Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Leaving This Town, Part 2 (A whole different trip)

Leaving This Town, Part 2

There is an entry, far far back in this blog, that chronicled the frantic, sweaty, vodka-soaked exit I made from San Francisco back in the Fall of 2005.  It was filled with (cock)tails, insincere good-byes, and a lot of self-serving palaver.  It may have made for entertaining reading but it was actually a rather pathetic time in my life, one that would soon change.

We now move ahead 12 years and here I am, again making the big move to Costa Rica.  This time, however, things are a bit more orderly, a bit more composed, and yes, sober.  Rather than moving into the great unknown, I am heading to something that I know well enough that it draws me back.  This journey south, in reality, the third move to Costa Rica, is one filled with promise and ease rather than the boozy faux-confidence of the first and the nervous, newly sober anticipation of the second.
Hey, this time I got places to go and things to do and I couldn't be happier about it.

To get back to the "leaving this town" part, however, requires a bit of background.  I moved to The Dalles first as a four day a week semi-commuter, and then as things changed, as things do, as a single guy in a small apartment.  While there has been a bit of the sifting through the accumulated detritus of well paid, single guy life (too many jackets!!), this has been the exact opposite of my move from San Francisco twelve years ago.  This time I am not leaving a place I loved dearly, nor am I leaving a place where I had lived for 15 years.  I am also not trying to pack, edit, and organize my life while in a constant alcoholic haze.  This time I had a plan, I made lists, I gave myself enough time, time not uninterrupted by endless social engagements.  Funny how quitting drinking will do that to/for you.

When I realized I would be moving I began to assemble lists of the things I knew I would have to
jettison in order to beat a hasty and neat departure.  First, of course was the car.  I had bought myself a beautiful 2016 Subaru Crosstrek, thinking, at the time, that it would be the last car I'd own, that I'd drive through each and every snowstorm and across every iced street in it until I could no longer grasp the wheel or see the road.  When I bought it at the end of last October in anticipation (I must have sensed something coming) of a nasty winter, I figured it meant I would me, might well be, staying in Oregon for some time.

The old saying, "Man plans, God laughs" is all so very fitting for my car plans, my Oregon plans, my future plans.  When it became clear to me last April that I was to be a Costa Rican homeowner it also became clear that I would have to part with the first car I've ever truly loved.  I was sure, however, fiercely certain, that there would be a line of people stretching out my door for the opportunity to buy my "desert khaki", leather-seated, All Wheel Drive baby.  Was that ever a harsh lesson.

It turns out that running ads on any of the Facebook community want-ad sites here in the Columbia Gorge only attracted a whole passel of "looky Lous" who were more interested in things cheap or free
than they were things that were of value, but still a good deal.  I had begun by pricing my Crosstrek at $2000 under what the dealerships were getting for the same year and model.  A shattering lack of response had me nudging the price down, and as the days of my time here in The Dalles dwindled a mild form of panic set in.  I knew for a fact that if I were to return my car to the dealership that they
would screw me several shades of blue.

For some reason I kept trying this part of the Gorge area, The Dalles and Hood River, sure that the people here knew about winter and that they knew about Subaru.  I went through a whole week of getting no responses and then, at last, I had a buyer.  She was a lovely young woman with two kids and two dogs; a California transplant who knew she needed a Subaru.  However, after stringing me along unintentionally for five days as she exhausted her loan possibilities, she dropped out.  Finally the light bulb went off--Craigslist, Portland.  Why not?  And within an hour of posting the ad, albeit for just as much as I needed to pay off the remainder of the loan, I had the line out the door I had been dreaming of.  My buyer was willing to drive from Portland to The Dalles, coming over Mt.
Hood because of the fires, and within 24 hours the car was sold.

The same pattern repeated itself with the clothing I tried to sell for pennies on the dollar, and even cookware.  Most peculiar.  Unless I was giving stuff away, there were no takers.  So I gave it away--to Goodwill and St. Vincent de P's, winter clothes, lots of them.  And that's fine.  I've managed to donate boxes of books to the local library, and the ones they didn't want also went to St. Vinnie and Goodwill.  I hired a local mover to take the last of my furniture, the things that were far too heavy for this energetic but senior guy to take down the stairs, again to St. Vincent's.  A large portion of the last three years of my life is now up there.  Does anyone want some monogrammed chef coats, though?  Perfect.

Tonight I sit in my nearly empty apartment, two lawn chairs, a camp chair, and two end tables are all that's left.  I pack and repack the trunk to get the most of what I want in it, but still keeping it at just under 50#.  I'm debating on suitcases, but keep coming back to the reality that I don't need nearly as much as I think I do.  So much of this move is about simplifying.  I look forward to my log cabin, a wardrobe consisting of shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, and a job that is about cooking and working with someone I know and respect.   It will not be about the accruals for the winter quarter.  In five days I will be leaving this town.  I couldn't be happier.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Journey Begins--First Steps

I am sitting at my desk in my cabina looking out the swinging wooden window down my driveway to the bumpy dirt road that passes in front.  The air is clean, and it's warming up after the morning clouds have thinned.  There is a constant undercurrent of thrumming from cicadas, birds, and whatever else is out there in the trees expressing its alegria para vivir (joy for life).  It is early on in my residency in this, my new home, four days is all and despite it being a brief stay, I'm already developing a resentment over having to leave.  This is home.

