Creating Conscious Culinary Systems in the Jungle with Mark Brand

a couple of years ago
By Alice Beth Stankovitch

“Any great idea, before it becomes the norm, is crazy.”

This is the kind of thought casually dropped by Mark Brand, who we were lucky to host recently. A social entrepreneur and restauranteur, Mark is probably best known for resurrecting Vancouver’s Save-on-Meats into a profitable, kickass feeding machine for the community. These days, he travels the world to help organizations, governments, and companies do more good.

“Any great idea, before it becomes the norm, is crazy” Mark says.

As you can imagine, he fits right in at Kalu Yala.

Mark Brand, celebrated social entrepreneur and restauranteur, joins us in the jungle.

Mark came to know Kalu Yala through the 2016 HATCH Experience– an annual gathering of thought leaders hosted in our jungle valley. Since then, he visits when his speaking schedule allows– acting on our advisory board, taking on staff members as a protégés, and is currently exploring restaurant opportunities for Kalu Yala towns. (Fingers crossed for that pizza place. Please, Mark? Signed, Alice.)

Recently, Mark came to work with our kitchen team on designing conscious culinary systems. He helped optimize our processes for positive social and environmental impact, while ensuring reliable production of abundant, healthy, and delicious meals for a fast-growing community.

No sweat, right?

Here are a few takeaways from our sessions with Mark.

Find new opportunities for local partnerships.

Noris, who keeps our San Miguel house running, presents a tamale – a traditional dish of warm corn dough wrapped in steamed plantain leaves.

Kalu Yala strives to maintain a local and sustainable food system. Our Food Forest expands every semester, and we source as much as possible from small surrounding farms. There are always loose ends, though. For instance, how can we responsibly incorporate wheats, grains, and other staples into our diets if not grown nearby? How do we not miss out on hidden local vendors in a secluded jungle region? (It’s not like our neighbors have a LinkedIn page.)

Here are a few solutions Mark helped us find in our own backyard:

  • Promote Dario, a local and veteran of our farm team, into a product sourcing role– finding more farms and vendor opportunities
  • Diversify our local food purchases– expanding from raw produce to products like breads, tamales, pastries, and empanadas
  • Find new opportunities in existing relationships– like sourcing goat cheese from Sonia, a member of the kitchen team
  • Standardize menu to implement local ingredients into consistent plan– allows for consistent local deliveries and orders
  • Use local ingredients in creative ways (like using green bananas to make granola) to expand potential use for each ingredient
Kalu Yala is a fast-growing community, and one of our challenges as we grow will be keeping our food system as closed-loop as possible. Building these partnerships into our food system now helps ensure these sustainable solutions can scale as our neighbors and surrounding communities grow along with us.


Be creative and resourceful with ingredients.

Our commitment to growing and sourcing food locally means we have to be creative with how we use our ingredients. As an exercise, Mark invited the kitchen crew to list their favorite ingredients. Turns out, most of the items are grown at Kalu Yala or can be sourced within 50 miles. Seeing all those ingredients energized the crew to revisit our menu and find new ways to expand and diversify our use of local ingredients.

“Growing and sourcing food locally isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. All your favorite foods are grown here or within 30 miles of here. If you can’t make 21 delicious, rotational means out of 50+ ingredients, we have a problem.”

Mark worked the kitchen team to identify new creations and combinations– like using green bananas to make granola and incorporating guanabana into our morning oatmeal. He also helped design a 21-day menu that allows for the most efficient (and savory) implementation of local ingredients. Click through the gallery below to see some of our favorite locally sourced meals.


Create a circular culinary economy

A circular economy tries to optimize its consumption– from sourcing and material use to re-use– in order to avoid waste and environmental pollutions. A circular culinary economy is one that:

  • Effectively manages and uses natural resources such as soil, water, minerals, and biodiversity
  • Optimizes food use, including reducing food waste, avoiding processed foods, and increasing vegetable-based protein sources
  • Makes optimum use of residue streams, such as vegetable stalks, fruit pulp, and stale bread to reduce biomass loss

Students dine at Nueva Vista– a fine dining restaurant recently opened through the KY Business Incubator.

Mark sees Kalu Yala as an environment for fostering such a circular culinary economy. For one, we’re obsessed with sustainable solutions, constantly looking for ways to reduce our ecological footprint and advance a positive social impact. We also support like-minded startups through our Kalu Yala Business Incubator– restaurants included.

“There’s room for culinary students to come here and create their own thing. There’s room to create circular culinary economies.”

As Kalu Yala grows, Mark envisions an array of independent culinary options growing along with it. While the Institute is currently the main operation at Kalu Yala, our population grows every semester as more permanent and semi-permanent residents move in and more visitors cycle through. Already, we have Curioso Coffee – a closed-loop cafe launched by our videographer, Sully’s Sorbet– started by a former student, now part of the Business Incubator, and Nueva Vista– a fine dining restaurant.  Next year, we hope to have Mark’s pizza restaurant call the recreation field below town square “home.” (Seriously, Mark. Please?)

Could Kalu Yala play host to a circular culinary economy? Time will tell, but we’ve got Mark Brand’s vote.

“I’m very invested in Kalu Yala; I have been for awhile, I’m invested in where you’ve been and I’m where you’re about to go. I think we can accelerate the vision of what’s possible, culinary-wise.”


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