Wednesday, December 30, 2009



I had breathed. I had gone outside and looked at the ocean and the jungles and I had wiped yet another quart or two of repugnant alcoholic smelling sweat from my brow. I put my seething anger and frustration aside and putting my head up, go back to retake my kitchen. Everybody has made their beans and rice and gotten their little afternoon meal, so I could continue.

If I haven't mentioned it yet, I should here and now; this kitchen is tiny. There is a front half where the cooking apparatus are. There is a flat top griddle, six burners, and a small oven. That's it. Facing out toward the dining room are two salad refrigerators, one that works and one that doesn't. A salad refrigerator sits about waist high and has two doors that open from the front and a top loading space for small inserts of dressings and condiments. Around one corner of the hotline, tucked into an alcove is an ancient French fryer perched on a rickety wooden table. I had yet to master the art of controlling the thermostat, so there was either a huge cloud of smoke rising above it, or else the oil lay inert and tepid.

Around the corner of the griddle was a narrow aisle way that served as the major artery between the front and back halves of the kitchen as well as providing the only access to the dishroom. This passway was, of course, where almost everyone chose to stand. A waiter and a busser who were new to us arrived and somehow quickly found their way into that crowded area of the kitchen. Despite the irrefutable reality of our opening in less than two hours, no one had seemed to take an interest in telling the new and untrained waitstaff where to go, what to do or, better yet, where not to go and what not to do.

The gentleman who supplied us with the Costa Rican cigars that we would sell at our bar arrived and wondered whether or not he could order some bocas (small plates), Kate was everywhere in and out of the kitchen but was getting nothing done while taking up a lot of space, and John and Carlos (the dishwasher) hatched a plot to drive to Randall's house in Punta Mala to see if he had gone home. We had reached what I could only hope was the height of disorganization and the kitchen felt as if it were getting smaller and smaller. And I was sweating in great flowing rivers. The demons in my head were screaming for a drink because, they assured me, three or four ounces of rum would take the edge off.

I started to make everything. Everything. I assembled the rice for the Jambalaya and fortunately the mirepoix vegetables had already been cut. I oversaw the making of "Chef Dave's Whack-amole"; my own four ingredient take on Guacamole. I finished seasoning the fresh pargo (red snapper) ceviche. I realized that I have forgotten to bake the tropical fruit bread pudding so I pulled the mother batch from the walk-in, added a little more eggs and cream (that makes everything better, right?) and slung it into the oven.

Betza was quite helpful. She was solid while Katya was willing, but not quite able She did and does have a sweet smile though. The two of them were almost able to do the work of one, and the salad/appetizer station was nearly together. I started in the back and checked the girls out for their salad prep. We had a shrimp cocktail with a nice spicy papaya cocktail sauce that came out just as I wanted. All three salads appeared to be ready including my favorite creation, the "Taste of the Osa", which featured marinated roasted beets, fresh hearts of palm in a light vinaigrette, and slices of avocado lightly dressed with mandarin lime juice. The girls and I chilled stacks of plates and I got a sense that we could actually serve food from here. This was a huge relief.

It was rapidly approaching 4:00 when John and Carlos returned and reported the already foregone news that Randall has disappeared entirely. Fortunately, amidst the swirling chaos, my professional instincts had kicked in and I was already well prepared intellectually and spiritually for his absence. Right. Menu in hand I proceeded to the front to start checking off what I’d forgotten and what I’d remembered.

Cigar Greg stuck his head in the kitchen again and politely reminded me about his food, the undirected floor staff was milling and meadering from place to place and there were so many people coming in and out of the front door of the kitchen it was madness. And for some reason smoke was filling the kitchen. I suddenly realized that although I'd had the two overhead fans running, I'd neglected to turn on the hood fan. I though that ought to fix things. But it didn’t.

I heard a tiny feminine Hispanic voice calling, "Chef, Chef", and looked over to see thick smoke billowing out of and above the ancient portable fryer. Katya had on the saddest face you've ever seen. Ryan had decided to master the thermostat and has adjusted the control knobs the wrong way and then walked away. The fires beneath the oil were glowing red hot and flames were leaping around the outsides of the unit. I grabbed a dry towel and turned down the heat, but realized full well that we wouldn't be able to use the fryer for quite some time. I snatched up two heavy pans, filled them with oil and put them on the stove. Betza and Katya would have to fry the first batches of chips for "Whack-amole" and ceviche on top of the stove, the old way.

With the fryer off, the smoke began to clear, and with that clairity it seemed as if we were set. I had all my portioned fish and chicken up front in my reach-in. The beans, yam-plantain puree, and chicken stock were in their water bath on the griddle top and it was up to temperature. The jambalaya was out of the oven, my table top mis en place (the things I’d need to assemble each dish) was ready, we could even feed Cigar Man. I fired off his fish cakes and a side of jambalaya and our first order, however unofficial, had gone out the doors.