I've brought down three pieces of luggage, two of them right at the 50 pound limit the airlines allow.  (In reality, one was over, but the woman checking in baggage was so harassed and overwhelmed by the Saturday morning airport mobs that she let it go.)  I brought clothes, toiletries, some carefully packed framed artwork, a stereo woofer/speaker set-up, kitchen supplies, and, even though I was advised not to, books.  I've placed things somewhat tentatively around the cabina, still not knowing where they will ultimately end up. It will all fall into place--or it won't.

Until Hurricane Harvey hit, the only thing that had made me nervous upon leaving for this trip was the luggage, its weight, and my bad back; recipe for a travel disaster.  But it couldn't have been easier.  From the van driver at the not so nicely maintained Airport Ramada in Portland, to the baggage handler at the San Jose airport (a charming Tico named Isiah), to the guy from the rental car agency who met me outside the airport they were all happy to help me and grateful for a generous tip.  Fortunately Hurricane Harvey was a non-issue as American Airlines goes through Dallas and not Houston.

Once I found my way out of Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, and only after a couple of mis-turns and backtracks, the drive on a Sunday was slow going but beautiful.  The coast was my destination, and the first city there is Jaco, a beautiful spot, despite being a tourist mecca marred by ugly hotels, some of them unfinished or abandoned.  The highway, or carreterra leading to Jaco is hilly and winding and the Costa Rican Traficos have set a low speed limit which is well enforced.  The latest threat is taking away the license plates of rental cars which have been caught speeding.

It was just over three hours from hotel to cabina and I arrived gratefully, happily, and ready, oh so ready, to be HERE.  When I bumped and bounced the poor rental car over the raised dirt across the culvert that took me through my front gates I couldn't help but notice, first thing, the work and care that my friend/caretaker Jackie and her son Aury had put into landscaping the yard--stones arranged on either side of the driveway, succulents, flowering plants, it all looked great!  The work is still going on, but what a great start.  With Jackie's help I dragged the heavy suitcase and trunk into the house and this part of the journey was done.

I did a rough unloading of the over-packed luggage and bumped back down the road I live on to the Costanera, the main highway, to visit my other new home, Ballena Bistro.  It was a good reunion with my soon-to-be business partner Anja Sonnenberg and we got right down to it.  We have met four times since I got here and every time all we can talk about is the things we want to do and the things we can do.  We've got dreams and we've got the passion and the emotional werewithal to make it happen.  Our dreams are about more than the food and creating more and more happy customers.  We want a retail outlet in the front of the building, cooking classes, and monthly (and perhaps more) special dinners.

Ballena Bistro is a successful operation and I am extremely grateful to be coming into a situation with so much already going for it.  Anja has both passion and integrity for what she has been doing and we hope to carry that to the next level, and the level beyond.  I hope that my love for cooking, my years of experience, and my devotion to quality ingredients will help push us in a direction that satisfies us just as it satisfies our guests.  This future is wide-open and I am so excited to get to be a part of it.

I'll head back to the US tomorrow, to floods, fires, and Donald Trump. All that's left is to finish out my last four days in the Google kitchens, sell my car, and empty and clean my apartment.  I'll say a few good-byes, but I can't wait to get back here, to the jungles, to my new home, and to Ballena Bistro.  The future awaits.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

So How Did This Happen?


As I continue the packing and purging process I occasionally stop to marvel at how seemingly quickly this all came about--my decision to move back to Costa Rica, how the cabina I will call home fell into my lap, and how my now business partnership with Anja at the Ballena Bistro came about.
Perhaps you wonder as well...

Eight years ago (it may have been nine) I rented a little log cabin in the jungle, down a dirt road and a mile or so off the main coastal highway that runs along the Pacific and through the town of Uvita.  It was perfect for me.  It was within a 15 minute drive to work, it had a large covered back deck, it sat back far enough from the road, and it had every simple convenience I might need.  For reasons we need not go into, after eight or nine months I ended up moving out of it for the lure of a house-sitting opportunity that included free rent in a lovely house higher up in the hills that looked out at the Pacific.  Who could blame me?

We now move forward to the late winter/early spring of 2016 and I am in Oregon, working as the Executive Chef/GM at a Google Data Center and going through heavy chemotherapy for treatment of lymphoma.  I'm not feeling so good and really have no idea what lies ahead and how much of it there will be.  Interrupting this somewhat depressing scenario I get an email from a woman whom I've never met who happens to have bought the cabina in the jungle that I had rented.  She is inquiring as to whether I, as a former dweller/tenant in the cabina might be interested in buying it from her.  It has proven to be too small for she and her husband and the price she offers me is great, reasonable, but as I have no idea what my (hoped for) recovery holds I have to tell her that no, this is not something I can do.  Sigh...

Let's move forward another year, to the horrible, dismal, ugly, frozen winter of 2016-17.  I have decided that, as Popeye once said, "I've stood all I can stand, I can't stand no more..." and that there will be no more winters in The Dalles, OR for me.  I can no longer endure three and four layers of ice in the streets, the only passageway to Portland and civilization being shut down for 3-4 days at a time, and having to put on knee-high snow boots just to get out to my car.  No!!

It also turns out that I am struggling to endure the encroaching and ever-widening corporate maw that is taking over the food operation I run at the local Google Data Center.  What was once a real cooking Chef job, creating the menu daily, buying local produce, and supporting local vendors is and was rapidly turning into a purely administrative position.  I spend my time supporting corporate ideals and turning over my freedom to purchase and cook the ingredients for which I live.

