Not every great hotel has a great restaurant, but at Casa Azul and Hidden Valley Inn in Belize, guests swoon as much over the accommodations as they do the food. Casa Azul’s Rojo Beach Bar borders the Caribbean coast and uses the bounties of the sea as inspiration for its fresh, local, and seasonal fare. Deep in the Maya Mountains of western Belize, Hidden Valley Inn prides itself on the care it takes in selecting, cooking, and preparing its creative cuisine. Below, the head chefs of both restaurants share their thoughts on food and cooking—and reveal their guilty food pleasures, too.
Relaxed. That’s Rojo Beach Bar in a word. Located on the north end of Ambergris Caye and just a 20-minute boat ride from the town of San Pedro, the restaurant is a place where—as chef (and co-owner of the hotel) Jeff Spiegel puts it—“you’re all but forced to relax.” Food is ordered at the bar, and it’s encouraged that dishes be shared. Rojo Beach Bar is part of Casa Azul (a property with just two beautifully outfitted villas) and is open to guests and non-guests. For the best eats, ask for the daily specials. “During lobster season, I’d suggest our grilled lobster poppers or our white pizza with lobster and house-cured bacon,” says chef Jeff. “During conch season, get the conch sausage pizza; it’s an island original and favorite.”
Where are you from and how did you learn to cook? I came to Belize from San Francisco where I ran a punk rock record label. I’ve been the chef here ever since my wife and I opened Azul eight years ago. I learned to cook by trial and error.
How would you describe Rojo Beach Bar? Well, if you don’t like dining beachside (yes, sand can blow around), if you don’t want to sip drinks in a hammock, and if you don’t want a sandy dog sleeping lazily at your feet, this place probably isn’t for you.
Where do get your ingredients? We rely on locally sourced food as much as possible. We work with local fishermen who bring their catch straight to our dock and also have a three-acre farm where we grow many of our own ingredients.
What one locally sourced ingredient excites you the most? Nothing beats picking greens 20 minutes before they’re served or cooking a fish that you caught earlier in the day. It’s truly rewarding to be responsible for all of the components of a dish, from sourcing to serving.
What’s Rojo’s signature drink? Unofficially, the ginger caipirinha—though anything that Fin or Dan make is great.
What three ingredients are always in Rojo’s refrigerator or pantry? Hot sauce, hot sauce, and hot sauce.
If I weren’t a chef, I’d be… outside fishing right now.
My guilty food pleasure is… a well-executed ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Tucked into the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and surrounded by jungles and pine forests, Hidden Valley Inn is a luxury resort with 90 miles of trails, 12 cottages, and one incredible restaurant. Despite its remote location, the restaurant (which is open to both guests and non-guests) serves innovative dishes with an extraordinary attention to detail. “It’s what impressed me the most,” says Stanley Stewart, an award-winning travel writer and recent guest. “There was a care and thoughtfulness that went into the service, as well as a full five-course menu that offered at least three choices for a main course (I’d recommend the duck) and always started with an interesting amuse bouche.” Keeping things interesting is tasked to Nathascha Xisto das Neves, the general manager/executive chef, who artfully puts an international twist on the local ingredients she cooks. “The food here is a fusion of tastes, styles, and traditional cultures from around the world,” says chef Nathascha. “My goal is that it comes together to make music in your mouth.”
Where are you from and where did you learn how to cook? I’m from Africa and was raised in Angola and Namibia. I learned to cook in France.
What do you like about being a chef in Belize? There’s an interesting mix of Belizeans, new Belizeans, and expats who call the country home, and I like that that mix is reflected in our restaurants. I also love the exotic local produce that’s available. It’s like having a treasure chest of foods with which to play.
How is the food at Hidden Valley Inn different from the food at other area restaurants? It’s not just chicken, rice, and beans—though we do make a variety of local dishes on request. Instead, we offer dishes like quesadillas with brie and cranberries and gourmet burgers topped with Swiss cheese and reduced balsamic vinegar. All of our pastries and breads are baked fresh on-premise. We use local, organic ingredients and also buy grass-fed beef and free-range poultry.
Your best friend is coming to eat at the restaurant. What do you recommend? The lobster with baby scallops, saffron, and white truffles.
What three ingredients are always in the refrigerator/pantry at Hidden Valley? Cilantro, saffron, and white truffles.
If we removed … from our menu, guests would be crushed. The chocolate mousse made with local cacao. Guests have described it as “food of the Gods.”
What one locally sourced ingredient most excites you? Pitaya. When sliced open, the fruit looks like a beautiful jewel.
If I weren’t a chef, I’d be… an artist
My guilty food pleasure is… red velvet cake.