The food going out the door seemed to signal or spark the hunger of the drinkers at the bar and our first official order was taken. It was for a shrimp cocktail for a well-oiled bar patron. I walked the girls through the construction, even though we'd made this plate together three or four times. It looked beautiful, the fat chilled fresh shrimp gleaming above the red-gold of the spicy papaya sauce and out it went. It wasn’t two minutes before the query came back from the bar to see if we had any “real” cocktail sauce. Cretins, all of them, cretins.

I stepped out the back door for a breath of fresh air just in time to see a mammoth SUV pull into the driveway and park across two parking places. The tall driver hopped out, let his female guest open her own door and checked in the reflection to make sure his very dark glasses were affixed just so. I guess SUV arrogance is not specific to the States.

The yuppie couple were to be our first restaurant guests. They were part of a reservation for four and they were shown to their seats at a very nice table looking out over the swimming pool and the mango trees. By 5:15 Karen White, one of the local entrepreneurs and her son had arrived and they were the early arrivals from a party of six. Tables were filling up but there were no orders yet. This is the time of the evening, at the very beginning, with the crowd gathering but not ordering, that makes my skin crawl, as if I needed more help in that department. God did I wish I had a tall and very strong rum and something to get me through the anxiety.

The second couple of that first four top showed up and it seemed, or perhaps just hoped, that things were about to get moving. The feeling in the dining room was as electric as it gets in a laid back tropical paradise. People who knew each other were arriving and there was a current of travel back and forth from table to table as our guests greeted each other. Ojochal is a very small community and we were that night’s “place to be”.

Headwaiter Olman called out "ordering", and placed the first ticket for the first four top triumphantly and grandly in the window. And just as he did, a huge roar was audible from the driveway. I gaped out the back door of the kitchen in wonder. At 5:45 on Opening Night, Coca Cola was finally here with the refrigerator we'd been pleading with them to deliver for the last month. Perfect. Undaunted, I cooked on, readying, assembling and then sending out the plates for the first order; chicken, pork, and two jambalayas. It had begun.

As the dining room continued to fill and as tickets for appetizers began pouring into the kitchen, a strange procession entered possessively through the back door. Three slickly dressed Costa Rican gentlemen paraded into the kitchen. They had laminated badges on and I realized that this was our promised (promised at 11:00 AM) visit from the Costa Rican Health Department. Just fucking great. Could there possibly be anything else? We had a full dining room, more reservations coming in, and two hard core gringo haters with badges and cameras (cameras?), plus a third body just for good measure (their muscle, perhaps?), fixing their gazes on every heated and unheated part of the kitchen.

I kept cooking as they yanked open the top of my salad refrigerator and peered in suspiciously. They took pictures. I kept cooking but also kept my ears open. John was tagging after them, trying to make sense of what they were saying, and babbling in his feeble Spanish. They went back to look at the dishroom, eyed the mountain of pots and pans (our one night dishwasher had decided it was far more entertaining and less work to be parking lot boy) and then made their way back out to where I was on the hot line. The obvious leader eyed me with no discernable fondness and asked me for a paper towel. I figured that this meant we were supposed to have them in the kitchen to satistfy some ordinance or another and I started babbling to them that we almost ALWAYS have them in the kitchen but that someone must have taken them out to do some cleaning. The head honcho, el queso grande, looked at me contemptuously and picked up nearby four-fold cocktail napkin. He then proceeded to do something I've never seen in 36 years in the business. He approached the stove with a bit of a flourish, placed the cocktail napkin on the palm of his hand and raised his arm over his head. He stuck his arm up under the exhaust fan and it was then that I realized that he was testing its strength. He raised his arm higher and higher until the napkin began to flutter and almost, almost begin to levitate from the feeble draw. He looked at John and me sadly and shook his head. Uh-oh. Our hood fan was definitely not going to pass the test.

What happened next was that chaos ensued for two hours and I came out on the other end; sweaty, greasy and covered in food. We had seated and fed 38 people when we had been prepared for 20-24. Every table had enjoyed the full menu offerings; appetizers, entrees and desserts. The girls held up the cold end of things as well as could be expected and I ran the front end side with the hot appetizers and all the entrees alone. Well, not alone, I had my demons along with me and every now and then they’d shout out that a tall cool alcoholic beverage would make all of this far less painful. When it came down to “doing the do”, the instincts of over 35 years in the business kicked in and all I knew how do to was cook the food and make it go away.

The reality was that it all went so quickly and smoothly that when it ended, it was a bit of a letdown. I had run out of a few things; the marinated pork loin first and foremost, but had kept enough food on hand to feed the room and make nearly everyone happy. Our crowd, being mostly Canadian, or at least North American, grumped a little about not getting a basket of bread on the table, about not having a big old piece of red meat on the menu and about not having potatoes on every plate; but by and large they were happy, well fed and well drunk.

I made my rounds of the room, accepting kudos and accolades and even, and this is tough to imagine, turning down offers of drinks. I grabbed an icy club soda and hied back into the kitchen to clear the debris and than the Tica girls (who had know grown up in a trial by fire) for their hardwork and their patience with the sweaty, swiriling, detoxing chef.