And so the still fertile Mahler mind begins to churn with dreams of heading back to the jungle, to reaching out to the friends and connections I made when last I cooked there, to where my heart lies (lay?).  I contact my friends at La Cusinga to inquire as to whether or not they might have knowledge of any properties that might fit in with my meager retirement dollar.  I contact other friends via Facebook, and all the usual social media options.  Sadly, it seems that my meager retirement dollar isn't going to get me very far.  Until the notion pops into my aging and occasionally sieve-like mind to get back in touch with the owners of the little cabina in the jungle on the outside chance, hope, dream, that it might not have sold.

As they say, as the Four Tops said, I reach out.  I reach out in the darkness in the dim hope that my dim hopes might brighten.  I wrote back to ask about the cabina in the jungle, has it sold, and Que Milagro, it has not!!  The couple who owned it, a couple of Canadians, decided to stay in it another year to gather their resources and are just getting ready to put it on the market.  Without a moment's hesitation I tell them I'll take it.  They accept my offer.  I am stunned, then...YES!!!  I WILL own the cabina, and I WILL move back to Costa Rica.

Now, being a landholder in Costa Rica I write back to friends and connections and in those writings I contact via Facebook Messenger, my friend Anja Sonnenberg, the owner of the Ballena Bistro, a very cool little jungle restaurant that sits just off that coastal highway.  I tell her of my return to Costa Rica and the first thing that pops up on her Messenger screen is "No Shit!!  Let's work together!" Another semi-miracle.  I WILL cook again in Costa Rica!!

I had already booked a trip to New Orleans to visit my old friends Philipe and Debbie for Jazz Fest and it was oh so easy to just piggyback a little jaunt further south and down into Central America on the back end of my trip.  I had sent the check, I had written to the abogado (attorney), and I was ready to put my name on the paper.  I had a whirlwind visit to Costa Rica following a wonderful four days in the Big Easy and put my name on the papers, met with Anja, and caught up with old friends to share my good news

The second half of the equation, the other piece of the puzzle had fallen into my lap, even easier than had the first.  I was and still am somewhat stunned by the ease with which this happened.  Now I pack, and I purge, I visit Goodwill, and the homes of friends who will help me store my things.  I am finishing out at work, and I am readying myself for a pack mule/reconnaissance trip to Uvita at the end of next week.  It is all happening SO fast, but I can handle it.  After all, it's time to go home.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Blog Awakes!!

The Blog Awakes!!

Yes, I am taking the wraps off the sleeping Chef of the Jungle blog and giving it new life, just as I am giving myself new life by returning to the kitchen.  I am leaving my big-time Corporate Chef job in which I spend 80% of my day in my office for the heat, the intensity, the creativity, and the love of the kitchen.  I've risen to the point of not even being a clipboard carrier, but to one who oversees the clipboard carrier, and I am DONE.

As well, I am leaving the bewildering, shaky, and not so friendly confines of the United States, to return to Costa Rica.  I am going into partnership with my friend Anja Sonnenberg in her Ballena Bistro on the Costanera in the Zona Sur.  For those of you unfamiliar with the lay of the land down there, this is way down the southern Pacific coast at the top of the Osa Peninsula, about two hours north of Panama.  The area has been dubbed the "Costa Ballena" in honor of the annual migration of the whales who arrive to spawn, to calve, and to frolic each Spring.

I am looking forward to returning to the creativity I felt daily in Costa Rica, the land of beautiful fresh fish, mangoes, pineapples, papayas and so much more.  Anja and I are both concerned about eating and serving healthy foods so as we change the menu together it will be with an eye and a palate tuned to a more vegetable-centric cuisine.  This is not to say we won't be serving fresh fish, locally raised organic chickens, or some of the great pork that is raised in Costa Rica, but vegetables and fruits will play an equally important role in our cooking.

I've got a head full of ideas and am counting down the days.  Stay tuned here as the Chef of the Jungle rides again!!!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Traveling On Our Stomachs


Kathy and I have set out on a rare vacation that has taken us from Portland to Scottsdale/Phoenix and will continue on mid-week to Austin, TX.

Our first night in Portland we ate at a restaurant that has been on my "need to try" list since I moved to Oregon, Ned Ludd.  The restaurant is named, of course, after Ned Ludd who became the figurehead of the Luddites in the early 19th Century because he broke two stocking frames in a fit of rage in the 1790's.  In the tradition of the Luddites Ned Ludd embraces, to a certain degree, a return to simplicity.  All of the cooked food at Ned Ludd comes either out of a roaring wood-fired oven that is the center-piece of the restaurant or a smoker that puffs away out on the front patio.

Ned Ludd sits in a storefront on Portland's MLK Jr. Boulevard in a neighborhood that might be described as "just beyond transition".  There are restaurants opening up and down the street and what was once a rather ominous part of the city is opening up.  The restaurant, remaining true to its ideals and name, is rather simply adorned with found art, food related tchotchkes and lots of recycled wood.  Service is unpretentious and friendly.  The menu changes monthly and like so many of the good Portland restaurants relies on the seasons to drive its menu direction.  The choices are divided into four parts, Forbits, Kaltbits, Warmbits and Plats.

