Born and raised in beautiful Dangriga, Belize, Chef Sean Kuylen’s passion for the kitchen was nurtured by one of his greatest influences, his mother. Appreciation of Belizean cultural cuisines was fostered from a young age and later fused with other styles when he ventured abroad in 2004. Educated in culinary arts and hospitality studies in San Francisco, Chef Sean has amassed an impressive and diverse portfolio ranging from unique restaurants (Cliff House, San Francisco), to high volume resorts (Disney World Epcot and Wilderness Lodge) and high-end boutique properties in Belize (Hamanasi and Ka’ana) and Dominica (Rosalie Bay Resort). Chef Sean says in Belize, there is a conscious effort on the environment and sustainability of the country’s resources, and is an exciting time to be a Belizean Chef.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Dangriga Town in the Stann Creek District, Belize. Dangriga is located in the South of Belize and is predominantly a Garifuna community. Garifuna, also known as Garinagu, are descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent, exiled to the Honduran coast in the 18th century and subsequently moved to Belize. The food of the Garifuna is mainly fish, crab, coconuts, plantains and cassava.
Who or what inspired you to become a chef?
As far back as I can remember, I loved being in the kitchen. It started from making breakfast on the weekends, trying to make the perfect omelette and sunny-side-up eggs. I also remember trying to bake from a Betty Crocker Cookbook my mom had in the kitchen. My first cake, made without any measurement or recipe, had all the right ingredients I thought it needed at the time like flour, egg, milk, butter but the end product was so dense and inedible. It was only later my mom told me I forgot to add baking powder. When I asked my mom for recipes, she would always say, ‘no tienes Scienca’ – ‘it is not science’. She is right because although cooking can be scientific at times, is comes from the heart.
How did you become interested in cuisine?
My interest in Belize cuisine began only after leaving my country to pursue my culinary education in the United States of America, when I started to appreciate food and the culture of food. I would learn a cooking technique in class and immediately think of a local substitute in my country. Basic applications such as roux (fat and starch) in French cuisine can be applied to Maya method of cooking corn tamales where they cook corn masa (starch) with pork lard (fat) to make what is known as Tamal Colado. Similarly, the Garifuna and Creole make a seafood soup called Tikini and Matilda Foot respectively where coconut oil (fat) and flour (starch) is used to thicken the rich seafood broth of fish head and crab cooked with coconut milk and plantains. The French use butter, potato and heavy cream and call that same soup chowder. We use coconut oil, coconut milk and taro root and cassava and it also may be technically called chowder, with the only difference being that ours is better. After making these discoveries, I became intently interested in cuisine especially local Belizean Cuisine.
What makes Belizean Cuisine unique and special?
Belizean cuisine is always fresh, guaranteed. I know many countries and chefs may like to use this term for marketing purposes and it can be cliché, but Belize cuisine is always fresh because we really do cook from the sea, the land, and seasonally. Some First World countries have the ability to import produce and protein from thousands of miles away, across the world in frozen containers and vacuum sealed packages. We cook in-season as there can’t be avocado, lobster, conch or mango on the menu when it is not in-season or growing on the tree. It is just not possible. This is what makes Belizean cuisine absolutely amazing.
Can you tell us about any farmers you work with, from who you buy your ingredients?
I have a special and very personal connection with a farm called Kuhnamul in the Village of Boston, Belize District. Kuhanamul is a 100 percent organic and is a result of Jonathan and Amy Canton’s hard work. I always enjoy cooking their heirloom okra, tomatoes, mescalin lettuce mix, summer squash and variety of peppers such as poblano and habanero.
How do tourists receive your food?
I do a lot of destination wedding catering and I often communicate with tourists visiting Belize. Contrary to popular belief of many restaurateurs and chefs, tourists travel to experience the culture and food of a country. In the past, the menu of the day in Belize often imitated Italian and French cuisine. These days, my best selling point with tourists is always about local cuisine and produce. My ‘wow’ ingredients continue to be cassava, ripe plantains cooked in coconut oil, guava, mango and the freshest snapper, spiny lobster and conch from the Caribbean Sea in dishes using local cooking technique and spices.
What is your personal mission?
My personal mission since my return from culinary school to Belize has always been to showcase local ingredients, dishes and culture. I continue to prove local cuisine is worthy of a white tablecloth dinner setting, despite what was previously believed. Many Caribbean and Central American countries in our region tend to believe foreign is better. Imported meats and ingredients used to be perceived as superior to local manufacture and produce. My personal mission has been to reverse that thinking and I have since coined the term ‘Inspired Belizean Cuisine’. I use learnt culinary techniques and present it as a contemporary and gastronomical experience while preserving a sense of place and #kulcha.
Can you tell us what you are most excited about right now?
I am most excited about the new laws and legislation currently taking place in Belize, which may be small in size and population, but is trending and on-par with other nations, making a conscious effort to conserve the environment and use resources sustainably. In April 2019, Belize officially introduced a ban on all single use plastics and Styrofoam. Oceana Belize has recently legislated a ban on any and all offshore oil drilling in Belize preventing the possibility of catastrophic damage to our barrier reef and vibrant seafood economy. The Government has also expanded the fishery and forestry reserves for no hunting and fishing, and Belize continue to enjoy sustainable fishing and game with strict implementation on seasons and no take zones and periods for conch, lobster and game meats. Currently, we are in the process of implementing a Fish Right, Eat Right initiative rewarding restaurants and chefs for supporting fisher folk who abide by our laws. I am also very excited to see how agriculture and produce has changed over the last 10 years. No longer are we heavily dependent on neighbouring imports, but are now growing our own food and have now started to export our milk, orange, sugar, banana, lobster, conch, papayas and shrimp to name a few products. It is indeed an exciting time to be a Belizean chef.
Can you share your favourite Belizean recipe?
Belize is home to many Cultures namely Maya (Ketchi, Mopan and Yucatec), Garifuna, East Indians, Mennonites, Creole and Mestizo. My favourite dish is Relleno Negro, which originated with the Mestizo/Maya Yucatec peoples.
Relleno Negro meaning black stuffing, is made from the black recado, a paste made from burning of the corn tortillas and blending it with charred spices and habanero peppers forming a black paste. The Mestizo of Northern Belize eat this dish with corn tortillas and is popular for New Year’s Day Celebrations.
4 pounds chicken
1 cup onion
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons epazote
2 tablespoons oil
2 pounds ground pork
1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons allspice
4 tablespoons black recado, dissolved in water
6 hardboiled eggs
2 whole eggs for binding
Ground Pork Preparation
Sauté the onions, garlic, and epazote in oil. Season the pork with salt pepper cumin and allspice and dissolved black recado paste. Sauté in hot oil until fully cooked. Remove from heat, cool and mix with two eggs to hold the meat mixture together. Portion in balls, flatten in in the palm of your hands and add the yolks of the hardboiled eggs in the middle. Fold over and close the ball.
Dissolve the remainder of the black recado in water with eight cups of water in a large stockpot. Add seasoning, the chicken and the pork balls to the stock. Season to taste and simmer for one hour. Serve this spicy chicken and pork dish with fresh corn tortillas.
Follow Chef Sean Kuylen HERE on Facebook.