Hiro Sone was one of the most respected chefs of the late 20th century. He and his pastry chef wife, Lissa Doumani, owned Terra Restaurant in the Napa Valley. He was one of these chefs that created an entire genre of food, a guy that probably turned down more press than he received, a chef that earned accolades from other chefs for his “voice”, that ethereal description of art that combines texture, color, and a sense of place and time unique to the work. A dish made by Hiro Sone was instantly recognized by chefs like me. One look at the austere lines, Asian influence, and carefully constructed textures and other chefs didn’t have to read the caption, it was obvious.
“That’s Hiro Sone’s miso-poached halibut, no question about it.”
Chefs across the country were soon emulating his technique, searching out his ingredients, and composing their plates with tight lines, careful knife work, and small twirls of fresh herbs and micro greens. I’d heard in their heyday, a reservation at Terra would require a three-month advance notice.
My first appearance at Disney World’s Food & Wine festival was October of 2004. We knew it was something we would love, and something the kids would adore. For eight weekends in the fall, Disney World hosted a dozen guest chefs plus winemakers, craft brewers, cheesemakers, confectioners, and more. We traded a four day, all-expenses paid weekend in exchange for labor and our smiling faces in front of a thousand or so people. The big event of the weekend, one all of the chefs participated in, was Party for The Senses. A thousand guests underneath a big top sampling all the hard work of the guest chefs, plus a few of Disney’s best culinarians, plus live music, roving magicians, and a Cirque de Soleil performance. When we arrived the first order of business was a walk through of Disney’s massive kitchens, introductions to their staff, and a view of the event space and our booth. My guide took me into the dimly lit arena that resembled a circus tent which would soon host Party for the Senses. Each “booth” had space for two chefs and their food, one winemaker and their wines, and one confectioner. And as my guide showed me a schematic for how each booth would function, Hiro Sone introduced himself. I was literally star struck. He grabbed my hand, offered me a firm handshake, a big smile, and told me how excited he was to work next to me.
“Chef Malik, I am honored to share a kitchen with you. I have heard much about your food.”
Damn I wish I could remember what I said. I probably told him he was a terrible liar. At the time the exposure our restaurant had received could’ve been measured out with a coffee spoon, while his would’ve filled a beer keg. I’m sure I stuttered out something unintelligible.
That night we worked back to back, guests lining up for his poached halibut and my, well I can’t remember what we served. Pork something or other. What I do remember is Chef Sone’s beautiful food and how he made me feel, a young chef with not even one-one thousandth of the recognition he had, but he went out of his way to make me feel special. And his food…that night all of us chefs took an informal vote and agreed Hiro Sone’s dish was the standout. One of the Disney chefs remarked that if he were blindfolded and tasted every dish served, Hiro Sone’s would’ve been obvious to him because Chef Sone’s food had a voice that was unmistakable. One look, one taste, this was Hiro Sone’s food.
After meeting Jorge Castellanos on the outskirts of San Ignacio, I feel like I’ve met Hiro Sone all over again.
Amy needed charcoal pencils for her sketches and her Google search for “art supplies” turned up the Maya Sunset Work Shop. The address put Maya Sunset south of town by several miles and just about a quarter mile off the Western Highway. Out here though, Google is that grizzled old man from the movies whose directions started with, “drive for a piece or two then look for the old oak tree, now when you see that tree, you’re gonna start looking for two brown cows, one dark brown, one light brown.” Eventually we stopped at a house with a couple of guys working on a tractor and they pointed us to another dirt road about a quarter mile south. When we made that turn it felt like I was on Barranco Road’s ill-mannered cousin. At fifty feet in, all I could see was more rock-strewn road that rolled over the hills and into oblivion. The only sign of life was a few horses staring at me with curiosity from their pasture on my left. We certainly weren’t headed to a place where this car would be in its element. I stopped, stared straight ahead and gave into my contempt of surprises. My wife sometimes shares tidbits of information with me because she likes surprises. I hate surprises.
“Okay. Remind me where we’re going, please. A store that sells pencils?”
“It’s an art studio and I already told you. Just keep going.”
“Do you really believe there’s an art supply store out here? It looks like we’re headed to the Belize Army’s off-road training grounds for their cavalry. The kind of cavalry that still uses horses. See?”
I motioned to the horse who responded with a loud, flatulent exhale and a twitch of his ears.
“You’re such a know-it-all. Do you have somewhere else to be? Just drive.”
We were this close to a shouting match, and what a perfect place for one. I exhaled loudly, eased off the brakes and the old Dodge rolled forward. We banged over the small hill and were suddenly looking at a ten-degree, rock strewn incline about a half mile in front of us.
“And here’s where we get stuck.”
“You don’t know that.”
She was correct. I didn’t actually know that, but I assumed there wasn’t an art supply store anywhere near us. However, being rescued by a tow truck would likely be an all-day proposition. While I fumed, a gentleman walked across the horse pasture and waved to us. Amy waved back then elbowed me.
“Ask him if this is the road to Maya Sunset.”
