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Chef, restaurateur, TV star, author, consultant. Maira Isabel has been making a name for herself in the culinary world, not only on her native island of Puerto Rico, but also in the rest of Latin America and beyond.
Maira Isabel, who has hosted segments on popular TV cooking shows in Puerto Rico and other markets for more than a decade, is executive chef at Guava Restaurant at Club Seabourne. Her casual-yet-elegant dining establishment on the idyllic island of Culebra in Puerto Rico features Caribbean specialties with an international twist.
“It’s not only on a secluded island,” she says of the remote location at an out-of-the-way resort, “but the restaurant is also secluded on a mountain. You have to really want to go there.”
Guests happily make the journey to Guava to try Maira Isabel’s unique culinary specialties, such as Puerto Rican coffee-rubbed lamb chops, grilled churrasco and drunken shrimp. Many hope to catch a glimpse of Puerto Rico’s own celebrity chef, too, including those who are household names in their own right and are looking for a private getaway away from prying eyes.
“Some people know who I am and have seen me on TV. They call ahead to make sure I am there—they want to take pictures. It’s super flattering,” she says, humbly. “It happens quite often, and for me, that’s incredible.”
Though Maira Isabel is renowned for her culinary talents in Latin America, she didn’t always aspire to be a famous chef. “I come from a business background,” she explains. During the 1980s, her mother was the owner of a well-respected spa in Puerto Rico and her father was a CPA who ran his own firm. Her mother, who like her father originally hailed from Cuba, was an avid art collector, too. “I grew up going to art auctions and business seminars,” she says of her early influences.
It’s only natural she would want to combine business and art in her career. Maira Isabel moved to Boston to attend art school, but after a year into it, “I realized it wasn’t for me,” she admits.
So she headed down the road to Providence, Rhode Island, to study culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University. “After getting into Johnson and Wales, I realized how much I liked food. Food is another form of art,” she asserts. “It’s another way to express myself.”
In 1995, she earned a degree in food and beverage management, which included a year studying culinary arts, before heading back to Massachusetts to earn her bachelor’s degree in business from Trinity College.
After a stint working in Miami, she headed back to Puerto Rico at the urging of her mother. “The first thing she said is, ‘You need an MBA, no matter what,’” she recalls. “The job market is so competitive [here].”
As if she didn’t have enough on her plate already, Chef Maira Isabel opened Guava Restaurant at Club Seabourne earlier this year on her 39th birthday, January 9.
Guava is a result of a collaboration between Maira Isabel and the owners of Club Seabourne, whom she has known for a decade. For years, they had asked her to open a restaurant at their hotel, “and last October, I couldn’t say no,” says Isabel.
She and the owners worked together on the Caribbean-influenced menu, along with business and marketing plans. “They had a wide knowledge of what we should do, and I brought my insight on what I wanted [the restaurant] to be,” she says.
Less than one year in, Maira Isabel already is dreaming of opening additional Guava locations.
Maira Isabel heeded her mother’s advice, enrolling in the MBA program at University of Phoenix while teaching cooking classes and working as a culinary consultant with restaurants and businesses on the side. Looking to drum up business for herself, she called a local high-end magazine to inquire about placing an ad. After she explained her situation, the woman on the other end of the line made an offer that would change her life.
“She said, ‘Instead of placing an ad, why don’t we do an article about you,’” Maira Isabel remembers. As it turns out, the editor’s best friend was a producer who was looking for a fresh face for a cooking show. “They called me out of the blue and offered [it to] me.”
Maira Isabel had never been on television before, but after her initial nerves subsided, it turns out that she is as comfortable in front of the camera as she is in the kitchen. Starting in 2001, she was featured in a cooking show for two years before appearing on another one on Univision Puerto Rico for two more. Later she was approached by Telemundo to be featured on yet another cooking show, this time shot live from Puerto Rico and broadcast internationally.
“That was a big deal,” she says. “It was being shown in 26 countries in Latin America and from coast to coast in the United States.”
Halfway through, The Travel Channel invited her to host a Puerto Rico segment of Bizarre Foods. “I said, ‘Sure. I’ll take you everywhere,’” she says, of the episode that still airs today. In addition to being the guide, she also served as the on-camera host.
In 2007, Maira Isabel published her first book, Gourmet Para Todos Los Días, which translates to “gourmet for every day.” It shot to the top of the charts in Puerto Rico where it remained for more than 10 weeks. She plans to publish her second book, an exploration of aphrodisiac foods, in the coming months.
Maira Isabel’s multifaceted career continues to grow, buoyed by the skills she learned in her MBA program, which she completed in 2003. She manages her entire career herself, from her restaurant to her television and book contracts. “My MBA really came in handy for that,” she notes.
She recently shot pilots for three new shows she’s hoping will get picked up by various local and international television networks. She also dreams of expanding her dining empire, hoping to open franchises of Guava Restaurant in New York and Napa, California, one day in the not-too-distant future.
So far, her career has been more than she ever imagined. “When you work hard and people see you are the real thing, somehow things happen,” Maira Isabel says, with gratitude in her voice.