I was spent. I had put it all on the plate; patience, discomfort, eagerness to please in my new home and my professional reputation. And it had worked. The following night the excitement was over; the shine had worn off and we didn’t do a single dinner. Pura Vida.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fish Head in a Pot


Yes, it started off with a fish head in a pot; a rather large head (nearly 4 kilos) from what must have been a most formidable Pargo. And the fishhead became a rich fish stock and that stock helped turn our La Cusinga Christmas dinner into deep steaming bowls of spicy tomato-ey fish stew.

I had wanted to do something a little different for our Christmas Dinner at the Lodge and decided that a family-style, serve yourself meal would bring people a little closer together. I had searched far and wide for the local spiny lobsters, but when those were unavailable, decided that a big pot of fish stew on every table would create that sense of shared eating community.

I started off, before the fish head got involved, with a sheet pan of halved tomatoes, a couple of sliced onions and a big handful of peeled garlic cloves. I salted and peppered the tomatoes, poured a healthy dose of olive oil over them and at the last minute added a slice and very spicy chile pepper from our garden. The laden down sheet pan went into the oven at 450 degrees and roasted until the tomatoes were a crunchy brown on top.

And the fish head, oh the lovely fish head, was joined in a large pot by sliced carrots, onion, celery, a few halved heads of garlic, black peppercorns, parsley stems and bay leaves. I covered all this with water and brought it to a fast boil which I reduced equally quickly, to a very low simmer. When I make fish stock, I want the flavor and the clear stock, but don't want a lot of floating fish flesh particles. And it was for this very reason, 90 minutes later, that when I poured the rich broth through a fine strainer, I did it by just barley tilting and hardly moving the pot. Any excess movement or shaking frees the well cooked meat left on the bones and clouds the stock.

To get the base started, I sauteed still more sliced onions with still more garlic in still more olive oil. I added a few strands of grocery store saffron (to no discernable effect, it seemed later) and once the onions were well wilted, I added the roughly chopped cooked tomato mixture to them. A few quick stirs and then the fish stock went on top. This too was brought to a quick boil and then reduced to a mere simmer. I wanted this to cook together, ever so slowly for at least an hour or so.

So now it was on to sorting and cleaning the seafood that would go into this rich concoction. Undaunted by my inability to find lobsters, I had fallen back on fresh local shrimp, tiny local clams called "almejas", fresh small local squid and a glisteningly fresh filet of Pargo. The shrimp were peeled, the clams rinsed, the squid seperated head and body and then tenderized and the pargo cut into small thick slabs.

Traditionally in the south of France when Bouillabaisse is served, it comes with rouille, a spicy/garlicky red pepper mayonnaise that is spread on toasts dunked into the fish stew. In many parts of Province, the rouille is stirred directly into the stew, adding a garlicky bite to an already garlicy base. For the rouille I roasted and peeled red peppers and put them in the Cuisinart along with an egg yolk and a whole egg, roasted garlic, fresh garlic, a handful of garlic croutons (to add texture to the rouille), salt and pepper and a couple of dashes of our house-made chilero sauce (a Habanero based beauty). Once I had this pureed into a paste, I began to drizzle in the olive oil; first slowly and then a bit more quickly. The sound of the machine let me know as the sauce thickened and it came out beautifully; pale pink and full of garlic and chile bite.

Our guests were making arrival noises so we got soup on the table, quickly followed by a salad of sliced organic tomatoes and just picked organic lettuces. I had pulled some rarely used tureens from our bodega and readied them for service. The bread had been spread with garlic butter and toasted and the rouille dolloped onto it. All I needed to do was get the seafood in the individual cooking pots (for groups of four) and get it cooking.

In went the clams, the squid and some simmering tomato broth; then the shrimp and the fish pieces. I brought it up to a low boil, covered it and let it simmer. I repeated this with the other sauce pots for the other tables. Once I had them all filled I returned to the first pot and peeked in. The scent sent out by the steam was terrific. All the flavors were present even in that first whiff. I gently ladled the fish out and poured the steamy tomato-ey goodness over the top, filling the tureen. I put a handful of a mix of chopped garlic greens and parsley over the seafood mixture and returned the top to the tureen. I repeated this for the other tables and it was time to serve.

I had explained our need for audience participation and each table had ladles, spoons and bowls. The rouille toasts went out on a separate platter, the tureens hit the tables and it was time for dinner. The room got quiet as the tops were taken off and then the community eating vibe kicked in. There was nervous laughter as the first bowls were ladled full and the a lot of slurping and contented oohing and aaahing. Knowing full well what happens when I eat something like this with my family and friends, I passed around second plates of rouille toasts at each table and watched as the seafood soups disappeared from the tureens.

I don't do this style of service often, preferring to be able to create the plate design myself, but food like this is meant for a sleeves rolled up, help yourself, participatory meal and this was it.
As the tureens emptied and the guests sat back in satisfaction, I cut the almond torte for dessert, enjoying the moment and the mellow sound of a well fed dining room full of guests.

Friday, December 11, 2009


It is the early part of December, we have hit double digits as far as the date, but it still seems early. Our business is hit and miss right now, some nights are just a couple or two from the Lodge and others nearly reach 20. And it's difficult to predict. We know that sometime in the third or early fourth weeks of December the gates will open and the winter tourists will arrive, but it's just not today, or even this week.

