Fri | Dec 14, 2018

Haitian cook making his mark in Washington

Published:Thursday | April 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM
In this March 2, 2018, photo, Jean Fredno Occenc, Walla Walla Community College culinary student from Haiti, attends a cooking class at the school in Walla Walla, Washington.

WALLA WALLA, Washington (AP):

How a Haiti-born cook, Jean Fredno Occenc, got to Walla Walla, Washington, enrolled in the town's community college, is a tale of far more than destiny.

It's a story of one Tri-Cities family and their unexpected urge to change at least one life.

Occenc, known as Fredno to family and friends, is currently enrolled in the culinary arts programme, where he recently started working with Asian cuisine.

Like many children, Occenc loved ball sports, notably soccer and basketball. As he grew into an age to be helpful, however, his aunt pulled the boy into the family's restaurant to prepare parts of meals, he said.

The head chef at the restaurant took note of the youth's natural skill and eagerness to learn. He encouraged Occenc to begin cooking the breakfast menu.

As soon as he got a new job in the Dominican Republic, he coaxed Occenc to join him.

Occenc then became the breakfast cook in a modest Dominican Republic inn, and he felt he was back on track to pursue his dream to cook around the world.

Enter Janene and Barry Bush. In the summer of 2015, the Tri-Cities couple headed to the Dominican Republic to support their son, Brady, who was attending a baseball camp hosted by Washington State University.

Along with daughter Cassidy they saw a place that advertised food made by a celebrity chef but that individual though, was out for surgery.

In his place was Occenc, who enthusiastically cooked from dawn into the cocktails-on-the-beach hour.

By the second day, the cook had the family's preferences nailed down.


Inner drive


Baseball camp lasted 10 days, and Occenc became more familiar to the Bushes each day. Barry and Janene learnt of the man's driving desire to educate himself in the world of fine cuisine.

Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) seemed like the perfect fit, the couple agreed. Janene said she volunteered to start the student visa process.

The roadblocks to get Occenc into the country were enormous. An immigration attorney gave them slim odds of succeeding, the Bushes recalled.

"But nothing would stop that boy, let me tell you," Janene said. "So we kept researching how to get people here and into school."

Through all the many obstacles, Occenc has excelled. Jay Entrikin, interim director of WWCC's Wine Country Culinary Institute, works with Occenc in the kitchen and classrooms.

The Haitian's positive attitude and sharp aptitude causes others to naturally want to invest in him, Entrikin said.

"He has the technical cooking skills and he has the attitude and work ethic. You can teach cooking but you can't teach that."

Occenc is loving his time in the culinary department. Future plans include cooking in New York, France and beyond, the director added.

Janene said Occenc will be part of the Bush family forever.

"He's our kid. We're responsible for him. We want him to succeed," she said.