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Posts from the ‘Culinary Team’ Category

Executive Chef John Lee

John LeeFrom 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.”

John relaxing before dinner service.

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.

 

Chef Mary Kay Bader

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.

393252_2903186775303_477200100_nIn 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’s keen interest in local produce & farming helps frame her picture-perfect dishes.

“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.

All hail Mary Kay, queen of fish specials. And bananas.

 

Sous Chef Andre Ramirez

Andre’s experience in Belize kitchens includes around six years with the Maya Beach Hotel Bistro.

Andre2A true leader, Andre sets the bar for the kitchen staff. Under pressure, with waiters pressuring and John stressing, Andre somehow manages to keep the peace and ensure that every dish coming from his station is made with the utmost care.

Andre realized at a young age that tourism was a growing opportunity on the Peninsula, and he decided to pursue a kitchen job. He likes the behind-the-scenes action. Prior to the Bistro, Andre worked at Roberts Grove, and then spent a year getting his own Garifuna-Creole restaurant off the ground. He enjoyed that challenge and learned a lot about restaurant management in the process, but decided to advance himself by learning more about contemporary cuisine at the Bistro.

Both Chef John and Chef Mary Kay are impressed with Andre’s dedication to his craft.

“You can always count on him to be there, and that the job is always done right,” John said. “He is very open minded and take his responsibility seriously.”

Andre says that’s the same attitude he recommends to young Belizeans trying to get a foot in the door.

 

Pastry Chef Shawna Duncan

One of the best decisions John ever made was to hire someone to take over the baking and desserts. While John enjoys that aspect of the kitchen, he was running short of hours once we started getting busy.

ShawnaIn comes Shawna. Smart, pleasant, with an incredible touch as a baker. While never growing up with breads like baguettes, ciabatta, or bagels, she quickly grasped the intricacies of these and executes them remarkably. Not only are they gobbled up in the Bistro, they are also sold to people who just want some nice bread to take home.

Shawna had some baking experience prior to the Bistro, at another resort restaurant in Placencia. This job prepared her with a lot of skills, so at the Bistro she has been able to take on some advanced responsibilities, including the nightly desserts and special-occasion breads and cakes.

“Shawna is a key player on our team,” says Chef John. “She deserves a lot of credit for the food coming out of the Bistro.”