Here in the Zona Sur we're seeing a return of the "part-time" people. That's not to say that they're only people part time, but that they only live here part time. They return to their ocean view homes high above the Costanera when the going gets too chilly and too tough in the Northern climes of Canada and the US.

Our Lodge guests are appearing in twos and fours beating the Christmas rush. We will get busy. We know we will get busy. And we just have to wait patiently until we do get busy. It makes staffing difficult, purchasing difficult and management/ownership uneasy, but we all know the business is lurking in the wings; the unspoken of gorilla in the room.

But yes, we will fill up and we will rock the Coast. A month from now this blog will be re-read (at least by me) and chuckled (yes, chuckled) about. We have decided to open The Gecko to the public on Sunday nights, giving us four nights, and I am now cooking lunch on Mondays, opening to the public as well. This should be a great year for us and I'm looking forward to it.
Onward into 2010 and nothing but good eating.

Chow for now...

Saturday, November 28, 2009




As if the night before opening a restaurant isn’t in itself so nerve-wracking that sleep is nigh impossible, I had chosen to make it far more difficult still by tossing in another twist. In addition to opening a restaurant, I was making a valiant attempt to put an end to an obsessive and ugly drinking problem (yes, my own) . Talk about a recipe for twitching, fearful, sweating insomnia.

Our “day before the Big Day” prep work had gone as well as I could have hoped and I had even spent what seemed like some quality time with Randall, my appointed second. He sat and sloshed down a few Imperials and pretended to be interested while I pontificated about kitchens, food, cooking, and anything else that would keep my mind out of the bottle. Randall asked the right questions and I gladly worked at taking him under my wing. I would definitely need to nurture someone of his skill and apparent interest if I was ever to get any rest from this venture.

Speaking of rest, when I went down to my cabina, it seemed that rest would never come. I did the classic toss from one side of the bed to the other routine, moving from one pool of sweat to another. I got up and went upstairs to watch a little Monday Night Football. I drank a cup of herbal tea. I talked to my partner, John. I felt like the song from the 60’s, “I Couldn’t Sleep At All Last Night.” This was my second full day alcohol free and definitely the jumpiest, twitchiest. Yes, sleep did come, but hardly the quality of sleep that I was hoping for and needing from the night before the Big Day.

I got up at 5:15 and by 6:00 I was standing in my walk-in refrigerator over a bowl of cream set into a bowl of ice. I had been trying without success to whip egg whites and cream for the last three days for my chocolate mousse. The humidity on the southern coast of Costa Rica is so great that the cream will not whip at all, while the egg whites will stand up for a couple of minutes and then a pool of liquid appears beneath them and they collapse completely. I was sweating and chilling simultaneously while hunched over the bowl in the walk-in and OH MY GOD, the cream was actually whipping.

While I was tossing and tuning in my sweaty bed the night before I'd recalled that in the old days of kitchens, when they were all fiery cauldrons, the chefs had whipped their cream in massive copper bowls over huge tubs of ice. I even recalled that I had old cookbooks that prescribed this very method being performed as recently as thirty years ago. I guess the advent of the kitchen-aid changed all that, huh? So in an effort to duplicate the whipping feats of the past, I dragged my entire operation into the walk-in refrigerator.

And now, realizing that my cream was indeed going to whip, I raced out to the line and threw on a doulble boiler and grabbed a bowl for my chocolate. I hastily measured it and threw in a little coffee and Meyers's rum (“Have just a tiny shot” it called to me”) for good measure. Having placed the water bath and chocolate over the flame, I raced back into the walk-in, finished the cream, and started in on the egg whites. And it was perfect; everything whipped. I yelped with glee and despite being in a 40 degree walk-in, wiped the sweat from my brow and ran to fetch the melted chocolate. I folded first cream, then whites, then cream, then more whites into the melted chocolate and by God, it was going to work and there would be chocolate mousse.

Next was the lime tart and this was another one I'd been struggling with. I'd been using sort of a cheater method for the filling which involved using canned condensed milk instead of a true custard, but gimme a break. The main problem I was having was that I’d been working with a dough recipe that I'd used for years that incorporated a lot of butter which made it really difficult to work with in this heat and humidity. Finally I achieved success by freezing the tart ramikins ( I don't have tart shells), chilling the dough as cold as I could get it without freezing it, and pressing it into the ramikins (skip the rolling pin, that's a disaster) with my hands. It finally worked and I poured in the filling. That worked too; I was on a roll. So far so good, but I was a dripping sodden mess. I'd soaked through my second t-shirt of the day and hadn't even begun the work in front of the stove.

I needed to break down and bone out eight chickens before I could move on to anything else, although my mind was reeling with the things left to do. The boning of the chickens proved a mettlesome thing, mostly because of major interruptions. As befitted an opening night, the kitchen was continually filled with people passing through asking a lot of questions. "Chef, where is this?" "Chef do you know blah blah blah?" "Chef what do we do about...?"

