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Choosing Your Own Adventure

From culinary school to working with major brands, chef Kalisa Marie Martin is blazing her path in the food world — on her own terms

Woman smiling in a kitchen. Clay Williams/Eater

It’s easy to be enamored of Kalisa Marie Martin. With a contagious smile and an effervescent personality that never borders on saccharine, she’s on my screen via her YouTube channel teaching me how to make Jamaican rundown, a velvety, luscious coconut-based sauce with garlic, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers. Her excitement is palpable, like a friend who has something juicy to tell you and only has a few minutes before their phone dies. A few videos later into my “research,” and I’ve already bookmarked her recipes for sambal matah, piri piri chicken, and saltfish fritters.

When I ask Martin, chef, travel expert, and creator of Kalisa Marie Eats, about how her career came to be, she credits one person: Harold McGee. His definitive book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, was instrumental in crystallizing her childhood obsession into something concrete. “He literally changed the trajectory of my life. When my high school chemistry teacher gave me his book, I said, ‘This is it.’ I knew I wanted to study food science,” Martin says. “I knew I didn’t want to be a chef that owned a restaurant because as incredible as that is, it’s very taxing, and you have to really want that life.” Without a blueprint, Martin knew that she had to create a career that didn’t exist — one that eventually led her to working in food media, with brands, and becoming an entrepreneur — forging a path that defies a typical culinary career.

While On Food and Cooking solidified her resolve to study food science, the road beyond seemed nebulous. “When I would tell people I wanted to work in food, they’d ask, ‘Do you want to cook or do you want to be a nutritionist?’ Either you made people food or you told people what to eat,” Martin says. “I would say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do, but I know it’s going to be something different than that.’”

After getting her degree from the top food science program in the country at Cornell University, Martin moved to New York City and graduated from culinary school. From there, she worked as a food tour operator, and joined Tasting Table as an intern in 2009. Five years later, she was overseeing Tasting Table’s marketing as its brand director. Despite a flourishing career in food media, on a particularly bitter day in March 2014, in one of the coldest winters on record, she decided that enough was enough.

Martin always knew she wanted to highlight her family’s homeland. Seeking to exchange snow boots for sandals and a different pace of life, Martin quit her job and partnered with Jeff Belizaire to raise money for a bed and breakfast in Jamaica, where she was the executive chef and managed operations. “I just knew that one day I was going to live in Jamaica full time and I was going to cook for people, period,’’ she says. “It was going to be a part of my life, in whatever capacity.” Making the leap from Tasting Table’s office to her own came naturally to Martin — if the women in her family are any indication, she was in good company. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My mom, my grandmother, great-grandmother — they all had their own businesses in one way or another,” she says.

Woman reaches for a book in a library. Clay Williams/Eater

That inherited entrepreneurial spirit birthed the Runanway Jamaica, a luxury bed and breakfast in Runaway Bay that was the first (and only) successfully crowdfunded campaign of its kind in Kickstarter history. In Jamaica, Martin was able to create a distinct experience — one that immersed guests in the foods of Jamaica, benefited local businesses without exploiting them or the land, and dispelled pervasive narratives. “If I’m going to celebrate a story, I’d rather it be an untold story,” she says. “There are people from the diaspora with incredible stories, cultures and recipes that really don’t make it to the forefront.”

With locally made furniture and decor from artists such as Andre Woolery outfitting the B&B, food sourced at local markets, students hired from a local hospitality college, and Jamaican companies prioritized when organizing guest activities and transportation, every facet of the Runaway Jamaica supported local entrepreneurs, farmers, and artists. “If you’re not careful, you’re spending money in a country, but it’s not staying there and helping locals,” Martin explains. “For me, it was incredibly important that I worked with local businesses.” Martin’s brand of deeply thoughtful, hyperlocal food and travel experiences later morphed and expanded beyond the B&B into the Runaway Experience in 2016, which took guests on curated, locally minded trips to Bali, Cuba, and Morocco.

Now, Martin is looking to dial down on the travel front and focus exclusively on Kalisa Marie Eats, which she launched in January 2019, and brand partnerships, producing videos, blog posts, and sponsored content. With the likes of Lyft, Away, Le Creuset, and Afropunk tapping Martin to write about her travels, develop recipes, create sponsored videos for social media, and curate events, she’ll be the first to tell you that creating her own lane has not been an easy one. “I might throw 10 things at the wall and only two will stick,” Martin says. In terms of getting work from brands, Martin abides by a simple philosophy: Closed mouths don’t get fed. “As women and people of color, we’re doing amazing things — but don’t always get the attention, the business, or the access. You have to big up yourself sometimes, and say, ‘I’m working on this thing,’ and tell the people who could open doors.”

What’s next for Martin? She’s working on a digital cookbook based on the recipes she created and cooked for guests at the Runaway Jamaica, and is speaking at SOBEWFF’s Taste Jamaica event this year. She continues to partner with brands to create content, and sees Kalisa Marie Eats evolving into a source of food knowledge, clarifying the barrage of inaccurate information that permeates pop culture, and empowering others to make fully informed, educated decisions about their food. And with her background in culinary arts, food science, marketing, and advocacy (she was once part of a food justice group that empowered local communities in their food sovereignty efforts), she’s the right person for the job.

“There’s a lot of confusion about our relationship with food, whether it’s eating, what to buy, or where to buy food,” Martin says. “I think the idea of healthy is so out of whack in this country. I want to be creating content that helps people think differently about and really change their relationship with food.”

Vonnie Williams is a food writer and ice cream obsessive.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based photographer.