world tour, in Africa or somewhere. I didn't tell family, friends, nobody, because I wasn't sure who I could trust, and I don't have 10 million dollars."
He did have some good times there. His favorite experience was cooking for the troops one episode. "When you look at someone who just came from Iraq, and you get to cook for them, it's very emotional," he said. It was the kind of experience that really resonates with Duprat, who appeared that night to raise money for FLIPANY, a local organization that deals with physical and nutritional education for children across South Florida. In addition to cooking at sponsored events, Duprat sits on the board as well.
He also said he had great times with some of the fellow chefs, particularly Hector Santiago, who left the show two episodes before. "We were roommates, and good friends," says Duprat. "We had these tiny beds and we were big guys. I broke my bed seven times! Hector would call me Baby Ron because I loved to sleep."
Duprat also confirmed that Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi is pregnant. "Yes, he is pregnant," he quipped, "and no, it's not my baby!" He did fall for another judge a little, however. "Gail Simmons is my favorite. She really knows good food."
As Duprat began plating his fish everyone clapped. The sea bass was served on a plate of diced boniato, sweet potato, and Peruvian purple potatoes, and was moist and delicate. Ron shuffled around the room with a bowl of vanilla rum butter and added extra dollops to some guests' plates. After everyone finished their food, Duprat stayed and posed for pictures and even signed some autographs.
Even with the small crowd, Duprat seemed to enjoy himself. "If we could get 50 people here, I'd do this every week," he said with a laugh. "We could do a lot for FLIPANY."