Despite alternating the hacking of bone with carefully orchestrated knifework, the number of chickens in front of me did not seem to be dimishing and the heat in the kitchen was building and swelling. The sweat continued to pour out of my pores, down the hollow of my back and off my forehead onto the chickens. Olman, our Tico head waiter showed up and helped me to prepare the mirepoix that I would need to start my chicken stock, but he's a talker and despite his help, I began to find his mindlessly happy chatter annoying. At this point even my own breathing was annoying. After what seemed like an eternity I finished breaking down the chickens and boning out the breasts for service. There really is nothing like the feeling of warm chicken meat clinging to your flesh in a 110 degree kitchen.

I was really starting to feel a bit weak and queasy at this point. I’d forgotten to eat anything since my corn flakes at 5:30 and the stress and lack of food in my body was getting to me. I’d been pounding water by the gallon, but it seemed to be coming out even more quickly and I went to change into t-shirt #3.

I slammed down a small bowl of black beans and jambalaya rice and went to lie down for a quick 20. Randall and Betza would be here at 1:00 and I needed to get them organized. I returned to the kitchen at 1:10 but no one was there. Just me and the food. Worried? Yeah, I was , but I started the major prep. By 1:30 I'd begun to really fret, but I keep plugging away. I assembled the mix for the fish cakes and finished the macque choux, a sort of uptown Creole creamed corn.

Ryan, John’s brother and another partner in our jungle venture, zipped in from a trip out into the world and told me he had just seen both Randall and Betza down at the soda (small local cafe) at the bottom of our driveway. I dispatched him on a search and rescue mission just short of 2:00. Betza showed up shortly thereafter in a majorly petulant mood. She had been dating Ryan and he was dumping her; (never sleep with the help is the lesson here) but there was still no sign of Randall.

Katya showed up just moments later and at least I have two of my staff. I asked Betza as to whether or not she had seen Randall, but she just shrugged indifferently. I dove into Randall's prep and really start to stress. I'd almost soaked through shirt #3 and it wasn’t even 3:00. John kept stopping by to tell me that our reservations were growing and it looked like we'd have a full house. I'd asked him to keep the number of guests at 30, but it's hard to say no to business on opening night.

It had become apparent in the hubbub of waiters chattering, my new dishwasher arriving, and the general confusion, that Randall would be a no-show on the most important night we might have. He’d been at the soda, had been seen there by a number of people, and then was seen riding the other way on his bicycle; away from the Lookout and back towards Ojochal. I would have stopped to be confused, but I don’t have time. At that point I was jamming and way too uptight. I’d gotten the girls in place and they were doing their best to pull together the salad and appetizer stations. I was starting to feel as if there was an outside chance we just might make it.

I was completely flying with the anxiety and stress of prepping not just mine, but someone else's station and convincing myself that, yes, I CAN do this. I scraped away the fish cake debris from my sticky hands and tried to make my way to the front line to get the started sauces finished and the fresh sauces started. But when the two hotel maids, plus Olman, the waiter, appeared in my already crowded kitchen and demanded to be fed, I just went off. There was too much to do, too many obstacles, and seemingly now way to do it all myself. But I knew I had to. I had to leave the kitchen and catch my breath or I was going to lose it in a big, big way.

I walked out to the front door, looked out at the ocean, heaved a series of huge sighs, caught that deep breath, wondered how it was that all of this was happening, and headed back in. I was wishing I could see the humor in it, but there was just no time for that. There was a restaurant to open, guests to feed, flesh to press and miles to go before I slept. The business waits for no one. There is either success or failure and not much room or forgiveness inbetween. And I was NOT going to fail.

Friday, November 20, 2009



Home from the Feria and two days in advance of the Big Party, everything looks good. The produce, the greatest part of our purchases is in da House and looking good. Our only other critical order is the 9 kilos of boneless chicken parts; six of thigh and three of breast, that we'll use for the chicken rice. Our plan is ready. Our menu is ready. I am ready.

As the crowd streams in we will have platters of old school crudites at the ready. We have carrots, celery, radishes, green beans and broccoli for dipping in the pesto mayonnaise and the classic Provencale rouille (a red pepper/garlic mayo) that I will make when I begin the prep on Friday morning. Our big buffet items will be a large tossed salad of organic greens plus garnishes, and platters of sliced tomatoes with basil, on the cold side; and simple, but tasty frijoles tiernos (cooked fresh shelling beans) and spicy chicken/rice on the hot side. My idea has been to keep the costs down by giving the crowd rice and beans (sort of a little gringo joke) but making them so good that they'd have to love them.

And so on Friday morning I left Cusinga, knives and food processor in hand, and breezed the kilometer down the road south to Mercado La Roca. I pulled on a white work shirt and looked around unsuccessfully for a cutting board and some towels. Working in someone else's kitchen is always curiously entertaining; filled with wonder and exploration along with a sense of discovery (usually of those things one does not have, but needs). I traded the tiny kitchen cutting board (tabla in these parts) for the larger one they kept at the bar (?!) and found a few semi-soiled towels to get me started.

My first project was getting the beans started, and I build a simple base of onion, lots of garlic and a ton of mixed spices (paprika, black pepper, cayenne, the ubiquitous Tico "sabor completa, oregano, bay leaves and salt) in the hot oil before adding the fresh beans, water and a couple of cans of diced tomatoes. These would cook in less than 45 minutes and all I had to do was bring them to a vigorous boil and then turn it down and walk away.

