Jean “Roody” Salvator earns extra income and exposure for his Makaya Catering business when he plans special “pop-up” dinners in Salt Lake City.
But these one-night events have a higher purpose — to give the self-taught cook an opportunity to share the foods and stories of his native Haiti. “Every pop-up," he said, “I try to tell a story with cultural significance.”
During his next dinner, on Oct. 27, he will tackle one of the most misunderstood parts of the culture: Voodoo and Day of the Dead. It begins at 6 p.m. at Ember SLC, 623 S. State St., Salt Lake City. Tickets are $75 per person and must be purchased in advance at www.eventbrite.com.
Hollywood and pop culture, Salvator said, inaccurately portray Voodoo as painted-faced witch doctors, wielding control over people by pricking pins into handmade dolls. The stereotype has fueled misconceptions about the actual religion practiced in parts of Africa, Haiti, New Orleans and other Caribbean locales.
“It’s not black magic. It’s not devil worship. It’s a religion that preaches what other religions do,” he said, including a belief in a Supreme Being, an afterlife and the Christian adage “do unto others.” It’s not uncommon for those who practice Voodoo to also consider themselves Christians.
Africans brought their traditions with them when they were forced into slavery and transported to the New World. As slaves, they were forbidden from practicing their religion but learned they could get around the restrictions by tying their gods to saints and rituals in the Roman Catholic Church.
“There’s a saying,” Salvator said, "Haitians are 90 percent Catholic but 100 percent Voodoo.”
For the past two years, Salvator has sold Haitian street food — think pulled pork and plantain sliders topped with pikliz, a spicy cabbage, carrot and vinegar slaw — at the Downtown Farmers Market at Pioneer Park, which ends Saturday, Oct. 20.
Utah is a long way from the town of Carrefour, outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where Salvator grew up as the youngest of six children. “For the first half of our lives, things were tough,” he explained. “Our father worked for the state and earned $1 a day. He lived away and would only come home on the weekends.”
After the 1991 military coup that deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, conditions got worse. “My dad would go a year without a paycheck but was still required to show up for work,” Salvator said. “When the government got money, he would get his back pay.”
By 1993, when Salvator was 10, his mother left Haiti to work at resorts in the Turks and Caicos Islands, leaving his two teenage sisters to care for Salvator when his father was gone. The boy attended school, and “food was never an issue,” he said. “But that’s when I started cooking for myself.”
His mother ultimately sought political asylum in the United States and brought Salvator, who by then was 19, with her. His sisters arrived later. They lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Salvator became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He served a two-year mission and landed in Utah in 2008 but says he is no longer a Latter-day Saint.
It wasn’t until 2013 that friends persuaded him to go into the food business. “Our study group used to meet at my house,” he said. “We’d call it Sunday Dinners at Roody’s.”
He chose the name Makaya, the second highest mountain in Haiti, because it “has so much cultural significance.”
Like their Catholic counterparts in Latin America, Haitians celebrate Day of the Dead on Nov. 1, setting out food and beverages to remember their deceased loved ones.
Salvator said guests at the Haitian Day of the Dead event can expect to eat some of those specialties, served family-style. The menu includes Haitian appetizers topped with pikliz; a fried whole red snapper; roasted game hens served with pigeon pea spiced rice; and, because Haiti is famous for sugar cane, a cake made with Haitian chocolate. (Salvator’s Haitian hot chocolate has been a favorite at the Farmers Market this fall.)
“I want people to know about Haiti,” he said. “I want to introduce my culture through food” — mixed with a touch of Voodoo charm.