WALLA WALLA — Jean Fredno Occenc seems destined to be in Walla Walla, at least for this season of his life.
How a Haiti-born cook got here — and enrolled in Walla Walla Community College — is a tale of far more than destiny, however. 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 WWCC’s culinary arts program, where he recently started working with Asian cuisine. Which is fine, delicious and all that, but it’s the foods of the Republic of Haiti that enthrall this chef.
“How to prepare seafood” was Occenc’s topic for a two-minute, impromptu speech in Bobbi’s Hazeltine’s oral communication class one recent morning.
Hazeltine was handing out speaking topics based on what she knows about each student, but an unrehearsed speech on anything is a hurdle to overcome for the job market, the teacher told her 7:30 a.m. class.
Occenc, the third student to stand at the lectern, was nervous. Although he speaks four languages, English is a recent addition.
A few seconds is all it took for the 26-year-old to warm to his subject. With his hands dancing, Occenc explained cooking fish with the perfect spices and temperature to get rapturous results. Couscous, he added, is the right side dish for this meal.
This reverence, this love for food, has shaped Occenc’s life in ways no one could have foreseen. That includes being in Walla Walla, for reasons that began two decades ago.
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.
“And when I did that, I found out I loved to talk to people, you know. I loved to socialize,” 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.
That chef knew a good cook when he saw one; as soon as he got a new job in the Dominican Republic, he coaxed Occenc to join him.
It wasn’t a hard sell, Occenc conceded. Going to a new country offered the chance to expand his horizons, including learning Spanish.
Recipe for success
Occenc understood from an early age that higher education would be the only ticket out of the poverty that besets his country. According to United Nations estimates, nearly 60 percent of the population in Haiti lives impoverished lives. And nearly half of those fall into the “abject poverty” category.
Occenc’s family, for example, shared a kitchen with five families and hauled the household’s water. A typical wage for an uneducated worker is $5 for an 8-hour shift, he said.
When Occenc’s father died, the poverty point was brought even closer to home. Upon his dad’s death, Occenc had to leave home to live in his uncle’s house.
By the time he was the breakfast cook in a modest Dominican Republic inn, Occenc felt he was back on track to pursue his dream to cook around the world.
One day, he knew, he would return to Haiti with the credentials to work anywhere. And someday he would have a restaurant of his own.
Enter Janene and Barry Bush. In summer 2015, the Tri-Cities couple headed to Dominican Republic to support their son, Brady, who was attending a baseball camp hosted by Washington State University.
It looked like the ideal opportunity to snag an unplanned family trip, including taking along daughter Cassidy.
The camp was taking place in Boca Chica, a small town “full of prostitution and drugs,” she said. “I was very scared, to be honest.”
Online, though, there appeared to be a safe shelter available. “Village on the Beach” offered rooms for $57 a night and advertised food made by a celebrity chef, she said.
“And the minute we walked in, they were so welcoming and wonderful,” she said. “It was this little oasis.”
That touted chef, though, was out for surgery. In his place was a young Haitian fellow with a wide smile 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, Janene Bush said, still marveling.
“Fredno would get up at the crack of dawn to make Brady breakfast. Fredno was getting up early and doing all this stuff and they paid him just pennies,” she said.
Even with a different currency and economy, it was basically indentured servant’s wages, she said.
Baseball camp lasted 10 days, and Occenc became more familiar to the Bushes each day. Barry and Janene learned of the man’s driving desire to educate himself in the world of fine cuisine.
Walla Walla Community College seemed like the perfect fit, the couple agreed. The school is known for its culinary and viticulture programs, the campus is not too far from Tri-Cities, and the Walla Walla community is friendly, they assured their friendly cook.
Janene Bush said she volunteered to start the student visa process.
“I pinkie promised I would see what I could do,” she said. “I said ‘I am not rich, but I can look into it.'”
It was like peering into the abyss, the family would discover.
Janene Bush, a middle-school teacher, and Barry Bush, board president of Benton Public Utility District, see themselves as middle class and “decently educated.” Even so, 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 Bush said. “So we kept researching how to get people here and into school.”
Washington State University turned out to have an intensive English program Occenc qualified for — at $15,000 — opening the door for a student visa. The Bushes paid for everything out of pocket, including Occenc’s rent at WSU, and had to guarantee they could afford the college tuition.
This, for a young man they only laid eyes on for 10 days.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Janene said. “I just felt like I was supposed to. I’ve never been the kind of person to do this … I just felt called to do it.”
The Bushes learned tuition for international students at the community college is triple the standard fees. By the time Occenc graduates, costs will ring up at about $36,000.
Under the terms of a student visa, Occenc is only allowed to work 20 hours a week. Currently he cooks at a local Thai restaurant, but being hindered from working more drives him crazy, he said.