We started off with a generous bowl of oven-warmed olives and the de rigeur Martini for Kathy.  Fortunately for them they were serving Aviation gin.  The first course offerings were interesting and included a generous plate of house made charcuterie, but what really grabbed us were the salad and vegetable sides (Kaltbits/Warmbits).  We wanted to try all of them.  We settled for a smoky charred salad of oven roasted cauliflower with a bright green nettle sauce and pine nuts and an escarole salad with paper thin slices of sunchoke topped with an olive bread crumb  and tossed with a creamy dijon dressing.  Both were excellent, but I STILL want to try the Arugula salad with oven roasted beets, fresh local sheep's cheese and pistachios as well as the Roasted potatoes with Spring goddess dressing.

Back to the oven for our entrees, a bronzed stuffed quail for me and Petrale sole for Kathy.  My quail was one of the best I've eaten, stuffed with braised bitter greens and sauced with a nice bird reduction sweetened slightly with dried fruit.  The quail sat on a thick bed of oven-roasted root vegetables and was topped with a scatter of mizuna leaves.  As I said, one of the best quail dishes I've ever had.  Kathy's sole was good, but certainly not supernal (thanks, George).  The fish was rolled into cylinders and roasted with chanterelles, white wine, raabs and leeks.  The sauce was "nice" and the fish was fresh, but the whole dish didn't elevate past "good" into "great".

We finished off with something called a "Tarte de Perigord" which was a custard infused with brandy soaked dried fruits and baked in the wood oven in a small cast iron skillet.  I was skeptical, but it was a great way to end the meal; slightly sweet and slightly rich.  I couldn't be absolutely certain but it seemed to go well with the local Pear Brandy that Kathy had with her coffee.  I liked Ned Ludd so much that I wish we lived closer to Portland so I could go once a month to see how the menu changes.  The meal wasn't exorbitantly expensive and the whole experience was totally charming and satisfying.


And onto Phoenix; warm weather, a pre-fab feel and mountains off across the horizon.  Lots of gated communities and some of the most aggressive and rude drivers I've ever encountered.  BUT, amidst all that,  we got to see Spring Training baseball and family.  Hard to beat that.

Oh yes, there was the pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco.  Fifteen years ago a chef friend told me about this guy in Phoenix who was making the best pizza he'd ever eaten.  He said the guy was a crust perfectionist and that the line stretched around the block before the place even opened each day.  I started reading about him in the food press a couple of years later and then hadn't heard much about him as the culinary trends changed.  He was still down here, though, building a mini-empire of two good-sized full service restaurants and a newer location called Pane Bianco.

I insisted that we go.  I was here, it was here and I wasn't taking no for an answer.  Good thing.
We found the place inside a Town and Country shopping center and the line was still there.
We were told it would be a 25-30 minute wait and it was more like 45 minutes but it was all okay.
We sat outside on a lovely warm evening and while Kathy and her daughter Chelsea drank very expensive Chardonnay the kids ran around and I just dug the smells coming out of the wood burning ovens.

We sat down and they immediately dropped warm house-baked bread and SOME REALLY GOOD OLIVE OIL in front of us.  We scarfed the first plate of bread up so fast the busser laughed as he dropped the second one.   The menu is so simple as to be deceptive, but don't worry.  This place rocks!  We ordered a simple salad of local greens and a classic Caprese salad and they were both exemplary.  The greens featured a good amount of escarole, olives and a nicely light vinaigrette.  The tomatoes in the Caprese were actually ripe and they included the top with the green vine on the side of the plate as evidence of its freshness.  The mozzarella was homemade, creamy and actually had flavor.  Fresh green basil leaves and more of that great green olive oil made me remember why this is one of the great dishes.

We ordered a Margherita for the kids and a sauceless pizza with more of that house made mozzarella that had been smoked, caramelized onions, and long slices of a perfectly spicy fresh made sausage. These were seriously good pizzas.  Seriously.  Good pizza depends on a good crust and this was GREAT crust.  It was smoky, salty, perfectly chewy and one of the best pizza crusts I have ever eaten.  It is now the benchmark for me.  As you might imagine, the pizzas disappeared in record time.

It is rare that a pizza place offers dessert, but we were in the mood and the kids ears perked up at the mention of "flourless chocolate cake".  I am SO glad we ordered dessert!  The chocolate cake was good, really good, but the lemon tart I had was ethereal, everything you ever wanted in a lemon tart.  It was sweet, creamy, tart, all of it.  And the crust was great.  Accompanying and elevating both these desserts was a rich and delicious vanilla creme chantilly.  Another bullseye here.

I would go back to Pizzeria Biano tomorrow and maybe the next day.  It was that good.

And so, on to Austin...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

GUMBO: The Recipe

GUMBO Pt 2  The Recipe (or not)

I'll put the disclaimer right at the top. This is not going to be a recipe like you might be used to.  This is NOT going to be a listing of ingredients followed by the steps of how to put them together; exactly.  Those things will all be here, but it seems to me that writing down a recipe for gumbo like you're making cookies or salad dressing compromises the depth, the mystery, the secret codes and the soul of what gumbo really is.  Gumbo is how you feel that day.  Gumbo is what you happen to have lying around.  Gumbo is and was survival food.  There are as many different versions of gumbo as there are cooks who have cooked it.  This one happens to be ONE of mine.

The last time I wrote down a recipe for gumbo it was for my younger sister and it ran to about eight pages and included a lot of legend and lore.  Sadly, her treasured recipe book, wherein my treatise was stored, was stolen by the jealous ex-wife of her now husband and whatever wisdom/knowledge/hearsay I imparted has flown to the winds.  It is not at all unlikely that whatever I happen to write here my contradict much of what I wrote then.  Gumbo is like that.  I'm like that.  She said hers came out pretty good.

