DB: Who is your greatest influence in the kitchen?
SK: It may sound like a cliché but definitely my mom. No matter where I work, I still call and email her for tips, suggestions and cooking techniques that have been in our family for generations. Then I try to put my spin on them.
DB: Where does your creativity come from?
SK: Sometimes I get ideas while traveling, sipping on some Orange Walk dark rum or even when I’m sleeping! To understand my food and creation process is to first understand my thought process…I do nothing ordinary…which makes my food extraordinary. I think of my Belikin Stout Dominica confit of gibnut tucked in homemade pasta ravioli, drizzled with a gastrique of vinegar, Burrell Boom blackberry wine and hibiscus petals. Another dish was inspired while shopping at a West Indian farmer’s market. Here, cinnamon is sold as a six inch bark of the cinnamon tree, locally known as Spice Wood. I took the bark and arranged shrimp, imported from Southern Belize, and grilled it with some butter on a traditional oil drum BBQ pit. I was amazed at the dramatic result and smokiness that the wood imparted on the shrimp. I presented it to the guests while the bark was glowing red and smoking with an intoxicating cinnamon aroma, drizzled with some local Dominican Soca Rum & ginger reduction. This dish assaults the senses in a way that Anthony Bourdain would call, “Food Porn.” It is that sexy!
DB: What is it about Belizean dishes that make them sexy? Unique?
SK: Belize and her cuisine are extremely unique because she has dual citizenship: Central American and Caribbean. As a chef I first identify foods that are reflective of the multiple influences and cultures of Belize and then I play mad scientist as I merge, fuse, intermarry and flirt with their respective ingredients to create dishes that by right can still be 100% uniquely Belizean. Imagine taking the cacao of Punta Gorda and making a Central American inspired chocolate mole and cooking it with Placencia-harvested shrimp served over Orange Walk Mestizo-inspired corn dukunu. How about pairing Garifuna sere, a rich traditional coconut seafood broth, with Toledo’s East Indian curry spices creating a curried coconut seafood explosion with hints of yard grown wild basil and habanero? I have also played with the concept of ganache, melted chocolate and cream, by substituting coconut oil for the cream. By understanding the properties of the coconut oil and its tendency to solidify at cooler temperatures, I ladle this rich aromatic and shiny coconut chocolate ‘ganache’ over freshly churned craboo gelato. Immediately the coconut oil reacts with the cold gelato creating a craboo coconut chocolate “Magic Shell.” Garifuna and Mestizo cultures intermarry with my darasa with pibil concept, which is a grated green banana and coconut milk tamale, topped with slow braised underground cooked annatto puerco pibil. Like the San Ignacio bollo, the tamale is steamed in smoked banana leaves and finally served garnished with a Hopkins “number 11” mango emulsion. Are those not uniquely Belizean?
DB: How do your international diners respond to your creations?
SK: Belizean and Caribbean cuisine are definitely being sought after by adventurous guests and my job is to merge cultures and give them authentic and exciting Belizean-influenced creations—even if it is cow tongue tacos, a morcia blood sausage omelet, termites, jute snails, ground rosemary gibnut burger cooked in cohune oil, smoked deer salpicon with sour orange and mango pico de gallo or chicken liver pate on toasted cassava bread.DB: With your success in the kitchen, you’ve become an ambassador for Belize…how have you done that with food?SK: I often say to my mom, “Imagine this is happening to an ordinary little Belizean like me.” So when I present food to guests, I become historian and storyteller. I transport Belizeans back to childhood memories when wangla seed or candied coconut cutobrute hit their tongues. I take visitors on a culinary tour of Belize with my corn dukunu, onion escabeche, chicken bollos, curried cohune cabbage and cassava sahou. One can visit Xunantunich, taking photos and creating memories, but I give visitors a Maya “artifact” to savor. I always give guests tips on how to make Belizean food…even if all they want to know is how to make good old rice and beans. You see, sharing ourselves, sharing our culture, sharing our cuisine…that is truly Belizean.
For mouth-watering seconds of Chef Kuylen, visit www.growingagreenerworld.com to watch him teach celebrity chef Nathan Lyon how to cook chayote squash and gibnut.
by Chef Sean Kuylen
Boil up is a Belizean Kriol dish where ground food such as potato, coco, plantain, cabbage, sweet potato, yams, okra, and cassava are all boiled as a one pot meal served with pigtail, coconut rice, flour dumplings and spicy tomato sauce. My version takes all the flavors and elements of the traditional Boil Up and condenses them into one finger sized bite. This is achieved by cutting small bits of the pigtail meat off the bone and combining it with similarly tiny cubes of the ground food along with nothing more than a teaspoon of fluffy coconut rice. All this is then carefully rolled and tucked into a square of cabbage leaf that has been blanched in the pigtail water. The cabbage fingers are then garnished with the traditional tomato puree and are served as an upscale gourmet hors d’oeuvre. I assure you, this one little finger food combines all the elements and connotations of a huge plate of Boil Up. To date, this is my most adventurous and successful re-creation of a Belizean favorite…condensed to fit in the palm of your hand and served in a white tablecloth setting.