I figured that by the time the beans were ready I could probably bang out the two sauces and I was very nearly right. While Odile, my lovely Tica helper from La Roca looked on a bit wide-eyed, I threw a mesh screen over a burner and blacked ten ripe red bell peppers (chiles dulces). I put them in a plastic container with a tight cover to steam off the skins and moved on. I had brought pesto from my freezer at La Cusinga and I built a classic mayo starter with egg, garlic, s&p, some lemon juice and red wine vinegar in the Cuisinart before slowly adding the mix of olive and canola oils to emulsify the sauce. As it thickened I began to add the pesto by the spoonful and watched with great satisfaction as the sauce turned a lovely pale green.

I was starting to figure out the lay of the kitchen and was moving toward Chef Dave warp speed when I sensed Odile eying me from the corner of the kitchen. I had given her the somewhat methodical job of cleaning the veggies for the crudites and put her in the corner to give me some operating room, but it seemed that my kitchen dance was a bit of a curiousity to her. It would be my guess no one sings, dances and does a lot of multi-tasking in the kitchen there typically. I gave her a big smile and did a little dance step to the music I had put on, and she giggled oh so shyly; cute.

The heat was down on the beans by now so I got the peppers out and slipped the skins right off them under running water. I tested a bean for doneness with a squeeze between the fingers and gave the pot a stir. I rough chopped the peeled peppers and after cleaning the food processor I did the same set up for the rouille as I had for the pesto mayo. I started this time, though, with the chopped peppers, a lot of garlic, red wine vinegar, some s&p and a good splash of SriRacha (Vietnamese hot red pepper sauce). Again, I added the mix of oils slowly until the I heard the telltale change of the sauce in the machine that indicated that the rouille was thickening. I took a taste and then began to add the secret ingredient. I had a half a cup of roughly crushed garlic croutons that I added in a slow stream. The Spaniards do this in some regions with Gazpacho and I have seen French cooks from Province use this method to thicken rouille right at the very end. I love the flavor and texture it adds and it works for me. Done, both sauces.

And yes, as I had hoped, so were the beans. Now I would let them sit overnight and make their own lovely sauce. This is one of the benefits of using a fresh bean. There is still enough natural starch and liquid left inside it that it "throws" a sauce as it reposes. I covered and refrigerated the sauces, covered the beans and left strict instructions that they should be refrigerated upon cooling slightly.

But yes, this being Costa Rica, we had a glitch. Just as I was finishing up and wiping down, the chicken delivery came and the driver came in with two bags of frozen breasts and a limp excuse about there being no boneless leg and breast meat available. This was Friday. This was the day before the party. And this was totally unacceptable. Anja looked at me in bewilderment and mild panic and I told her that the only option was to get on the phone to Eduardo, our cheerful rep, and tell him that every powerful gringo on the entire coast was going to be here on Saturday night. And once she had his attention, to tell him that if he didn't get us the chicken, that I would personally make it known to everyone in attendance that our good friends at Pipasa were to be held responsible. She shrugged in presumed disbelief, made the call, and came back to report that Eduardo would personally deliver the chicken the following day.
We smiled in relief and it was time for me to go. Saturday was soon approaching and our numbers were reaching up and over 150 living, breathing, eating bodies.

I breezed through my Friday dinner service at La Cusinga and woke up Saturday morning ready to run not one, but two food operations for a day. I had prepped a lot of the things that we'd need to serve our eight guests at La Cusinga and had consulted with my very nervous helper, Angelica. Angelica has just started working with me and this was to her first night flying solo.
I had left her the soup, already done; salad dressing and fixings; fresh cut fish and sauce; and that evening's dessert and ice cream. All she was going to have to do was prep the veggies, which she does each day, and put the whole shebang together, course by course.

Off I went to Mercado La Roca one more time; this time with extra pots and pans, again my knives, a Kitchen-Aid mixer, and this time, my little computer speakers so I could really rock out while I cooked. I had brought the Kitchen-Aid so I could put together the batter for three large Pyrexes of pineapple upside down cake. I rolled in with a smile, dropped my tools and set up the computer music system and got down to it. I checked each of the previous day's makings for flavor and was happy indeed.

I am a big believer in getting the desserts out of the way first so it was off into Pineapple land. I made a big batch of caramel with butter and two types of dark sugar, a local azucar moreno and tapa dulce and poured it into the bottom of the Pyrexes. On top of this I layered sliced, cored pineapple and began to assemble the dry ingredients. The mix is a classic butter/sugar plus egg plus flour batter, but this one also gets ground almonds mixed with the flour and I use natilla, the local soured cream in lieu of milk or sour cream. I make this cake a lot and it has become my "go to" dessert for large groups, so it was easy to throw it together and I had it in the oven in no time at all.

