As the sun hangs low in the sky, the Itz’ana beach is once again transformed into an intimate waterfront dining experience designed by one of the most innovative chefs this side of the Atlantic. Mara Jernigan describes herself as a chef, farmer, environmentalist, and born again tomboy. She is the visionary behind Limilita, our pop-up restaurant in Placencia, and a true sea-to-table devotee.
We managed to steal a few moments of Mara’s time before last weekend’s event to ask her what drives her sustainable cooking ethos…
Q: How important is sustainable food to you?
A: Working with local sustainable ingredients is paramount for me, not only because it is the right thing environmentally but also because the flavours are superior. Farm to table is how I’ve cooked for over 25 years and I just can’t imagine doing it otherwise!
Q: What made you excited to launch Limilita?
A: The idea of a pop-up on the beach was very exciting to me. I love cooking with fire and right from the start we incorporated a fire hearth and a wood burning oven into the design. Sourcing fresh produce each week from the San Ignacio market and the gardens at our sister resort, Ka’ana, gave us a way to showcase hard-to-find ingredients that are unique to this region. It’s been fantastic having the chance to cook with my son Julian again, who just came out of 3 years in Montreal working for Toqué! and is very creative. It really is a chef’s dream: my own tropical food lab!
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you have in sourcing food for your kitchen?
A: One of the biggest challenges is trying to get Belizeans to understand that North Americans don’t want processed, imported food or winter vegetables like potatoes, carrots and broccoli on every plate. A Belizean’s everyday meal is a North American’s exotic delicacy! To eat a fresh mango in season, see vanilla growing, taste a new vegetable like chaya, cassava or cho cho is just about the most exciting thing for any locavore foodie. I once had a pastry chef who had worked with chocolate his whole life moved to tears the first time he tried fresh cacao. Belizeans should be proud of their unique local foods, and we are working to make that happen.
Q: How do you see the organic food movement progressing in Placencia?
A: Placencia is becoming a great town for foodies, though the country as a whole is still a little behind in recognizing what today’s culinary tourist craves. Belize’s largest certified organic crop, cacao, is mainly exported. As more foodies flock to Belize, demand for local organic products will change this tide.
Q: Are there any local delicacies that people wouldn’t expect to find in Belize?
A: Heart of Cohune palm, star apple, lychees and soursop are some of my favourite seasonal foods. One day I was delighted to discover a bush that I had walked by every day for months was actually sesame! It was loaded with seeds (which the Belizeans call wangla) that I promptly collected for use in our kitchen.
Q: You always have adventures while collecting ingredients for your creations. What’s your favorite story?
A: One of my best days in Belize was hunting for blue land crabs in the mangroves with a bunch of guys down in Toledo. During the month of June, close to the full moon, these crabs come out of their holes and you can go through the bush and catch them with a hook stick, a machete and a flour sack. You will never see these crabs on restaurant menus, it’s a local food enjoyed by Belizeans at home. But I love to cook them and make a salad with arugula, heart of palm and mangos, which are also in season in June.
Q: Sounds delicious! What else are you looking forward to in the coming year at Itz’ana?
A: I look forward to hitting the ground running with a new season at the pop-up, using our new wood burning oven, planning a garden for Itz’ana and playing basketball with the kids in Seine Bight on the new court (which we donated the sand to build)! It’s going to be an incredible year.
Eager to taste Mara’s latest creations before our full restaurant opens in 2016? Contact us for pop-up reservations.