Mara Jernigan is a seasoned professional chef, cooking instructor, and local food advocate who has an obsession with the provenance of food. For 16 years, she cooked, taught, and farmed in the Cowichan Valley in Canada, until 2 years ago, when she relocated – to cook locally – in the jungle of Belize. Mara is head chef and general manager at Belcampo Belize, a luxury retreat in the rainforest of Toledo, where she champions organic agriculture, environmental stewardship, and quality Belizean cuisine as Chef in the Jungle.
Belize, a sparsely populated country of 350K, has a combination of plusses and minuses in the current food system, according to Mara: there are no McDonalds, no KFCs, no WalMarts, but there is also lack of refrigeration, proper slaughter facilities, seed insecurity, and infrastructure. Mara sees Belize as a blank slate, offering a compelling opportunity to create new food systems with respect to Belizean tradition. That’s just what she’s doing at Belcampo, taking some of the ingredients and cultural aspects of Belizean food and adding stronger techniques and new ideas.
Directing the culinary operation of the retreat is no small feat. Mara is up at the crack of dawn and settles in well after dinner service at the lodge, seven days a week. But Mara’s dedication and skill has helped put the Toledo district, one of the poorest regions in Belize, on the map of world-class travel destinations. Belcampo cultivates indigenous crops of cacao, noble purple cane (for rum), vanilla, and coffee, and guests can participate in processing these products at the agritourism facility. And over 70% of the food served comes from the farm. By fostering this relationship between the guests and the food, people leave with an enriching experience tied directly to what is authentically Belizean. While culturally the cuisine is still quite nascent across Belize, these initiatives could pave the way in defining a new gastronomy.
Mara’s vision extends even further, to addressing systemic food issues such as waste management and the reliance on processed foods throughout Belize. As with many underdeveloped economies, she sees the lack of education, capacity, and infrastructure exacerbating these food issues. In an exciting collaborative project, Belcampo will partner with Earthship Biotecture to build a unique, 100% recycled Juice Joint at a local public school. With a citrus orchard adjacent to the school, the idea is to have kids make and sell juice in the front of the Earthship, while providing much-needed recycling facilities in the rear. The two-pronged approach curbs waste while promoting healthy food consumption.
When Mara isn’t on the farm or busy managing the lodge, she can be found on Belcampo’s basketball court, shooting hoops with her staff. All in a day’s work for this Chef in the Jungle. Fieldtrip, anyone?
Food Culture and Communications Specialist