I knew Maudeline Pierre Louis, simply referred to as "Maddy", was a unique and special woman after a mere five minutes of speaking with her.
In fact, I asked for five minutes of her time and she gave me well over an hour - an hour spent reflecting on her childhood in Haiti, chatting about her journey to Harrisburg, relating her current goals and aspirations, and of course as any good hostess would do, feeding me.
During that hour, I watched the strength and resolve of her body language melt away into pooling eyes when the topic approached either of her two greatest passions; helping people in need and the success of her modest establishment, Maddy's Authentic Caribbean Cuisine.
There is nothing selfish about the success she wishes for her restaurant, which opened earlier this year. Wealth, though nice, is not of concern to Maddy. In fact, she just wants to make enough money to once again - help people in need.
"My brothers, my sister, nieces and nephews," she relates with somber determination. "Since the earthquake it hasn't been good at all and I want to help them. I feel responsible to help them. I need to help them."
Maddy arrived in the United States thirteen years ago to carve out a better life for herself and her family. She lived in Miami for a while and attended Hillsborough Community College in Tampa. Following her graduation, she made her way north and made Brooklyn, New York her home for a time. Five years ago, she arrived in Harrisburg, determined to own her own business.
As we chatted, Maddy reflected on her past as a child in Haiti. At twelve years of age, she would help her mother cook in their kitchen, learning techniques passed down for generations. And when it was time for her mother to go into town, Maddy would assume the role of woman of the house - cooking, cleaning and caring for her four brothers. Quite a responsibility for someone not yet in their teens.
She first delved into the restaurant business by running an authentic Caribbean food stand at the Broad Street Market in Harrisburg.
I actually remember it well, though I didn't make the connection until Maddy mentioned it to me. I recalled enjoying her lunches on numerous occasions thinking between swallows, "This woman really needs to open a restaurant."
And that is exactly what she did.
Considering each of us has spent considerable time in New York City where diners are definitely more adventuresome than here in the mid-state, I was compelled to ask, "Why here and not there?"
"If I were in New York, of course I would expect to do better," she explained, "But at the same time, I don't think I could have had the place I have now because it is very pricey there. And it's nice here."
Another obstacle she tries to help her guests overcome is fast food versus her food. She does this through making customers aware that everything is made fresh and to order. Her mother and aunt are on hand to help out in the kitchen, but other than that, Maddy is a one-woman show - cooking, waiting tables and running the business end. But in my opinion, it is absolutely worth the wait.
"I am passionate about my cooking and I love it, " she stresses, "I dedicate myself to my kitchen completely. When I get here in the morning it takes a lot of time for me to prep because I do everything from scratch. I use only fresh ingredients and everything starts from there."
She wasn't lying. She showed me the freshness of the ingredients she uses to concoct intricate dishes from scratch every single day, whether people come through the door or not.
To many restaurateurs that practice would seem wasteful; to Maddy, it's the only way she knows to deliver the type of product she feels necessary to build a customer base and keep them coming back. She adamantly clings to the notion that through awareness, patrons will come to appreciate her efforts to offer them a great meal.
And it is indeed, just that. And there is no lengths she will not go to to emphasize that to the consumer.
One thing she is doing is having showcases built to display her menu items.
"I think people here like to see what they're ordering, especially with unfamiliar food. I hope this will help them make good choices and see what they are eating."
And that's not all she's doing to promote her establishment.
"I'm planning to offer free cooking classes here. Mainly because I'm selling you something and I want you to know all about my product. I want to tell them my kitchen is open to anyone."
I like that. Maddie is essentially opening her kitchen to all and showing exactly what she does. Complete transparency.
I also think most would find her approach to food quite pleasing if they just give it a shot. The ingredients you'll find Maddy utilizing are not much different than those in your own kitchen - peppers, onions, carrots, beans, pumpkin, chicken, shrimp, pork - to name a few. The only difference is that they are prepared in an authentic Haitian manner.
I looked over the menu and saw a few familiar items like Chicken kabobs, Shrimp kabobs and Barbecue Pork Ribs.
There were what I term, "Haitian entry level" options like Curry Chicken, Jerk Chicken and Tassot Poulet which is fried chicken tossed in Haitian spices.
For me? Well, I explained to Maddy I have an advanced palate when it comes to Caribbean fare and am open to anything and everything, authenticity being key. I loved the fact that she learned to cook from a young age and decided to test her prowess requesting something as authentic as she could dish up, whether on the menu or not. She didn't blink.
In short time, she arrived at my table with something she called, Mais Moulu a Feuille. I am no student of French, but knew it had something to do with corn (mais) and a leaf (feuille).
I tasted it and tried to discern the individual flavors of the dish. Outside of the polenta-like texture which immediately gave away its base ingredient as corn, the answer eluded me, but in a good way.
You see, with many elements similar to a fine orchestra where each instrument embellishes and elevates the whole as a single entity, so it was with this dish.
It's uniqueness was unlike anything I've tried, and quite pleasant.
I related my thoughts on the dish and asked what it contained. She didn't just tell me, but rather, brought the ingredients out to me in their uncooked version. Peppers, onions, scallions, carrots, avocado, callalo (the leaf of a specific Caribbean plant similar to spinach) and corn meal… oh, and one surprise ingredient I would never have surmised - bacala. Yes, that's right, salted cod fish.
I had to taste it again. This time I sought out the specific flavor of the cod and still could not discern it, nor a trace of salt. So delicate was her preparation that I did not even know it existed in the dish. Masterful!
With that said, I gave her a few final compliments and bid her "adieu". I knew I should be on my way, as not to overstay my welcome.
In retrospect, I found Maddy endearing and her purpose noble; I also enjoyed her restaurant immensely and will stop in every chance I get.
If you are a conservative eater who longs for something just a little different from time to time; something prepared with freshest, healthiest ingredients available, Maddy's Authentic Caribbean Cuisine is worthy of a try. And for those like myself who tend to swim in the deeper end of the tasting pool and long to experience a bit of authentic Caribbean flavor right here in the mid-state, then Maddy's can be termed our "hidden gem".
829 State Street
Lemoyne, PA 17043