Calbert Santiago is a winner.
Yes, he has won the Taste of Belize two times, showcasing his inventiveness with Mayan/Belizean-meets-haute-cuisine technique. Yes, he has worked at Belize’s top resorts and now has his own restaurant, Mr. C’s Cusina.
He is more than that.
He is dedicated to turning the Michael Finnegan Market in Belize City from an overlooked open- air market, to the shopping center of choice.
The market is on the West Canal, next to the City Bus Terminal. The competition from chain grocery stores and the economic disparities of the neighboring community has tarnished the market’s luster. What remains are booths that cater to restaurants and home cooks that live in the close vicinity.
Santiago is hopes to broaden that reach.
“I want to show people how good it is to shop here. “ His restaurant, Mr. C’s Cusina, is the anchor of the food court on the west side of the market. Santiago and his wife Emma run the show; their son works doing delivery and runs for ingredient pick-ups around the market.
When I arrive, he offers to take me on a tour. Our first stop: the bathrooms. “I know it seems funny but it proves my point. You can come here and be comfortable.” We moved down each aisle, taking in tours of the butcher shops and stepping into the slaughter rooms and storage space. “Everything is very clean and done well.” We moved past the fruit and veg stands, (Belizeans call vegetables, veg with a soft ‘g’ sound) and spice vendors. Each was piled high with fresh produce and vendors came out to greet and help us.
I bought a pineapple for $2 BZ, the equivalnet of $1 US. The size was a reminiscent of a rugby ball. The flavor made a lover-of-pineapple into a full-blown devotee.
Santiago started cooking at the age of 17 in his hometown of Punta Gorda. He began as the dishwasher and the cooks showed him how to work the line and mix ingredients. “I came to Belize City in 2001 with hopes of making my cooking a career. I worked under Chef Rob Pronk who told me, ‘I think you could do well.’ He encouraged me to take classes and I absorbed and cooked, and absorbed and cooked more.”
Santiago explained as we walked towards his main supplier, “I trust these vendors to deliver really good food to me. I want people to see if I can use this food, they will come here too.”
We made our way back to his restaurant and he prepared a Belizean style chowder. The restaurant was packed with customers and two of Santiago’s best patrons: Don Jesus and Rosita Rivero. Their commentary of “This is the best!” and “I eat here every day!” didn’t go unnoticed. The soup starts with coconut milk. The base was accented by culantro leaves, cut in a chifonnade. Culantro is a close cousin to cilantro with a more salad-leaf appeal.
I drank it down, chewing the perfectly cooked potatoes, shrimp and lobster. The green onion and black pepper were the perfect compliment. It was an invitation to taste the best the market had to offer.
Santiago offered me a sampler plate: curried lamb, seasoned conch and lobster, and stewed beef. The trio was matched with traditional rice-and-beans and a salad. His experience in resort kitchens was evident: the presentation was clean and eye-appealing and the flavors were both deep and rich, and light and fresh.
I finished with an order of bananas foster. It is my favorite use of Belize’s bananas and rum. As I sat scraping the plate, Santiago said, “We are glad to be our own bosses and to have people come here to see what we ALL can do at the market.”
Mr. C’s Cusina is open Mon-Fri and is located at the Michael Finnegan Market, West Canal Booth #6 Belize City, BZ tel #501-600-5445.