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Guatemalan chef at home with cup of java

Paulo Izaguirre, new chef at Village Pantry (Photogaph by Blaire Simmons)

There is a Guatemalan mafia in Bermuda, Paulo Izaguirre insists.

The head chef at Village Pantry in Flatts finds it comforting. In 2000, he was one of maybe a handful of people from the Central American country living here.

Today, if he wants to discuss Guatemalan culture over a cup of Guatemalan java, he is spoilt for choice.

Still, he is working on making his mark in the place he now calls home.

Mr Izaguirre is one of ten chefs who have volunteered their time for Plates of Passion, a scholarship fundraiser for culinary students at the Bermuda College. He will cook alongside aspiring chef Anthony Sousa at Wednesday’s event, organised by the Bermuda Hospitality Institute.

“It’s important for me to give back,” said the 35-year-old who lives here with his wife and 18-month-old son.

“I love Bermuda. Guatemala is a big place with lots of traffic; it’s a big city. There’s little danger here. You can go outside and feel free, and walk at night and feel safe. There’s beautiful beaches. In Guatemala to get to the seaside is a one-and-a-half hour drive from the city. It’s more beautiful to be here with my family.”

He was drawn to cooking as a child, led by his father’s interest.

“My father, when he was a young kid, he started studying [culinary arts]. He was an accountant but he liked to cook. At that time in my country not many people joined the culinary industry, but he was my hero.”

Because of his skill, his father was offered a job cooking on a cruise ship.

“He never went,” Mr Izaguirre laughed. “My mother didn’t let him but from that day I said I want to study [to become a chef]. I loved to travel and it was obvious the kitchen on a cruise ship was a good way to do so.”

He entered culinary school at 18. Following the two-year programme at Intecap, he was hired as a hotel intern.

“I started working in hotels in Guatemala and after that finished my internship in Mexico. I spent seven months there and then came back home.”

He found work with another hotel and started teaching cooking classes. When a job offer opened up in Belize, he took it.

“I was there for one year — in a hotel and then a coffee shop and a gelateria. My dream was still to work on a cruise ship but they cut opportunities for Guatemalans because people were trying to get into the US illegally.”

As soon as the rules softened, he applied for a job.

“In Belize, I learnt a little bit of English and that gave me the opportunity to join [the cruise line] Royal Caribbean,” he said. “I went through the Mediterranean, through Greece, Turkey and Venice.”

A Guatemalan friend was then working at IRG restaurant Latin, now called Victoria Grill. He suggested Mr Izaguirre give it a try.

“I came in 2000 and stayed for five-and-a-half years,” he said. “But I was in a long-distance relationship and it was not working. She said I’d been away for six years, maybe it was time for me to come home for a little bit. I went back home to Guatemala and got married.”

With Village Pantry opening, a friend working at its sister restaurant, Devil’s Isle, suggested he give Bermuda another try. He came back last September with his wife and child in tow.

“Now there’s a little Guatemala mafia here,” he joked. “Before, there were one or two Guatemalan people here. Now there are a lot of guys, [many of them] fixing roads with cable companies.”

He is now especially grateful for the hours he put in learning English.

“In Guatemala, we got classes in school but never any real conversation practice,” he said. “When I got to Belize, necessity made me do it. I learnt the basics and when I learnt a bit better I was able to come here, to Bermuda. In the beginning it was very hard. I was used to the US accent but I was hearing people speaking who were from the UK and I had to understand them.

“Our plan is for our son to learn English from the beginning. We have a nanny who speaks English all day and in the house we speak Spanish. It’s nice that he will be able to learn both.

“In Guatemala, a lot of people are good workers, a lot are knowledgable but they don’t speak English. I saw how opportunities opened for me because I did.”

$50 from each ticket for Plates of Passion will go towards scholarships for the participating students. Tickets, at $185, are available on 295-5049