Another disclaimer early on is that I have always made gumbo in batches anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons.  This will not be that big and as a result, the amounts may not be precise.  Bear with me; improvise and intuit.  Lastly, remember that this is just a base recipe. You will be expected/advised to add the goodies: crab, shrimp, oysters, duck, etc., per your own tastes and desires.

There are two lists of ingredients, mandatory and optional...

The mandatories are:

The Holy Trinity of Vegetables plus garlic, jalapenos, green onions and okra (cut frozen is just fine)
Chicken Legs

And the optionals are:
Hot Sauce
Seafood (shrimp, crab, crawfish, oysters...)
Rice (although this is more of a given; it's gotta have rice)


2 Cups All Purpose Flour
2 Cups Canola Oil (or Canola Oil and some rendered bacon fat)

Let's start with roux, a simple mix of equal parts of flour and fat that is traditionally used for thickening soups and sauces.  We won't bother with any of that white and blonde roux stuff.  We won't even pretend that this is for thickening; it isn't.  This is gumbo and the roux is "as black as your arm if your arm was black" and it is cooked to the point where nearly all the gluten, the thickening agent, is cooked out of it.  What it does do is give gumbo that elusive, haunting smoky and almost burned flavor for which it is famous.  The roux is so simple yet so ultimately critical to the final flavor of your gumbo.

I use canola oil for my roux and if I happen to have some rendered bacon fat I'll mix that in with it when I heat it up.  I find that a light simple oil like canola is easy to work with, smokes at a relatively high heat and blends easily.  Yes, the bacon renderings add flavor, but you're going to need a WHOLE lot of bacon fat if you want to use it exclusively for your roux and honestly, clarified butter is just too damned expensive

There is a school of thought that subscribes to the theory that in order to make a proper roux you have to heat the oil to a flashpoint, add the flour as fast as you can (without creating napalm) and then stir like a mo' fo' until it turns black.  I'm not sure why this is a popular theory, but I don't do that.  No, I don't.  Heat the oil slowly until it comes up to point well below smoking and stir in your flour.  Keep the flame somewhere between low and medium and relax.  Put on some music you love and hang out with your roux for a while, stirring and stirring.  It is critical at this point that you use a wooden spoon or something that will easily insinuate itself into the edges (or corners) of your pan.  You don't ever, ever, ever want the roux to stick to the pan.

You will, with patience, begin to observe the roux slowly, very slowly changing color, or at first you may just wish you were.  But yes, it will begin to change color and edge away from the whitish tan  glop you have been stirring toward something a bit suaver and tanner.  The stirring will also become easier as the roux heats through.  As the roux cooksm the gluten, that is, the thickening agents, begin to cook out of it and the roux will become thinner and thinner the longer it cooks.  Continue to exercise your patience, rock back and forth (or sway) to the music and keep stirring.  There will be a direct parallel between the thickness of the roux and the color as it cooks.

  As the roux grows darker it becomes quite thin and needn't be stirred so arduously.  Before the flour is fully cooked is when the roux is most in danger of burning.  You will now begin to work your way through the gradations of color; ecru, tan, peanut butter and finally, oh yes, finally at last into the chocolates.  Keep the roux moving but look for it (or at least I look for it) to turn the color of a good chocolate sauce.  When it hits that point take the pan off the flame and put it somewhere to slowly cool.  Keep stirring because you do want the roux to keep cooking, although you've effectively slowed the process down.  This will bring the roux to the ultimate "black" color all on its own.  The pan can now sit, unrefrigerated, until you feel ready to make your gumbo.  Do go back and give it frequent stirs during its first half hour off the stove.  As the roux cools it will separate slowly; let it.


2 Gallons Previously Made Chicken Stock
8-12 Whole Chicken Legs
2 Cups Rough Chopped Yellow Onion
4 Seeded and Rough Chopped Green Bell Peppers
1 Head Rough Chopped Celery
1 Cup Rough Chopped Green Onions
2-3 Heads Smashed Garlic
All the Chicken Bones you've saved
All the Shrimp Shells you've saved
All the Crab Shells you've saved  

It is absolutely true that you can make perfectly good gumbo using water as your liquid base.  There should, in theory, be plenty enough flavorful additions to the pot (the roux chief among them) to make a tasty gumbo.  But you (and I know this about you) are not looking for just a "perfectly good gumbo",  you are looking to make a gumbo that has a depth of flavor, layers and layers of flavor; a gumbo that makes you close your eyes and wonder, "where did THAT come from?"  One of the many, many answers to that question will be that at least SOME of "THAT" came from the rich, deep and mysteriously flavored stock you added to the pot.

I'm going to tell you how to make this deep and mysteriously flavored stock by making an awfully large presumption.  I'm going to presume that you not only know HOW to make a good chicken stock, but that you will have a gallon or two of it on hand to make your gumboIn this recipe you will be using cooked chicken legs and a good way to cook those legs is to gently poach them in a bath of simmering previously made chicken stock.  This will not only get your legs properly cooked, it will also enrich your previously made stock.

Take the cooked chicken legs out of the stock and turn your oven on to 450.  When the oven is hot put all the chopped vegetables and all the animal parts into a heavy roasting pan and roast them for at least 45 minutes before you touch them.  Stir up the bones and vegetables in the roasting pan to see if they're beginning to stick to the pan.  They should be.  Put the pan back in the oven and continue roasting until you can see that the tops of the veggies and the chicken bones are taking on a rich brown color. (This is a good time to pull the chicken meat from the cooked legs and add the bones to the pan.)  Scrape the pan again to check for caramelization on the bottom of the pan.  What you want is for the vegetables, bones and shells to be breaking down into a nearly burnt, brown crumbly mess that is sticking to the pan.