The chicken, yes the chicken, had arrived, hand delivered by the sheepish but proud Eduardo himself. It's always nice to come to the rescue, even if the impending disaster is of one's own making. I had had Odile chop mountains of sweet red peppers, onions and garlic the day before, so all we had to do was clean and cube the chicken and it would soon all be in the pot.
I made a nicely hot dry spice mix and tossed the chicken cubes in it to give that bland, bland meat a little flavor. After I seared the chicken I tossed the veggies in the same pot, to pick up a bit of the flavor the searing had created in the pan and sauteed them with more of the dry spice. I added a quart or two of chicken stock that I had brought as a secret ingredient, let it boil up the bits off the bottom and then added the chicken back in with the peppers and onions. This baby was done, and it tasted pretty damn good.

This was all happening per the plan, but every time I turned around the numbers kept going up and we were getting a whole lot closer to 200 than I was comfortable with. Ah well, that's what the food stretcher is for. The cakes were coming out of the oven perfectly, the beans were on the stove at low heat and coming up to temp, the chicken was done and I had cooked two massive pots of a bright yellow achiote rice. I would need to mix the chicken and sauce with the rice, but I'd decided to do that as needed for the buffet so I was looking good. Cooking is, however, a team sport.

It seemed that the other part of what needed to be done, the chores that the lovely and charming Anja was signed up for were not getting done with quite the alacrity I had been hoping for and expecting. Odile had a good hand on the crudites, so I put her on salad detail and she soon had a sink piled full of an organic greens mix. Unfortunately the hummus, now on it's second day in the making, and the salad dressing, on the counter half-finished for over two hours now were, as yet, undone. Liz and Natalie had been in and out several times, the guys were doing the lighting, the room was being transformed, the beer was being stocked and each and every one of these things called Anja out of the kitchen for an inspection. Distraction is not the mother of production.

I decided that it was a good time to head back over to La Cusinga to make sure all was well in hand and to let the kitchen do what it might to come together, so I hopped in the old Toyota and went over the hill. And all was peaceful, tranquil and oh so together at my home base.
Angelica had, in her desire to please and out of her newbie nervousness, put the mis en place right in its place. She was nervous but ready so I gave her a pat on the back, helped her through a few service questions and headed back to the Big Fun.

Dusk was falling and when I walked in the place looked great. The newly strung lights were glowing, the tables for the silent auction were all decorated, the Brazilian band was doing a sound check and the room was ready for a party. And at the end of the counter between the bar and the kitchen, Anja was spooning the hummus from the food processor into bowls. Hallelujah, the the hummus, the third dip for the crudites was done. The vinaigrette still sat in its bowl on the kitchen counter, but it appeared that progress had been made.

The French Bakery in San Isidro had donated 26 baguettes and so I got to slicing them and setting up bowls for the buffets. The tomatoes were the last large job and I had Odile begin to scoop the stem end out of the 150 ripe red babies that Anja and I had picked out, one by one.
I had originally thought to buy only 80-100 tomatoes, figuring that at four or five slices per tomato we'd easily have enough to feed 100-125 people, but as the count grew, I was happier and happier with my decision to buy big. And hell, at 150 colones per kilo it wasn't really a bank buster. We'd bought 10.5 kilos for about the equivilent of $4.00 American.

I went from bread slicer to tomato slicer without losing, and with perhaps, gaining, a stroke and a slice. Odile took the sliced tomatoes and shingled them tightly on the Pyrex serving dishes and we put together five trays in no time. I drizzled them with olive oil and white wine vinegar, hit them with fresh ground pepper and sea salt and put them on hold. The chiffonade of basil would go on at the very, very end.

It had gone from dusk to dark and from empty to partially occupied when I looked up and out through the kitchen doors. It was only 6:30 and there were already people milling around out there, beers in hand. Anja and I had gone through the schematic for the layout of food in the cold and hot tables as she was (YES!) finishing the vinaigrette. It seemed to me that it might behoove us to get some food out there for the eating public and so the crudites with their three tasty sauces hit a couple of different spots in the room. We also dropped off a couple of bowls of bread slices at strategic locations and turned our attention to the salad bar. The first load of lettuces was loaded in along with a bowl of sliced hearts of palm, one of red onions and another of sliced cucumbers. I slid two of our tomato/Pyrex boats in on the left to complete the set-up and at least that part was ready.

We had agreed to wait a bit to put the hot food out, but I did retreat to the kitchen to make sure the beans were hot (but not burned on the bottom; thin pots) and that the chicken and rice were ready for mixing. The room was definitely buzzing. The ladies were in finery and the dudes were in their best Hawaiian shirts. Our bar staff was assembled and it was just about time to Rock. At just past 7:00 I loaded up the first trays of beans and the chicken/rice mix and the feeding frenzy was on.

For the next two hours I felt as I was working the trough. Anja had no appropriate transferring vessels, so I used the bottom of a pressure cooker to fill the trays out on the steam table. I kept my pots of beans warm, the chicken and sauce warm and the rice in the oven. Between the shoveling of the beans and rice I sliced more and more tomatoes. As I had thought, the sliced tomatoes with basil on the salad bar were a huge hit and people were grabbing four and five slices for their (and thank goodness we'd decided on small) plates.

