FARGO - The air conditioning was on full blast at Dieunane Auguste and Roody Souverain's apartment on a recent warm September evening. Even so, the warmth here was undeniable.
Maybe it's the colorful Haitian artwork adorning the walls or the couple's smiling faces as they escorted guests to their elegantly arranged dining room table. But more than likely, the warmth comes from the food on that table - colorful, slightly spicy and full of flavors many of us have never tried, but are not likely to forget.
Auguste, who goes by "Chef Dee," and Roody Souverain recently opened Manje, a Caribbean fusion catering business in Fargo. After just two weeks in business, it's "so far, so good" for this couple who started life in Haiti, but strategically planned to make their dreams come true in Fargo.
Origins of a dream
Both Dee and Roody were born in Haiti, but moved to New York City as children. They met as ninth-graders at a Brooklyn high school, but reconnected as adults.
Roody earned his master's degree in finance and worked for Verizon for a time and as a consultant. Dee worked in fashion and in the medical industry, but found the most satisfaction from creating the dishes she remembers as a girl growing up in Haiti.
"Every time, I'd cook for friends they would rave about it," she says. "I enjoyed it and eventually started catering in New York."
Roody, looking at Dee proudly, agrees. "She has an eye for beauty with food. She started building a following from the events she was putting together."
However, the couple longed for a change by 2016.
"We worked for some great corporations, but we wanted to carve our own path," Roody says. "We were looking for a slower pace and a higher quality of life."
As they began their research, they cast a wide net on where to move.
"We thought about the Dominican Republic for a time, but North Dakota kept popping up," Roody says.
He says the state's strong economy and low unemployment rate were a plus.
"It seemed like a hidden gem," he adds.
Dee began to look into whether a Caribbean-themed restaurant might work in the state and if so, where?
"We chose Fargo because it seemed to have this up-and-coming diversity," says Dee. "We thought, 'Well, we'll fit right in so let's give it a shot.'"
Not knowing a soul here, the couple packed up their belongings and moved to Fargo on Dec. 29, 2017.
"It was 28 degrees below zero," laughs Roody.
But the biggest surprise came when they tried to prepay for a tank of gas.
"I tried to give the guy at the gas station my credit card before we filled up and he just looked at me. In New York, you always have to prepay," he says.
The couple says they've been continually surprised by people going out of their way to be nice to them and help them as they try to build Manje, which is Creole for "food" or "to eat."
"We did not expect it to be this friendly here," Roody says. "People are willing to share information about everything, from who to talk to if we need something or even where to buy produce."
The couple starting making friends and networking in town, getting connected to Casey Steele's Square One Rental Kitchen & Events, 1401 First Ave. N., a commercial kitchen and events space in north Fargo where Dee could begin making her food.
On Aug. 29, they held a standing room only tasting event featuring smoked herring chiktay, soup du dimanche, jerk wings, legume Creole, pork, black mushroom rice and more. Dee worked feverishly to satisfy the diners while Roody smiled and shook the hands of everyone in the place - solidifying their belief that food is connection.
"Think back, when was the last time you were angry and eating at the same time? Or angry while eating with others? I would guess, not often," Dee wrote in a blog post on Manje's website. "The smell, the taste, the presentation of great quality food can hypnotize us to respond to each other in a more welcoming and loving manner."
Dee says the flavors of Caribbean food are a combination of the different ethnicities of people that have inhabited the islands from French to African to Asian, combined with native herbs, spices and fruits and vegetables like plantains, sweet potatoes and more.
"It's definitely spicier than what you're used to, but everything is in moderation and we can work with you on that," says Dee.
As a child, Dee's father always emphasized the importance of eating natural foods and respecting the lifecycle of the food they ate, she says. Today, she hopes to use natural foods and flavors to tell a story.
"My vision for Manje is to be the gateway for great quality Caribbean food in North Dakota. I see myself as an ambassador of my culture to introduce others to a taste of the Caribbean while encouraging dialogue to yield acceptance and unity that may not happen otherwise," she wrote in a blog post.
Dee and Roody will only accept takeout orders on Fridays and Saturdays through their website, www.manjefargo.com, for the month of September. But the two hope to eventually hold more events at Square One. They're also looking for a space to open their own restaurant.
Seven months into carving their own path in a strange new city, they say it hasn't been glamourous or even easy. It's meant hot days in the kitchen, getting burned and doing dishes, but they say they wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're starting to see clients coming back for more and that feels good," says Dee. "It's been worth every minute of it all, every minute."