The very first Chef Creole opened on N.E. 77th St. and N.E. 2nd Ave. in 1992, when its founder Wilkinson Sejour was just 22 years old. Though the original location was consumed by a fire in 2000, Chef Creole has continued to thrive. Since then, Sejour and his business partner, the late Jude Pierre, opened up restaurants all around Miami. Sejour’s goal is to connect with varied communities — taking his uniquely Bahamian/Haitian style of seafood all over the city, and hopefully, one day, the world. And he seems to be succeeding. The front lobby at the iconic 54th Ave., location in the heart of Little Haiti, is consistently packed, and the colorful outdoor dining room is a lunchtime favorite for many. We sat down with Wilkinson Sejour, Chef Creole himself, to learn a little bit about how he created the beloved eatery.
Did you always know you wanted to open a restaurant?
Believe it or not, I’d never been a chef before opening this restaurant, but I grew up cooking. When you’re raised in Haitian traditional household, part of surviving was learning how to cook. You learn how to scramble eggs, make doumbreys, which are dumplings. But all these things we were cooking at home just to eat. I never envisioned I would be in the restaurant business. I actually wanted to be a musician — I played drums when I was in school. After I graduated from Miami Beach Senior High, I knew I didn’t want to keep going to school. But my parents had zero tolerance for that. Either I had to further my education or do something else that would justify not going to school. My partner Jude Pierre’s parents shared similar sentiments. We thought if we opened a business, we could be self-sufficient — so we got to thinking. We thought “Everyone’s gotta eat. Let’s open a restaurant.”
What experiences prepared you for that?
My partner worked as a busboy for Shell Seafood and I had limited background in the business. My grandfather opened up the first Haitian seafood market in Miami. It was on N.E. 2nd Ave. and it was called Father and Sons Seafood. I remember when I was 8 years old, making $5 a week working the market. I’d scale the fish, clean the showcase, put ice in the bins, and mop the floors. So this is where my business sense actually came in.
When did you open the first restaurant?
My grandfather, of course, helped us out. He gave us a little bit of money to get started. With his help, it took us almost a year from start to open. We opened our first restaurant when I was 22 years old. We started off doing a lot of festivals in the area, but we really did it all sort of off the cuff. We asked around the neighborhood where there was a place available for rent. Then little by little, we’d be buying used restaurant equipment from different places. When I think about it, it’s kind of crazy. I sometimes think “How did we open this restaurant? How did I even do this?” We didn’t have any professional carpenters or anything. We asked one friend who asked another friend and it was all built together in little bits and pieces. The first restaurant was on N.E. 77th St. and N.E. 2nd Ave. That one caught fire and burned down in 2000. But since then, we’ve opened all over Miami, and now we have five locations.
How is Chef Creole different from any other Haitian restaurant?
This is a Haitian restaurant in a Haitian neighborhood. Every Haitian can cook — so we’re were facing some stiff competition. We had to figure out what would make us different. I’m Haitian, but I was born in the Bahamas. My parents moved to the Bahamas before immigrating to the USA. I thought we could use that twist to our advantage. We applied the Bahamian concept, as far as showcasing the food, but then we had the traditional Haitian flavor. For example, for our conch fritters, the way we designed it is not traditionally Haitian — the conch fritter salad is a Bahamian design. But we added Haitian flavors — so it’s fried and well-seasoned. The taste is Haitian; the presentation is Bahamian. What that did was give us our own identity. Haitians came to us for a reason — they came for Haitian seafood displayed in a different way. I think when we really got big is when we crossed over to different communities. We had already captured the Haitian Americans. Now we wanted to move to other neighborhoods and service all of the Black American population.
What is your role in the community?
Sometimes I feel like I’m the government! I see so many voids in our community, especially with the kids. They are not getting the support they need as far as basic necessities — books, supplies, support, inspiration. I’m involved with the leadership of the Little Haiti Optimist Club. As vice president, I help get the computers and resources the kids need to have a positive place to go after school. I also go to schools and give talks, and a lot of times kids don’t expect me to look like I do. They expect someone more “vintage.” I think that’s important, because it shows them that they can work hard and succeed the same way I have. They think “Oh that person doesn’t look so different from me.”
At Chef Creole, we also do a yearly turkey giveaway — we give away almost 1,000 turkeys every year during the holidays. I also know a number of celebrities like Udonis Haslem, Dwyane Wade, Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, DJ Khaled, and Pitbull. Before they became famous, Chef Creole used to take care of them. Then, when big business executives came into town, I would cater their events. Now we partner to give back to the community with big charity events.
What are your aspirations for the coming years?
My dream is to have my pikliz sauce worldwide. The sauce accents the food really well — and I think that it is really the identity of Chef Creole. You can be in Tokyo and have this sauce and know that it came from this restaurant. I also want to have at least 50 stores under my purview as my restaurants grow.
I’m pretty hungry right now. What should I order?
Remember, our menu was crafted based on me being born in the Bahamas, but of Haitian tradition. Don’t forget — we said the concept was to sell conch, and of course, we did that for eye candy. When people see fresh seafood, it makes them want to say, “Give that to me with rice and plantains.” So that’s how we accommodated with our tradition, and the Haitian staples of rice and plantains. My favorite is dish lambí en sauce — that’s Creole for conch stew — that’s like Haiti’s bourgeois food. But what I eat everyday, almost religiously, is the stew chicken. I like my stew chicken with white rice. I also cut up some tomatoes and mix it up with spinach and add that too.