By Cathy Free
March 23, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Miami Beach has declared a state of emergency because spring break partyers have overwhelmed the city, but across the causeway in Miami’s Little Haiti, a very different scene unfolds: Each Friday night, a school custodian finishes her day job, then spends 12 hours quietly cooking for the hungry.
Doramise Moreau arrives at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church each Friday, where she stays on her feet deep into Saturday morning, pausing briefly for a nap.
There’s no one here dancing on top of a car tossing out fistfuls of cash. Less than 10 miles from South Beach, Moreau, 60, lovingly turns bulk-size bags of rice and beans and hundreds of chicken and turkey drumsticks into about 1,500 meals for people in her Little Haiti neighborhood who might not have enough to eat.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you go home and rest? Why don’t you sleep?’ ” Moreau said. “But I don’t need a lot of sleep. I would rather be here making food for the people. I ask every day for more strength to keep doing what I’m doing.”
She first volunteered to buy groceries with church donations and prepare a feast once a week, she said, when her pastor, Reginald Jean-Marie, mentioned that he was concerned about hunger in the community.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I can do this — I have the time,’ ” Moreau said. “When people are hungry, it is our responsibility to help. I know how hard it can be out there.”
People in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood gather to receive food and other donations at the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church. (Reginald Dorival)
Moreau grew up with nine siblings in Haiti and often took food from her family’s pantry to give to those who had less than her family did, she said. In 1980, she immigrated to the United States at age 19 and lived with her brother in Miami until she fell in love and started a family of her own.
When the relationship didn’t work out and she became a single mother, Moreau said, she took two hotel jobs to pay the bills and keep her four kids fed.
“Sometimes I had to leave them home alone and put my 13-year-old son in charge,” she recalled. “It was very hard, but we got through. To give my thanks to God for watching out for us, I am happy now to give back.”
For her first batch of meals last spring, Moreau made several enormous pots of rice and beans seasoned with her special blend of green and red peppers, onions, cilantro, bay leaves and garlic.
She has never used a recipe, relying instead on instinct and what she remembers from watching her aunt and sister cook in Haiti, she said.
“Who has time to measure? I just chop everything up and toss it in,” she said. “If you stop to measure, it looks like you are green at what you do.”
Not too much spice and not too much grease is Moreau’s only rule.
“If you add too much of anything, some people might not like it,” she said. “I want every single person to enjoy what I cook for them.”
Doramise Moreau, front left, works with volunteers to fill food containers for delivery. (Mischka Charles)
Although rice and beans are a mainstay, Moreau’s fried chicken, roast turkey, baked fish and fried plantains are also popular with the 1,000 to 1,500 people she feeds each week.
The meals are loaded into two delivery trucks and distributed on Saturday afternoons by volunteers who cruise slowly through the neighborhood in Little Haiti and hand them out to people as they come out of their apartments.
Volunteers with the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church deliver meals prepared by Doramise Moreau last year. (Reginald Dorival)
“Sometimes I go with them to deliver the meals, and it’s rewarding when you see how it helps,” Moreau said. “For some people, this might be the only meal they get for a while.”
Many of the people she feeds are Haitian immigrants, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, she said.
“American, Spanish, Haitian — I don’t want anyone to go hungry,” Moreau said. “People are suffering during the pandemic. There’s no work, the rent is high, they might not have money to go to the store.”
“This is just one meal,” she said. “But it’s something I can do.”
Monday through Friday at 6 a.m., Moreau begins her day at Lindsey Hopkins Technical College, where she works part-time as a custodian. She also receives a small stipend to handle the cleaning duties at her church, but she said her heart belongs to preparing meals for the masses on Friday night.
Jean-Marie, the pastor, urges Moreau to occasionally take off her apron and rest.
“I ask myself all the time how she does it,” he said. “Not once do I ever hear her complain. We have to beg Doramise to take a rest, but she keeps showing up, day after day. She gives everything she has.”
Moreau leaves pots of hot tea out every day at the church for the staff and police officers in the neighborhood who stop by, Jean-Marie said.
“She cooks for them sometimes, too,” he said. “She truly wants to take care of everyone.”
To make her tasks easier, community leaders presented Moreau with a new Toyota Corolla last month, purchased through the Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp.’s Wheels to Work program, which helps low-income residents.
“Such a wonderful surprise — I usually took the bus before, so I am very thankful,” Moreau said.
She will still need to use the church truck, though, to load up all of those turkey legs and plantains.
“To get all of that in my car? Impossible,” she said. “Whenever I go shopping and people see all that I buy, they ask me, ‘Do you own a restaurant?’ ”
Not a restaurant, she said. But a community kitchen a short drive from the glitz and spotlight of Miami Beach, though seemingly a world away.
“It’s one where everyone is welcome,” Moreau said. “Everyone. No exceptions.”