When you feel as if you have achieved optimum browning and are afraid to let it go any farther (no, I mean really afraid) take the pan out of the oven and scoop all the browned ingredients into a heavy stock pot.  Put the hot roasting pan on a couple of burners on your stove and turn them to medium high so that the pan starts to sizzle.  Pour in 2-3 cups of your previously made (and enriched) chicken stock and scrape up everything you can from the bottom of the pan.  Please be careful.  When you feel like you've got it all scraped off the bottom and sides pour it into the pan over the roasted mix and see if you need to do it again.  Scrape EVERYTHING you can into the pot, pour the rest of your chicken stock over it and make another stock.  Bring this one to a boil, drop the heat, pull the pot over to one side of the burner so that the bubble just comes up the side of the pot and let it cook for 3-4 hours.  If you feel as if you are losing liquid too quickly either add more chicken stock or water to keep the level even with where you started.

Strain the stock when it is cool enough for you to feel comfortable handling it and put it on a shelf in your refrigerator so that air will pass both over and under it.  Let it rest for a day to allow the flavors to settle and so that whatever fat there is comes to the top and is easy to remove.  Your stock is ready and your roux is ready.  Now it's time to get the solid ingredients ready and move into actual gumbo making.


The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is onions, green bell peppers and celery.  It is purported and it often really seems that those three vegetables show up in nearly every dish, be it Cajun, Creole, or somewhere in between.  There are those like me who detest green bell peppers yet end up admitting, somewhat grudgingly, that once they immerse themselves for hours in all other things "gumbo" they do indeed have their place.  There is an entirely different school that questions the need for celery and I agree that it probably has less presence than any of the other ingredients and can, at times, come off, when one can actually taste it, as slightly bitter.  I do remember that at the Elite Cafe we went through a period where we experimented with omitting it from our basic gumbo recipe, but ultimately decided that we could take it or leave it, so we took it.  Ultimately you must look at the Trinity as a flavor base that will cook deep into and indeed become an unseen (at least at the first adding) layer of flavor.

The "plus three" for me are garlic, lots and lots of garlic, jalapeno peppers, and green onions.  Each of these has their place in my gumbo and therefore are included in this recipe.  To me they are all essential components of the gumbo flavor.


The underlying flavor of smoked pork is key to my own gumbo flavor base and while I do love using andouille, the long smoked and densely made sausage of Louisiana, I have had success using other smoked sausages and at Belle Roux we omitted Andouille entirely and used our own house-made Creole-style smoked pork sausages.  Our recipe combined the best parts of Andouille and Chaurice sausages and added a rich greasy smoky flavor.  Whatever you choose to use must have a smokey flavor and a good healthy spice to it to effectively enhance your gumbo.


8 Big Yellow Onions, cut in large dice
8 Big Green Bell Peppers, cut in large dice
2 Heads Celery, cut in large dice
6 Heads Garlic, peeled and chopped
8 Jalapenos, diced
2 Bunches of Green Onions, sliced and reserved
16-20 Spicy Smoked Pork Sausages (If you are using Andouille, which are generally longer, use 10)
1# Frozen Sliced Okra

Cut the vegetables, mix them and divide them in half.  Set the green onions aside for later use.
Dice half the sausages and and cut the other half into discs.  

Put your big gumbo pot on the stove and bring it up to a medium heat.  Add the diced sausages and let them cook slowly so that they render their fat.  When they have given up as much fat as they can, add one half of the chopped mixed vegetables and stir them into the sausages.  Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are coated with fat and beginning to soften.  Pour your gumbo stock over the vegetables and bring it to a boil.  Let it come to a rapid boil and then turn it down, pull it to one side of the burner and do a slow simmer for an hour.

On another burner bring your black roux back to life by heating it very slowly until it becomes smooth and the oil is once again incorporated.  You do not need to get it cooking, only to heat it so that it becomes nearly liquid and is close to the same temperature as the simmering stock.  Increase the heat of the cooking gumbo stock and vegetables and when it is just short of a boil, add the black roux in a slow stream while whisking steadily.  When the roux is completely incorporated, bring the (now) gumbo to a boil again then reduce the heat and repeat the pulling of the pot to one side of the burner.

Place your cut Andouille (or other sausage) discs on a sheet pan with the cut frozen okra and roast them in a 450 degree oven until they both begin to brown and stick to the pan.  This will take 20-25 minutes.  Scrape them up and add the sausage and okra to the gumbo.  Using the same technique as you did to deglaze the roasted bone pan, deglaze the sheet pan with a half cup of water to capture the remaining browned bits that have stuck to the pan.  Stir the okra/sausage mix in and add the second half of your  chopped vegetables to the gumbo pot.  Stir them in and bring the gumbo up to heat one more time, stopping it just short of a boil.  Return the heat to medium low and pull the pot to the side of the burner once again.

You have now added the bulk of the ingredients to the gumbo and it needs to cook.  As it cooks, the gumbo will begin to take in the cooked flour from the roux and discard the oil it was mixed with and that oil needs to be removed One of the reasons for setting the pot to the side of the burner is that as the oil comes to the top it will journey over to the side of the pot away from the heat and be much easier to ladle off.  Using as broad and flat a ladle as you have, begin what will be a long, long process of scooping the grease off as it rises to the top.  This isn't something you need to do constantly, but you will need to return to the pot every 10-15 minutes to do some scooping and you will be doing this scooping for the next hour and possibly longer. 

