John Lee, an Australia native, has lived and worked in various cities all over the world, including Helsinki and Hong Kong. He spent 20 years in telecommunications and was a partner in an international consulting firm before he and his wife, Ellen, “dropped out” of the corporate world, while living in Denver, Colo. They moved to Belize and opened the Maya Beach Hotel & Bistro along the southern coast that same year, just a few miles from the village of Placencia.
Until recently, John ran the kitchen. With no formal training, and a background in electrical/telecom engineering, cooking was purely a passion project that proved to be very successful. He has developed and co-developed the Bistro’s menu alongside Chef Mary Kay Bader. Now, Chef Bader works side-by-side with John’s kitchen staff to develop a team of aspiring Belizean chefs.
Enjoyment of good food and wine has been a big part of the Lees lifestyle and is the focus of annual international travels. They constantly seek new culinary experiences that influence the menu.
Under John’s direction, in partnership with Chef Bader, the Maya Beach Bistro has twice in recent years been awarded the coveted “Restaurant of the Year” honor from the Belize Tourism Board.
How does the experience of staying and dining at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of Belize?
The Maya Beach Hotel is located in a culturally diverse district of Belize. On the Placencia Peninsula, there are Creole and Garifuna villages and within 20 miles of the hotel, you can find traditional villages of the Maya people. Naturally, our employees come from diverse backgrounds as well. Activities in this area include fishing with Creole guides, learning drumming from Garifuna musicians, and exploring Mayan ruins, villages and farms. It’s impossible to be here and not get a sense of the cultural identities of southern Belize.
How has the menu and overall dining experience evolved since opening the bistro?
When we first opened, my wife Ellen and I never imaged that our business would grow as it has. We called our tiny restaurant a bistro because we intended to casually serve food to our hotel guests and maybe the occasional neighbor or random walk-in. We started with a combined lunch and dinner menu that had some North American comfort food – like burgers and pizzas – and a few creative dishes. One of our most popular entrées today was on the menu from the start. It’s a cacao rubbed pork chop served with a papaya-coconut-chipotle-lime sauce. Belize is known as The Cradle of Chocolate, and cacao is very important to the Mayan people. The popularity of that dish encouraged us to keep trying to incorporate Caribbean and Belizean twists when we came up with a new menu item. Once we were about five years into it, we had more or less defined ourselves. We then hired Chef Mary Kay Bader and challenged her with fine-tuning our menu concept and to take it even further, incorporating traditional dishes and ingredients of the region. Even though our style has progressed so much, we still present our food casually, with a focus on creativity and taste. It’s definitely contemporary, but we’ve never fancied ourselves a fine-dining establishment.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
I’m not sure that our guests would realize that, for the most part, the 20 people in our kitchen have no formal culinary background. Several of our line cooks and even sous chefs began as dishwashers. The investment in and development of local talent often happens behind the scenes, but it’s really rewarding.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider staying at the Maya Beach Hotel?
I wish they knew just how much our staff of 50 people will do – every single day – to prepare for them and take extra care of them while they stay with us.
What is one unexpected piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of your corner of Belize?
Bring a headlamp when you come. You might need it while walking around at night, or in the not-so-common event of a power outage. You can also shine it in the water at the end of our pier and see what kind of fish swim up to check you out.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
It’s great to be able to host people who want to visit an off-the-beaten path destination. Those are the same guests that want to try inventive foods and immerse themselves in the local culture.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
You can visit a lot of sites on your own here in southern Belize, like jungles, waterfalls and ruins. But you’ll get a lot more out of it when you use a local tour guide. These are natives that live and breathe the history here. They’ll entertain you, educate you and make sure you don’t miss the important things.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
We have always tried to improve what we do and we don’t resist change. We’re constantly renovating, training and growing.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
I don’t like giving up when there’s an opportunity or a problem. I think that persistence pays off.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
We serve a lot of fresh seafood. One night, a 92-year-old man told us that the fish we served him was the best he’d ever had, in his entire life.