WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Chris Viaud has a lot on his plate.
In March, he took over Pavilion, a fine dining restaurant in Wolfeboro, just a few months after opening Ansanm in Milford with his parents where they serve Haitian food inspired by the family’s heritage.
But he said navigating the 70-mile distance between those two towns — and the kinds of cuisine — is energizing, not exhausting.
At 32, Viaud is bringing new flavors and a new dining experience to New Hampshire. And his efforts here are already receiving recognition. In 2022, his other Milford restaurant Greenleaf was nominated for a prestigious James Beard award, often likened to the Oscars or the Emmys of dining.
While he didn’t win the finalist award, Viaud said it put him on the map. “That was a motivation for me to continue, to just push myself and keep grinding even though I knew that I didn’t get the finalist,” he said. “People are watching and people are realizing and I’m just going to keep going at it.”
Viaud grew up in Randolph, Mass., a suburban town about 15 miles from Boston, as a first generation American. Both of his parents immigrated from Haiti as teenagers and met while attending Northeastern University. The family’s ties to the Haitian community remained strong there.
“I grew up in a very proud Haitian household, with a lot of family around,” he said. “And food, of course, was at the center of it all.”
Rice, beans, and plantains were household staples, as was epis, a Haitian seasoning of parsley, garlic, scallions, onion, bell pepper, and habanero, mixed with lime juice and olive oil. Viaud said one of his clearest memories from childhood was sitting on the kitchen floor and using a mortar and pestle to grind the spice blend.
His mom, Myrlene Viaud, remembers that, too. Of her four children, Myrlene said, Chris was the only one who took an interest in her cooking. “Chris was always the curious one in the kitchen, wanting to see what I’m doing, helping me around,” she said.
For Myrlene, food was a way to keep her family connected to their Haitian culture. “It was important to me not to lose where I came from,” she said. “We’d never lose sight of who we are or where we came from. And a lot of that, the way to hold onto it was through our food and our music and our language,” she said.
The early years of Viaud’s career took him away from Haitian food. He has only recently returned to the flavors and dishes that marked his childhood, to learn more about his heritage cuisine, and to start introducing it to diners in New Hampshire.
When he was 15, the family moved to Londonderry, N.H., to be closer to Viaud’s father’s workplace in Andover, Mass., where he worked as an engineer. The family also hoped the New Hampshire town would provide a better lifestyle for the family, he said.
“It was a very big culture shock moving from Randolph to New Hampshire,” Viaud said. “I was, I think, one of eight black kids in my class out of 470-something.”
As a junior, Viaud decided to apply for culinary school. He attended Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island, where he met his future wife, Emilee Viaud, who now works with Viaud as the executive pastry chef at Pavilion. And he met the professors who encouraged him to apply for jobs in New York and Boston. That led him to Deuxave, the Boston restaurant where he spent the first three years of his career after school, steeped in French culinary traditions.
Viaud quickly climbed the ranks there, starting at the bottom and working his way up to eventually become the restaurant’s sous chef.
“Working in that kitchen taught me how to be humble,” he said. “It taught me good work ethic, patience, precision, dedication, and most importantly how to, I guess, build and develop flavor repertoire.”
That’s a skill he took with him when he decided to start a venture of his own. In 2018, he toured New Hampshire venues, eventually finding an old bank building that became Greenleaf. He built relationships with farmers to source local food and grew a staff he trusted enough that he could leave for months at a time to compete in season 18 of “Top Chef.”
Filming with the other chefs from diverse backgrounds was a turning point for Viaud, helping him realize he could focus on Haitian cooking even in a primarily white state.
Viaud said the other chefs told him, “It doesn’t matter where you are. If you’re in New Hampshire, and you want to do Haitian food, there’s only one way you’re gonna find out if it works or not, so give it a try.”
When he returned from filming, that’s what he did. During the pandemic, he convinced his mom to start a weekly cooking class for him and his siblings to learn her recipes and techniques. His mom watched her son’s evolution with interest. She described it as an “aha moment” after Chris saw other people using their own cultural background.
“I think that awakened something in him,” she said.
Her husband, Chris’s dad Yves Viaud, agreed. “Chris realized, ‘Oops, there’s something that I lost,” he said. “So when he approached us about doing it, I thought it was one of the best ideas he ever came up with.”
Before long, the family was working on pop-ups, using Greenleaf’s kitchen, and serving Haitian food to-go to the community.
According to Myrlene, “That’s when everything kind of took off.”
The family discovered that Granite Staters had an appetite for Haitian food. “We just kept getting more and more people that wanted the food,” she said.
Before long, Viaud surprised his parents with a location for the new family restaurant, and Ansanm was born. It means “together” in Haitian creole.
“It was about bringing the family together and community together for a shared dining experience, learning about the cuisine,” Viaud said.
For now, Viaud and the other family members agree: the food has been doing just that.