Now is a good time to start tasting the gumbo.  The first taste will be rich, but a bit flat.  It's going to need salt and pepper and I like mine to have a bit of a black pepper bite.  Start with a healthy handful of salt and at least half a hand of black pepper. Stir them in, wait five minutes and taste again.  If you want your gumbo to start off spicy you can start adding hot sauce and letting it cook in.  I like to use Tabasco because I feel like the acid in the vinegar base helps heighten the other flavors.  You may not feel that way.  In any case, shake a healthy ounce or two in and let it cook for another ten or fifteen minutes and give it a taste.  

At this point of cooking, perhaps three hours or so, you should have a very gumbo like product.  Keep skimming and ladling the fat off and for this last hour of cooking add the sliced and reserved green onions to the pot along with the chicken meat that you pulled off the bones, way back when.  Cook the gumbo for another half hour or so with the green onions in it and then turn off the heat.  You have made your gumbo base.  Let it cool on the stove top until it is less dangerous to handle and then either ladle or pour it into containers that will fit in your refrigerator (where I KNOW you have created space for it).  Try to put the gumbo in a place in the refrigerator where air will pass both under and over the container.  You want to cool the bottom and the top of the gumbo at the same time.

As you would with anything you would cook that has this many flavors, let your gumbo rest overnight so that the flavors begin to meld.  You may notice that even three days after being made the gumbo will taste slightly different than it did when you first brought it off the stove.  

Bring the gumbo out and slowly bring it up to heat in small amounts (or heat all if it if you're having a crowd). When you serve your gumbo have a pot of cooked white rice ready to put in the bowls under the gumbo when you serve it.  When the gumbo is hot you get to decide how you want to dress it up.  I like it with Dungeness crab, both whole legs and body parts.  But I also like it with oysters and/or shrimp just barely poached in the gumbo as it sits and slowly roils just short of a boil.  I also like to add roast duck or chicken, more sausage, or tasso.  And of course, there are those who will want to sprinkle gumbo file (ground sassafras root), although I have never been able to see (or taste) the point in that.  Me?  I like a sprinkle of thinly sliced green onions and a dash of hot sauce right at the end.  You've gotten this far, you know what you want.  Have at it...

Sunday, January 27, 2013



There was a time in my life when I made gumbo every week.  Big pots of gumbo.  Gallons and gallons  of gumbo.  For nearly six years I ran the kitchens of two N'Awlins style restaurants in San Francisco, of all places; back to back and year butted up against year. When I started making it I thought I knew a little bit about what gumbo was all about and when I finally stopped making it with huge regularity I had come to realize that I was just learning what gumbo was all about.

Like a lot of cooks of my generation, I came into what we all used to call Cajun cooking (even though it really wasn't Cajun cooking at all) courtesy of Paul Prudhomme.  There was a food revolution going on (yeah, remember THAT?) and the places where I worked, which just happened to be Berkeley, were in on what was happening out there on that once cutting edge.  Not only were we (and I'm generously lumping myself in here with Mark Miller, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, Bruce Aidells, and of course, Alice) doing our best to both push the borders, as well as discover the terroir, of what we were cooking, we were also aware that there were cooks and chefs Just Like Us who were doing it in their own necks of the woods.

Nobody discovered regional cooking, it was always there.  In many cases, however, it had been buried, or set aside like a boring old book, while different directions and options were pursued.  It did seem, however, that an unspoken and underground movement sprung up nearly simultaneously all over the country and suddenly we, the cooks, were aware that there was something abrewing nearly everywhere  we looked.  And a lot of these cooks were re-evaluating the foods that the folks around them had been eating all their lives.

Despite the fact that it may indeed have been the one single place that stayed most in touch with its roots, New Orleans became a flashing red light at that time on just about everyone's dashboard and a lot of that was do to Chef Paul Prudhomme.  He was just a big ol' quiet shy country boy (and yes, he is/was Cajun) who happened to make his way into a Big Time kitchen in N'Awlins and just happened to, because he loved the cuisine, start tweaking it to the point where it caught the attention of people who cared.

I met Chef Paul in the kitchen of the 4th St. Grill in Berkeley where he'd come to visit the Chef I was working for, Mark Miller.  At that time, even in his pre-Coyote Cafe days, Mark was making a name for himself by cooking with chiles that no one had ever heard of and was just beginning to push the edge of the palates of the dining public.  4th St. Grill was a stop-off point for other chefs around the country who were just as curious about what we were doing as we were about them.  I stood in a bit of a daze and eavesdropped as they talked gumbo, how to make the right black roux, what sauce debris was and a whole lot of other arcane knowledge.

I was transfixed and knew immediately that I wanted to learn a whole lot more about cooking that kind of food.  I set off buying every New Orleans cookbook I could find (and there weren't a whole lot of them out there at the time).  I absconded with a Brennan's cookbook from the 60's that my dad had brought home from a business trip years before and also latched onto The New Orleans Cookbook by Richard Collin and one or two others.  I had a few side trips, but by 1983 I had a chef's job in the Napa Valley where we did a week celebrating a local New Orleans Jazz Festival and I had a week to cook and serve my version of the food I'd been digging into.

