We didn’t win one of the eight coveted awards handed out by the Belize Tourism Board this year, but we were nominated in two categories (“Restaurant of the Year” and “Hotel of the Year”). Winning “Restaurant of the Year” twice in the past really made us proud, and now we have something to work toward again. Congratulations to our friends at San Ignacio Resort Hotel, Splash Dive Center and Vanilla Hills Lodge, and all the other winners too. Next year? Who knows? Like they say, it was an honor just to be nominated.
Posts from the ‘Bistro’ Category
Wine Spectator editors announced the 2016 Restaurant Award Winners on July 6, and once again the Maya Beach Hotel Bistro was a winner (and the only restaurant in Belize to date to ever receive this award).
We try to keep approximately 150 different wines on our list. Our emphasis is affordable, good quality wines that work well with our menu of seafood, spice, and tropical flavors. A majority of our wines are imported directly, but we also choose some from local distributors.
Check out restaurants.WineSpectator.com and search. You’ll find us!
There’s also a free Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards app for iPhone and iPad. You’ll find us there too, and also in the August issue.
John Lee had been our chef since we opened in 2004. He and Ellen created the menu, updated it along the way, and managed every aspect of the cuisine and operations of the Bistro as it grew. But the hours John was putting in increased right along with the business.
In 2011, we decided to bring in a short-term consulting chef to give John a break, help upgrade the kitchen, and generally improve our organization. This was really successful, and late in the same year we invited Mary Kay Bader, an experienced chef and trainer from the United States, to see what she could do to help us develop things even further.
Wow, what luck to have found her! Mary Kay quickly grasped our concept of “tropical comfort food” and started working with our all-Belizean kitchen crew on new specials and eventually new menu items that fit brilliantly within our menu. Creative fish and shellfish specials have been flowing out of the kitchen. New menu favorites have emerged. Our wait staff have it super easy – everybody’s happy!
“Mary Kay has more experience as a chef than I have,” John says. “Plus, she has so many skills and creative talents. Our kitchen crew are like sponges, learning so many new ways to use the fantastic local ingredients that we have. Mary Kay has a way of teaching by doing and they all have a lot of respect for her. So do I.”
While Mary Kay has trained at cooking schools in the USA and abroad, like John, she didn’t decide to pursue a career as a chef right away. After attending University she took a position as a social worker. Of course that’s a skill that comes in handy at the Bistro too…but we won’t go in to that right now.
As a trained chef working in Denver, Colorado, she gained some teaching experience at a culinary school in the city and also spent nearly 10 years at one of the consistently best restaurants in Denver — Potager. There, she was one of the key members of the team of chefs, putting her creativity and sense of taste (in more ways than one) in to every dish.
While Mary Kay missed out on the Bistro’s first Restaurant of the Year award, she was certainly a major contributor to our second award and all the accolades ever since.
All hail Mary Kay, queen of fish specials. And bananas.
It’s an honor to represent Belize in Wine Spectator’s annual Restaurant Awards issue. We consider it a challenge to find reasonably-priced wines to pour by the glass and offer by the bottle, given the high duties and taxes on wine imports to Belize. Our head chef Mary Kay and original food and beverage team of John and Ellen take the time to seek out wines that compliment our menu, and we train employees by involving them in tastings, service training, and wine research.
This is our second year representing Belize in Wine Spectator Magazine with an Award of Excellence for restaurant wine lists.
We have climate-controlled cellars for 4,000 bottles of wine. We research food-friendly affordable wines from all over the world, and import our own top choices, creating a wine list with plenty of selection between US $30 and US $60 per bottle, with a few moderately priced selections up to US $150 per bottle. Our wine list is also supplemented by some excellent importers/distributors in Belize, including Wine Divine of San Pedro and Premium Wines & Spirits of Belize City.
So cool, we just got notice of our 2013 “Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator Magazine. Approximately 3800 restaurants around the world won one of these awards, but we’re the only one in Belize, at least so far! We had to submit our wine list, menus, pricing information, and general descriptions of the restaurant and the principals involved. That’s kinda cool!
From childhood in Queensland, Australia, John helped his Mum in the kitchen. He’d watch her, help her set the table, help her cook sometimes, and even do the dishes! Well at the time, that’s because she told him to. But decades later, John took a turn off his career track which led him right to the kitchen again — this time because he wanted to.
