Chef Creole: How a Kid From Little Haiti Built a Seafood Empire
Wilkinson Sejour plunks his brawny arms on a paper-scattered desk, grins mischievously, and asks his buddy, who's smoking a blunt, to fetch him a Corona. It's a Wednesday at 11 a.m., and Sejour's cell phone rings every five minutes. When he answers, his words jumble Calle Ocho slang with Kreyol patois: "Oye, asereje, not now." "Bonjour, monsieur." "Alo?"
After six calls, he locks his phone, hurls it onto the table, and throws his arms up. Sejour -- a Haitian restaurateur, caterer to stars such as Jay-Z and Pitbull, and self-financed cooking show host -- smirks like a kid who gets away with everything.
"Sorry about that," he says. "This is just how I roll."
See also: Chef Creole's response to this review
Earlier that day, a light rain smacked West Dixie Highway and glazed Chef Creole's small parking lot. A woman, her hair coiled beneath a vibrant turban, approached me. I told her I was there for the chef.
"You five minutes early!" she blurted out. "He told you 10:30. He be here 10:30."
At 10:30, a silver Mercedes sedan puttered into the vacant lot. Sejour, a 43-year-old with a shaved head and glowing skin, emerged from the car's leather interior. He led me through his office -- three rooms cluttered with memorabilia: an apron signed by Magic Johnson and plaques from local schools thanking Chef Creole for sponsorships. Whether they refer to the man or the restaurant is unclear.
Chef Creole grew up poor and made it big -- cutting corners and walking that fine line between successful entrepreneur and street hood. How did a kid from Little Haiti, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami-Dade, build an empire without a college degree or help from the bank?
Sejour burst into thunderous laughter.
"This isn't an empire," he said. "This is a fucking nightmare."
Pikliz: a spicy mix of pickled shredded cabbage, carrot, onions, shallots and various peppers
Indeed, Chef Creole is a very busy man. He owns five take-out restaurants from Miami Gardens to Little Haiti, sells his signature sauces online, and has 13 kids -- with only his wife, he makes very clear.
But when Sejour graduated from Miami Beach High School, he never imagined food would become his life. In his early 20s, Sejour, who was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents but relocated to Miami as a child, teamed up with his brother, Jude Pierre. They bought a grill and began cooking Haitian food at festivals. When their mother told them to choose between attending college or launching a business, they opted for the latter. "Everything is arithmetic. You don't need school to make money," he says.
In 1992, the brothers borrowed cash from their granddad and friends to open the first Chef Creole. Located on NE 78th Street, the restaurant operated like a cheap take-away joint focused on volume, not overhead. Six months after opening, it was grossing more than $4,000 per day. The restaurant was a hit.
But five years later, tragedy beset the family. Jude Pierre passed away. In mourning, Sejour and his business became stagnant. The restaurant neither shrank nor grew. Then the chef immersed himself in a test kitchen to search for a signature Chef Creole flavor.
Eventually, Sejour struck gold. He mastered a blend of seasonings with Scotch bonnet peppers, onion, and spices. He bottled it and promoted it as a new product. Sales swelled. With the extra money, he debuted more restaurant locations.
An employee at Chef Creole.
Despite the shabby settings and bargain prices, celebrities such as Atlanta hip-hop act Goodie Mob raved about the spot's fried snapper, griot, and stewed oxtail. Entertainment executives took notice. In 2006, Sejour and Major Minerz, a local production agency, began filming cooking shows about Caribbean fare.
So when the Food Network came to town for a casting call, Sejour auditioned and made the cut. He says he flew to New York, charmed the bosses, and received a 30-page contract. The network offered him $50,000 for a cookbook and $4,000 per episode. But they also wanted the rights to the four episodes Sejour had already filmed with Major Minerz -- at no additional price.
Beneath all the numbers, a bigger problem also lurked. Signing with a major network meant Sejour would have to watch what he said, how he acted, and whom he called friends. "If I'm at my friend's house and the feds walk in there and arrest everybody, then I got to explain what to who? Because you're some big network? Because my public relations is shitting bricks? Ah, fuck you. I ain't got time for that shit," he says.
There's more to his reasoning than just camaraderie, though. The outspoken cook's criminal record includes marijuana possession, three counts of disorderly conduct, and one felony charge for child abuse. He bats away the felony allegation thusly: "The cops [had] nothing 'cause I didn't do nothing." And indeed, that charge, filed in 1997, was dropped in 1998. "Yeah, I've gotten in trouble a few times," he says. "But nothing's ever stuck 'cause I'm too slippery."
Armed with an offer from the largest food channel in the nation, he says he weighed his options and issued a bombastic counteroffer: $80,000 for each of his old shows. The network's answer was no. (Food Network declined to comment on its negotiations with Sejour.)
Despite the failed negotiations, the cook continued filming his own show, Chef Creole's Seasoned Kitchen. The pilot features appearances by Vivica A. Fox, Alonzo Mourning, and Dwyane Wade. Tropical tunes, swaying palm trees, and beachside babes in bikinis introduce his cooking segments, which were filmed on location in Key Biscayne, Morningside Park, and the Dominican Republic.
The sign at Chef Creole.
But Sejour's brash character and murky past never reveal themselves on air. When he's in front of the camera, he channels Emeril Lagasse. He's sunny, lighthearted, and seemingly very different from the brazen guy he really is. Though he deems the venture a success, in 2009, after a dispute with his production company, he gave it up.
Sejour's hiatus from the small screen did not last long. Travel shows from across the globe began calling him for cameos. Eddie Huang, a New York chef and Fresh Off the Boat host for Vice, featured Sejour on his show. On Travel Channel's No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain described his visit to Chef Creole as "an example of food being the best expression of a place and personality." Although Sejour loves the attention that the exposure gives his brand, he also complains these guys don't pay him a cent.
What makes him money are his relationships. Questioned about finances, Sejour answers ambiguously.
"What do you think rappers were doing before they became rappers? You think the bank gave them the money? Come on. Every strong business has had its innuendo of associations with this or that: racketeering, dope, smuggling people, anything illegal. I grew up in a community where I'm always associated with these people."
After 20 years in the business, Sejour is growing tired of all that "bullshit." He hopes to franchise restaurants and take a step back from his eponymous brand.
"People get this perception that I'm so in love with these restaurants, but I'm not. The things I've done, the things I've gotten myself involved in, the opportunities -- well, it's been a great ride. But now, really, I'm just burned the fuck out."
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.
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