What that week of cooking did was open my eyes to the complexity and diversity of the cuisine.  I realized that there was a WHOLE lot more to all of this than slinging some red-spiced fish into a blazing hot pan.  I made marchand du vin sauce, I found a source for "real"andouille",  I learned about tasso and muffalettas and etoufee, AND, I made my first batches of gumbo.  At the time I thought they were good.  They weren't, not really, but they were okay.

Roll the film forward somewhat slowly and you see me working in restaurants in and around the SF Bay Area and putting my New Orleans leanings on hold for a spell.  But as my career began to run its course I found myself living nearly around the corner from the Elite Cafe in San Francisco.   The Elite had been the first restaurant in the City to devote itself entirely to the cuisine of New Orleans and it was a hotbed of blackened redfish.   But by the time I started going there the Elite had been open for nearly 12 or 13 years and was beginning to show signs of wear and tear.  My ex and I would go in during softshell crab season and I would look around from my seat at the ancient counter and think, "If I was the Chef here. . . ".

Naturally, I ended up as the Chef of the Elite.   I got hired at the Elite Cafe in Spring of 1994 in attempt to get it back "on track" numbers-wise, and to drag it kicking and screaming into the 90's.  I had the very good fortune to inherit a good kitchen crew, chief among them, a sous-chef, Steve Harlow, who took his gumbo making very seriously.  So began a five year stretch of my life in which I made or participated in making at least 15 gallons of gumbo every single week.


It was my opinion in early 1994 that I knew how to make a pretty good batch of gumbo.   I hadn't made it in large quantities on a regular basis, but I had made some 5 gallon pots of it that I thought were pretty darn good.   I knew how to make a dark roux and I knew how to throw the Holy Trinity (onions, bell peppers and celery) in on top of it along with stock, andouille sausage, garlic and some hot stuff to make it gumbo-like.   What I had no appreciation for, or even understanding of, at that time, was how gumbo was made up of layers and layers of flavor.   And not knowing that, I certainly had no idea of how to go about getting/creating something I didn't even know existed.

When I started work as Chef at the Elite Cafe I learned quickly that most of the cooking, the "setting of flavors" was done in the daytime.  At night it was busy; way too busy to do anything but fry popcorn shrimp, flash highly-seasoned filets of fish in a cast iron skillet, slam out plate after plate with the same potato/veggie combo and then do it again, all night long.   It was in the daytime, however, when Mr. Harlow, who had been at the Elite close to when it opened and had returned several years before I arrived put together the gumbo, the etouffee, the red beans and rice, all the desserts, all the stuffings and all the sauces.

When a chef or cook makes the same dishes each week, often on the same day of the week for weeks, then months on end, one of two things can happen:  either the chef/cooks grows weary and unchallenged by the roteness of it and either he suffers or the food suffers and often both flag in their freshness and flavor; the second is that the chef/cook can begin to see the nuances, the oddities, the changes, the aberrations that can occur from one batch to the next, no matter how minute or non-earthshaking they may be.

What happened at the Elite is that once Steve Harlow and I began working together, the Gumbo Discussions began.   We began speculating on what made gumbo gumbo; what made it taste right, taste good and what might or might not give it the complexity we both knew it should have.  What I brought to the Gumbo Discussions was a serious and classical cook's background in how flavors were developed.  I knew about reductions and infusions, roasting for flavor and kitchen techniques that had been the building blocks of flavor for years.  I had also made gumbo in five or six different restaurants and received varying criticisms in those restaurants.  What Steve brought was an artist's mind and palate, years of experience of having made the gumbo, loyalty to something he was proud of, and a philosophy fueled by the first Elite Cafe Chef, Thomas Brown, who described the need for the gumbo roux to be "as black as your arm if your arm was black".

Week in, week out we opened that kitchen at 7:30 AM, put on anything from Coltrane to Hendrix, from Hank Williams and George Jones to Arthur Alexander on the battered tapedeck and set about making the foundation of the Elite Cafe's flavors.   We made gumbo on Wednesday, etouffee on Thursday, red beans when they were needed.   I took over the pie crusts but Steve still made the fillings.  He made creamed spinach and on Friday he made our famous filet hash.  On Tuesday's we cooked 150#s of baby back ribs and at least twice a week made the accompanying BBQ sauce.

I changed a few things right away because that's what I had wanted to do back when I had sat at the worn counter stools and eaten things I didn't like, but most of it either stayed the same or evolved slowly.  All of it was up for discussion.  What changed most over my three and a half years though, albeit slowly, almost imperceptibly if you were a guest, was the gumbo.  It got richer and deeper; smoother, yet edgier.  We started roasting the andouille and the okra on a sheet pan together before we added them to the base.  For a while we left out the celery.  For a while we added basil mixed in with green onions at the end.  After a while we began adding the vegetables in two layers, one at the beginning and one two or three hours into the cooking process.

It was never Cajun gumbo, or Creole gumbo, or even New Orleans gumbo, because every single gumbo is different.  But what it was, at the end of that time we spent together, was a damn good gumbo, one that I know I was proud of.  And I'm sure it changed even more when the next Chef, who was actually from Louisiana and had some mighty strong opinions about gumbo, came aboard.  I moved on to yet another Louisiana-style restaurant, Belle Roux, where I got to create my own menu and banish all those things that the Elite had made me hold on to.  I made the gumbo each week in a style very similar to the one Steve Harlow and I had talked about and experimented on so many times.  And then I started to tweak it all on my own.  I still do every time I make it.

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.