Guys hate to look foolish and an easy way to look foolish is asking ridiculous questions to strangers. But we weren’t getting off this mountain until I’d exhausted all possibilities. I mumbled the Lord’s name in vain, Amy reminded me I would burn in hell, and I rolled down the window.
“Perdoneme, senor. Maya Sunset estudio de arte?”
“You’re looking for Jorge?”
“Uh…I guess so.”
“He’s halfway up that hill then turn to the right.”
“Oh, okay, thank you.”
The window came up, my foot came off the brake and as we passed the two horses, I was certain they were laughing at me.
“See, even that horse doesn’t think we’ll make it up that road.”
I stopped the car and engaged four-wheel drive. to engage the all-wheel drive, the Dodge must come to a stop and a small toggle switch must be flipped. And the only cue the additional wheels have engaged is a light on the dashboard. On our old Ford pick-up, engaging four-wheel drive was a mechanical delight. A hefty metal trigger grip was pulled and one could feel the shaft and gears meshing with a wonderful click, clack, clunk that twisted the floor board. It was a visceral feeling that gave me a sense of mechanical security. Flipping the toggle on the Dodge felt like I was turning on a bathroom’s light switch and certainly didn’t provide a sense of confidence. I was certain we’d spend the afternoon halfway up that mountain waiting on a tow truck. I eased into Drive and glanced in my rear-view mirror. Yeah, that horse was watching and still laughing.
Despite what you see on those TV commercials, climbing or fording something uphill and bumpy is best done slowly with steady, gentle pressure on the accelerator pedal. I eased into the throttle and started picking my way up the hill. This narrow road left little room for the Dodge to dodge, much less weave, and soccer ball-sized rocks were everywhere and several of them found bodywork, muffler, and likely the oil pan as they passed underneath. About 200 yards into our climb Amy saw a thatch-roofed structure and a motorcycle at the top of a ridgeline off to our right.
“That must be it.”
“Yeah, that guy definitely has a variety of charcoal pencils, paints, and probably easels for sale.”
“You know what, you have no sense of adventure.”
“This is our 34th year of marriage and all those years my Spidey sense has kept us alive and usually out of trouble. Waiting on a tow truck, in a small town near the Guatemalan border isn’t my idea of adventure.”
Now she was really mad. Then she saw Jorge.
“Hey there’s a guy waving at us.”
There was a guy waving at us. He looked down at us from maybe 100 feet of elevation and his road dipped before it rose at a steeper angle than the road we were on. I put it in park, exhaled loudly, and told Amy I would walk the road first, and jumped out. In sixty seconds or so I met Jorge.
“Hello! I’m Jorge. Welcome to Maya Sunset Studio.”
He spoke with a rapid-fire delivery I hadn’t heard from any Belizian, and his smile was so big, so gleaming white I was certain he was Q’eche Mayan from San Felipe. He stuck out his hand and offered me the warm handshake of someone that doesn’t get many visitors. He had a marathon runner’s wiry build and that gorgeous dark hair of a Mayan, twisted into a long ponytail. He wore a dusty t-shirt, long shorts, no shoes, and a heavy necklace made with beads of ascending size and the center stone, about the size of a fat grape, had a rudimentary face carved into it.
“Hello Jorge, I’m John.”
“Please, Mr. John. Come visit my studio. Your car can make the drive, just drive slowly. I have tea. Please, please, come have a visit at Maya Sunset.”
His friend on the motorcycle stopped and offered me his hand, agreed that our little Dodge could make the climb and told me we cannot leave here without seeing Jorge’s work.
“He’s going to be famous so drive your car up and take a look at his carvings. Does it have four-wheel drive?”
I tried to respond confidently.
“Sure, you can make it.”
“You see, Mr. John. No problem. Is your wife in the car, too?”
“She is, Jorge. And we have a dog with us. Is that okay?”
Jorge was so enthusiastic about visitors how could I deny him? Plus, I had an odd feeling we’d met before and as I admired his thick, jet black hair perhaps he’d give me the secret?
“Jorge how is it the Mayan men have such amazing hair? Where did I go wrong?”
Amy later told me this was the minute she knew we were staying. As she watched us from the Dodge, she saw Jorge reach back, untie his hair, shake his head and his hair fell almost to his beltline. And in response I lifted my right hand to my thinning hair and shook my head in amazement.
“I like this guy Jorge. I feel like I know him.”
I pointed the Dodge up the hill as Amy dutifully berated me for doubting her. It took us a minute or two and several “Oh Shit” gasps to get up Jorge’s hill where we immediately tied Otis up in the shade and Jorge offered him a bowl of water.
“Jorge this is my wife, Amy.”
“Oh, hello Miss Amy. I am so happy to have you visit Maya Sunset. So happy. Please, may I offer you ice water or tea?”
