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From Beautiful Belize: Chef Jennie Staines

With the holidays well behind us and more cold months ahead, looking for an escape route through the kitchen may be your best option. If that route takes you all the way to Belize then so much the better. During a recent trip to New York City, chef Jennie Staines of San Pedro’s Elvi’s Kitchen showed a group of food writers the way in a multi-course cooking demonstration of authentic Belizean cooking - a multi-ethnic fusion marrying the complexity of Mayan cuisine with the brightness of Caribbean flavors that included stone crab ceviche, Mayan fish, coconut curry, and caramel flan. Chef Jennie sat down with The Latin Kitchen to talk about her favorite Belizean recipes and what it takes to run a restaurant with family.

What is your earliest memory of being in the kitchen?

My father was a fisherman and my mother sold tamales as part of our family’s living. When I was 10, I remember helping my mother who prepared all the things that were needed for the tamales, then we’d wrap them, and cook them on the fire.

Where did you study?

When I was growing up in San Pedro, I didn’t know anything about culinary schools. In high school, they offered vocational training for the tourist industry that was starting. I went to them and asked how I could learn more. I wanted to study in the United States but had difficulty securing a visa, so I taught myself from cookbooks and magazines. Eventually, I was given a scholarship to work at Charleys Crab in Florida through a USAID program. By staying from the time they opened to when they closed, I learned the basics about managing a professional kitchen and operating equipment. To continue my education, I worked at establishments throughout Mexico.

When did your family open Elvis Kitchen?

In 1974, my mother [Doña Elvia] opened a small burger stand called Elvi’s Burger Isle that was inspired by family from the US who made burgers for us when they visited the island. There was also a British army base nearby so my father sold fish and chips. When I joined her in the restaurant [in 1986], we expanded the menu to serve traditional Belizean food, mostly concentrating on seafood.

Next, learning about Belizean ingredients and flavors...

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