Mike Lafaille: the rising star of Caribbean cuisine

Mike Lafaille

If you’ve ever had the chance to visit Kwizinn, you know it’s an extraordinary experience, infused with refined Caribbean flavors and a lively atmosphere. Behind this success lies the inspiring story of Mike Lafaille, a self-taught chef who has overcome numerous challenges to carve out a prominent place in Montreal’s culinary scene.

A Remarkable Journey

Born in Haiti, Mike Lafaille immigrated to Canada with his father after the devastating 2010 earthquake. He began his career in healthcare before making a decisive shift to the restaurant industry in 2013 by joining O’noir. Diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration, Mike found the inclusive environment of this restaurant, where meals are served in complete darkness, perfectly suited to his skills and disability. He worked there as a waiter and maître d’ until 2017. “Psychologically speaking, it’s very difficult to work in an environment where you are the only person with a disability. At O’noir, I was surrounded by about fifteen colleagues who were blind or visually impaired […] it helped a lot,” Mike emphasizes.

A Passion for Cooking

In 2016, Mike started looking for other opportunities but encountered difficulties due to his visual impairment. It was then that he and his partner Claudia Fio made a bold decision: to open their own restaurant on St-Hubert Street. This small 30-seat eatery, initially intended as a part-time venture, quickly became their main occupation, leading them to quit their respective jobs to fully commit to it by 2017.

“Cooking has always been my passion. As a child, I cooked a lot with my aunts in Haiti,” Mike explains. Self-taught, he surrounded himself with Claudia and their families to develop Kwizinn’s unique flavor palette, rich in spices and aromas.

Facing logistical challenges at Plaza St-Hubert, they decided to move their establishment to Verdun, where Mike had lived since 2016, before the situation became critical. “Verdun has always been a neighborhood I love for its small village feel; I still live there today […] our lease was expiring, and we couldn’t find anything else in Verdun,” he explains. Thus, they decided to take over the former location of Chez L’Épicier. Here, his cuisine evolved into a more modern, refined, and eclectic style. Despite losing some regular customers, Mike and Claudia saw this transition as an opportunity to realize their culinary aspirations and introduce innovative dishes. “What we do now is completely different from what we offered when we arrived in Verdun. After seven years, I needed to renew myself and push my limits. When a Caribbean chef opens a restaurant, there’s an expectation to cook typical childhood dishes, but that’s not what I want to do anymore,” says the chef. Indeed, in his new location, Mike breaks the mold with an evolving menu that combines vibrant Caribbean flavors with local artisanal products. He takes risks and continuously pushes boundaries, enriching Montreal’s culinary scene day by day.

A Committed Chef

Mike Lafaille is not just a talented chef; he is also an active advocate for workers’ rights and involved in various causes. His journey, marked by resilience and courage, proves that limits are often self-imposed. The pandemic has changed the labor market dynamics, and Mike observes that despite the difficulties, opportunities for people with disabilities in the restaurant industry are more abundant today than before.

When asked about his future, Mike responds: “I have big plans. I don’t know exactly what’s coming, but I always have lots of projects. I dream of having a rooftop terrace for my restaurant. Maybe I’ll retire with my food truck.” By the way, if you come across Kwizinn’s food truck, don’t miss the maple and scotch bonnet fritters (!).

After this wonderful conversation with Mike, we learned that his favorite ingredient in cooking is the scotch bonnet and that his favorite restaurant in Montreal is Street Monkeys. But most importantly, we discovered that he is an example of determination and passion. His journey shows that even in the face of great challenges, it is possible to achieve your dreams. With a supportive community behind him, Mike continues to redefine Caribbean cuisine in Montreal, one dish at a time.

Photography by Alison Slattery

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