I’ve never really had the desire to eat styrofoam, but last week, staring down at an empty, marinade-drenched to-go box, I faced an existential question: What would be harder to stomach, consuming this flavorful foam wholesale or letting all the marinade go to waste?
The marinade—a traditional Haitian seasoning base called epis that blends fresh herbs, vegetables, olive oil, and citrus juice—is the backbone of nearly every dish at Pierro ToGo, a Haitian eatery in East Durham that launched in early 2019 and, due to pandemic-era challenges, shuttered for more than two years before reopening two weeks ago.
As far as Haitian cuisine goes, epis is paramount, but like any good marinade, the mixture can only work half of the magic on its own. The other half, of course, comes from time.
Most dishes at Pierro ToGo require at least a day of preparation. Every meat on the menu—chicken, pork, red snapper—is marinated in epis for at least 24 hours before it hits the pan, and side items get a similar treatment; pikliz, a pickled vegetable relish, steeps in a spicy vinegar brew for weeks before being portioned into ramekins and served alongside griot, a classic deep-fried pork shoulder entrée.
Though most dishes share the same seasoning, the menu is far from monotonous, with epis acting as an aromatic grout for a complex mosaic of tastes and textures.
Owner Jethro Pierre learned the importance of marination from his childhood nanny, a Haitian woman who cooked him food while his parents were at work.
“One day, I saw her pouring marinade over meat, and she put it in the fridge,” Pierre says. “I was like, ‘I’m hungry right now.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, no, that’s for the next few days.’”
Then, like in a televised cooking show, she pulled out a tray of meat that had marinated overnight.
The child of two Haitian immigrants, Pierre spent his early years in Toronto, Canada, and moved to Orlando, Florida, at 13. As a young teen, he dreamed of becoming an FBI agent, but his parents didn’t approve of this career path, he says. Instead, hoping to set him on a different track, his mother pulled him out of school one day and surprised him with a visit to a nearby culinary arts school.
“Within that first hour, I fell in love with the smell,” Pierre says. “The clacking of the pans on the fire, the gas—it just ignited something in me.”
After graduating from college, Pierre spent nearly two decades climbing the restaurant industry food chain, working as a dishwasher at Wendy’s and a prep cook at Disney World before landing an executive chef job at the global hospitality company Aramark.
In 2016, seeking a change of pace after losing his parents and undergoing a painful divorce, Pierre moved to Raleigh and launched his own catering service while working a remote job as a French translator to pay the bills. A few years later he met Joe Bushfan, a celebrity bodyguard turned renowned Durham hot dog vendor who had recently closed his eponymous East Durham diner and converted it into a rentable commercial kitchen called Joe’s Commissary.
Bushfan, who tells me he was drawn to Pierre’s ability to “open up people’s palates, minds, and hearts” through Haitian cuisine, decided to make Pierre an offer: if Pierre moved his catering operation to Joe’s Commissary, Bushfan would allow him to open his own restaurant in the facility’s overflow room.
Pierre had some reservations about working in Durham—he’d only ever heard negative things about the city, he says—but after Bushfan explained the history and trajectory of East Durham and the area’s need for vibrant, community-oriented businesses, Pierre was sold.
When Pierro ToGo held its grand opening in April 2019, marking the launch of the first Haitian restaurant in the Triangle, Pierro knew that he’d picked a good location.
“I said, ‘There’s no way that this is the same Durham I’ve heard about,’” he says. “I’m talking about diversity: college students, police officers, people from the neighborhood. We had over 100 Haitians that came from all over. I was so shocked by the capacity of love that was shown. Right there, that’s when I fell in love with Durham.”
The restaurant picked up speed over the next few months, and by February 2020, both Pierro ToGo and Pierro Catering were going strong. We all know what happened next.
“When COVID hit, everything stood still,” Pierre says. “I had to do an inventory as to how I felt. And I felt depressed. I felt sad. The business was not working. Nothing was going our way.”
But it didn’t take long for the community to come to his aid, ordering food for small gatherings and outdoor events. With supplemental income from his translator job, Pierre was able to make ends meet and hang tight. Two weeks ago, two and a half years after that initial opening, he finally found himself in a position to reopen the restaurant for indoor dining.
Because Pierro ToGo, which has a staff of five, shares its facility with a handful of other businesses—mostly food truck owners who use the commissary kitchen for food prep—it faces some limitations. The restaurant only offers dine-in and takeout services Thursday through Saturday, with the rest of the week reserved for catering prep and other tenants. The overflow room, while generally reserved for the restaurant, is still part of a shared space, leaving little room for Pierre to hang his own decorations.
There’s also no signage that indicates the existence of Pierro ToGo.
But when you know what to look for—a large brick building on the corner of Angier Avenue and Driver Street, equidistant from Rofhiwa Book Café and Ideal’s Sandwich and Grocery—the entrance is hard to miss, and when flipped for dinner service, the space is charming, with chattering customers, four-tops draped in black tablecloths, and Haitian music playing through the speakers. With good company and a steaming plate of the griot, it’s hard to imagine a more fully rounded dining experience.
“Haitians are rich people,” Pierre says. “And when I say rich, I’m not just speaking about money or assets. I’m talking about rich in knowledge and culture and love and connection with people. That’s what we offer at Pierro ToGo.”
Pierre’s next venture—which adds a third branch to his blanket company, Pierro Foods—will be centered around education, with free cooking classes offered to anyone who’s interested in Haitian culture and cuisine.
Though Pierre is excited about the future, he’s not in a rush. For now, it’s back to business as usual, he says, and enjoying the moment. He’s happy to marinate in that for a little while.
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