After spending around 20 years studying and working as a telecommunications engineer for companies like Nokia and US West, John started thinking about doing something different with his life. (Fortunately, his wife Ellen was on the same wavelength). So the couple started looking in to a more relaxed lifestyle and a new business venture to sustain it. Once they realized they were destined to be hoteliers, John and Ellen practically drew straws to determine the division of labor. “You have to take care of marketing and reservations,” John said to Ellen. “And why don’t you be the bartender and housekeeper too.” Ellen replied “That’s fine, but that means you have to be in charge of maintenance. And the kitchen. I now pronounce you Chef Engineer John.”
So did John just figure out how to make a pizza or throw a burger together? No way! He had to go and complicate things by trying to create an interesting menu that was spiced for the tropics and priced for the locals. The Bistro opened with five appetizers, four main courses, a short bar menu and a few breakfast items. Early customers included a small handful of occasional hotel guests, and the odd neighbor who heard something was cooking at Maya Beach Hotel. Early comments from hotel guests about the eclectic, Caribbean-leaning menu and dishes like the Cacao Pork were enthusiastic, while retirees in the neighborhood insisted the menu would be improved with items such as all beef hot dogs and fried chicken.
John, Ellen and the Bistro stuck to their guns and eventually found a niche among tourists, Belizeans and expat customers. The “tropical comfort food” menu embraces Belizean tastes but embellishes them with less traditional flavor profiles. For example, starches like rice, beans and potatoes are found throughout our menu but are paired with original sauces such as watermelon curry or a coconut-papaya base. John puts his engineering skills to good use, testing combination after combination in search of culinary surprises.
My goodness, this is something we certainly didn’t expect. The Belize Tourism Board awarded the Bistro Belize’s “Restaurant of the Year” for the 2nd time. We can think of a whole lot of restaurants that deserve an award like this too, but we were lucky enough to be chosen again.
The 2012 awards presentation happened May 18th, 2013, out on a private island about an hour off the coast of Belize. Awards were presented in 9 categories, and Placencia businesses won 7 of them! That’s a big boost to our collective ego down here in the South.
Congratulations to the other winners as well.
- MAYA BEACH HOTEL BISTRO – Restaurant of the Year
PLACENCIA VILLAGE – Destination of the Year
PLACENCIA TOURISM CENTER – Hospitality Award
PLACENCIA LOBSTERFEST – Major Festival of the Year
TOUR OPERATOR OF THE YEAR – Splash Dive Center
SMALL HOTEL OF THE YEAR – Singing Sands Inn
FRONTLINE PERSON OF THE YEAR – Natalie (Chabil Mar)
A non-Placencia winner got the major trophy for Hotel of the Year, but that’s OK. They earned it! Chabil Mar was a close runner up, though! And we’re happy for Jerome who used to live in Placencia and work for Avadon Divers (Also awarded “Tour Operator of the Year” the last time)
- HOTEL OF THE YEAR – San Ignacio Resort Hotel
TOUR GUIDE OF THE YEAR – Jerome Williams
But it’s a good thing we’re better at cooking than we are at speech making…check out the YouTube clip:
The ride out to the caye on the catamaran was a lot of fun. Here’s one quick shot of John & Ellen before they got all nervous.
To our fabulous employees, THANKS VERY MUCH!!! To our amazing, regular customers, THANKS VERY MUCH!!! To our supportive and happy hotel guests, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!! And to the Belize Tourism Board, people on the committee, and those who depend on tourism for a living, we truly appreciate the honor and we promise to do our best to create sustained interest in Belize.
And this was a nice photo from Ambergris Today.
50 diners X 9 courses = 450 plates of food + 450 half glasses of wine = ± 1800 visits to the table by waiters. The Bistro staff performed marvelously, putting together what most repeat Wine & Diners called the best-ever. Chefs Mary Kay Bader and John Lee, and FOH manager Ellen Lee, spent a month working on ideas, tasting, and adjusting recipes. Then, they repeatedly selected and tried wines with each dish until complementary relationships were discovered. The final menu was published just one day before the event, but by then all seats had already been reserved.