Jorge’s thatch studio was about the size of a small living room. He had a second floor about ten feet up, accessible by ladder, that looked like it may have held a thin mattress. It had a dirt floor, a few tables, and held brightly colored fabrics, necklaces, and many pieces of carved slate. The studio was open to the West and on his hilltop, he was about as high as the point of Xunantanich, a mile or more away on the opposite side of the Western Highway. When Jorge had our attention, he picked up one of his slate carvings and proudly informed us of its significance.
“This is what I do, create one of a kind works of art from the grey slate I find in the Macal River.”
Imagine a piece of battleship grey slate, maybe about the size of a medium pizza box but with jagged, misshapen edges. And just like a great pizza, the slate has surface texture to it, ridges, bumps, and lines. Using a variety of small carving tools, from dentist’s picks to hacksaw blades, Jorge produced stunning carvings detailed with Mayan glyphs, familiar animals of Belize, solar calendars, trees, flower, and sea life. On his display table he had about two dozen pieces, some had painfully detailed carvings of Mayan goddesses, one featured both Mayan calendars in interwoven circles, another featured a Toucan, Tapir, and Jaguar centered around a clock face, but the numbers were all Mayan glyphs. All of these carvings were exquisite and reminded me of plates of food made by the best chefs, ones that considered color, texture, height, seasonality, along with a sense of place, which we refer to as “voice.” Jorge’s carvings spoke to a sense of time and place. And each one must’ve had many hours of tedious labor in it. How on earth did someone so vibrant find the composure to create these?
“Patience, Mr. John. That’s how. I am happiest when I’m carving.”
Amy was certain she’d seen his carvings before.
“Jorge, correct me if I’m wrong and have we seen your carvings in an art studio in San Pedro?”
“Yes Miss Amy. At Belizian Art Gallery near the airport.”
Jorge showed us one piece, about the size of a dinner plate, he’d made for a gentleman from New York City, and he’d personalized it with things that mattered to this man, and a stylized Green Hermit hummingbird dominated the center of this carving. The hummingbird was full of detail, from the Mayan-style eye to the individual feathers all orientated in the proper direction. Jorge knew his birds and somehow brought this one to life in a piece of flat, grey rock.
“Jorge, you must be a birder, correct?”
“Oh yes, Mr. John.”
He showed me a handful of photos on his phone from his birding trips with local guides then rattled off the multitude of birds that visit his studio.
“Tanagers, Hummingbirds, Flycatchers, Owls, Honey Creepers, Parakeets, Mannakins, Mott Motts, so many beautiful birds here Mr. John. I am very lucky to live in such a place with so much natural beauty.”
I am very lucky to live in such a place. The Mayans we knew in San Felipe all had a sense of wonder, of appreciation of their natural world, even the deadly animals like the Jaguar were almost worshipped. Colorful birds, such as Toucans, Macaws, and Honey Creepers were spoken of as if they were works of art. Now that we’ve seen these birds in the wild, I’d agree they are works of art. The mathematics of evolution cannot explain the beauty of our natural world and perhaps too many of us have taken it for granted. The Mayans have no problem thanking the Good Lord for the astounding diversity and beauty of the natural world.
Amy was carefully tracing the outlines of Jorge’s work and as she ran her forefinger over a Mayan goddess, she whispered about Jorge’s voice.
“Jorge, I would never mistake anyone else’s artwork for yours. This is all so beautiful, and there’s so much passion and love in your work. You truly have a unique voice.”
Yes. It was his voice. His art showcased a sense of place and time, a love of texture and color, lines and composition that reminded me of Hiro Sone. One cannot look at Jorge’s art without pausing, admiring, possibly running a finger across the faces and glyphs he’s carved into simple pieces of compressed earth.
Jorge was soon asking us about our time in Belize. What have we seen, where did we go, whom have we met? We told Jorge of our time in San Felipe studying chocolate and cacao with Juan, a man he knew of but hadn’t met. I told him how I’d watched a jaguar on that first morning and how we loved learning about Mayan culture, how Amy had spent many years hoping to watch a sea turtle swim through salt water and in San Pedro she was successful. And as I admired Jorge’s slate, I realized we needed something like this carving to commemorate our trip to Belize. Without seeking Amy’s approval, I blurted out “Jorge, would you carve us a slate, something personal, just for us? Something to help us remember all the amazing people, the things we’ve learned, the animals we’ve seen in Belize?”
Amy stood behind Jorge and when she heard my words her eyes lit up with agreement.
“That’s a great idea. Jorge, would you?”
He smiled, covered his heart with his hands and listened to the words as they floated across the warmth of Belize.
“I would love to do that for you and Miss Amy.”
One month later we were back at Jorge’s Maya Sunset and this is the result. As Jorge described it, we were both brought to tears of joy.
You’re reading the year-long adventures of John & Amy Malik in Belize, Central America. We’re professional chefs, restaurant owners, food & travel writers, adventurers, recovering tent campers, and hikers. We prefer authentic street food over a steakhouse, craft beer over traditional lager, a glass of Spanish Garnacha over California Merlot. Should you feel so inclined, please share this essay with someone you’d take on a rustic adventure, and sign up for our next dispatch from Belize. Just click here.