The lines at the bar and the food tables were huge and snaked out into the center of the throng. The roar of the crowd was surprising and although I couldn't see too far into the room from my post at the kitchen door, I could sense the movement, the pulse of the crowd. It was amusing and only slightly horrifying watching people load their plates from the buffets and I remembered that I previously always done my best not to watch. To see one's labors of love (because despite it all, food is always love) get heaped and piled onto paper plates willy-nilly is not good for the Chef. It is much better to return to the kitchen and get more food ready.

And we were blowing through the food. There was a point about an hour in where I considered briefly the notion that we would run out of food, and when the hearts of palm were the first to go, I wondered what would be next. But we hit a rhythm, and the buffet-ers, while still hungry and still lined up, seemed to have settled into a manageable (for us) pace and I knew that we would have enough food. Not way too much, but certainly enough.

The bossa nova was bouncing, the beer was flowing and the crowd was feeding the hunger. It was a good party, no, a great party and Liz and Natalie were all smiles. Tripod was certainly going to fatten their coffers and with any luck there would be no stray male dogs with balls anywhere on our part of the coast shortly. I looked around at our kitchen messes and wasn't too displeased. We'd at least managed to keep the tomato mess in one area (and it was an easy clean), the chicken and bean mess on the top of the stove, and the floors were surprisingly clean.

It all started to slow down with the silent auction and then the Hawaiian shirt contest. I was able to do a little schmoozing of my own and while I still had an eye on the buffets, knew we were reaching the end. It was nearly over, but for the drinking and the dancing. I took a wander outside and nearly went ass over teakettle in the mud looking for a place to suck in some cool air. The parking lot was packed and I knew it would be a while before I would be able to grab my things and slink away. I wandered back in, checked the kitchen and then found a seat on the perimeter so I watch the fun. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 the crowd began to say their good byes and ease themselves out the doors (these were baby boomers, not gen-Xers, after all) and one could see across the room.

I gathered in the kitchen with Anja, Natalie, Liz and a few others for sighs, kisses, backslaps and hearty handshakes. We all nibbled a bit and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. This had been the biggest gathering in these parts in a while and had been a smashing success. The Tripod coffers were fattened and the folks were well fed. We agreed to do a bit of cleaning, but to leave the bulk of the cleaning and returning of pots and pans for the morrow. I eased my tired bones into the tiny Tercel and wheeled off into the night; a bit greasy, wrinkled and spattered, but happy with the way the evening went. Hard work and good fun for a good cause.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Work and Some Play Part 1, The Set Up


It just have been around 8:15 or so and I felt as if I were just moving food from one trough to another. I would scoop huge bowls full of spicy chicken and rice into the bottom part of a pressure cooker (no other large vessels available), mix them thoroughly and edge my way through the food line, announcing loudly, "Food guy, food guy, make way for the food guy". It was hope against hope that the starving teeming masses would yield their positions when they realized that without me their plates would remain empty. I would turn the steaming chicken/rice into the buffet's steam table and dart back to the kitchen to get back to slicing more and more of the 150 tomatoes to lay out like shingles in our armada of Pyrex containers.

It is the Sunday morning after the biggest event of the social (hah!) season here in the Zona Sur and I must confess to a slight weariness. Saturday night was the "unveiling" party for the Barenaked Ladies Calendar, sales of which will benefit the Tripod Foundation, a wonderful charity here in our community. What had begun at an estimate of 80-100 guests exploded into an estimated 200 before our startled and ever-widening eyes.

The Tripod Foundation, started by Natalie and Liz, was started to provide care to local abandoned dogs who are in need of medical care, and blossomed into a much needed spay and neuter service, often provided for free. It seems that all of Costa Rica is home to abandoned and stray dogs who breed with wild and reckless ferocity. It is a sad truth that many dogs brought into families as cute and cuddly puppies are subsequently turned out when their care and lodging becomes too expensive or bothersome to maintain.

Familiar to many communities as a fund raising device is the "Naked Lady" calendar, first exposed to the world in the British movie, "Calendar Girls". The Tripoders leapt upon the idea here and got the cooperation and bodies of 12 "over 50" members of our women's community.
The calendar has been "the buzz" for the last several weeks and tickets for the party revealing the finished calendar have been a hot item.

Since I didn't need a calendar but am good friends with Natalie and Liz, the founders, I found myself donating my time and energies to helping to prepare the food for this benefit party.
I am a frequent visitor to Mercado la Roca, the cafe/market site offered by its owner Anja Sonnenberg to the Tripod ladies and felt that I should, in some small way, do my part as well.
It seemed simple enough to me. Anja had originally volunteered to do the whole shebang, but it was clear almost immediately that professional help would be needed.

Immediately it fell to me to take the initiative, so being the kind of guy I am, I did.
I discarded all suggested notions of this hor's doeuvres or that boca and nixed everything that would entail any kind of rigorous and repetitive hand work. It was clear that this was to be a mass feeding and that "precious" and "labor intensive" were nasty words. I went straight to the belly of the beast by suggesting the unthinkable. Serve the gringos rice and beans and make them so delicious that they'd have to love it.

Anja had two buffet style food stations, one for hot food and one for cold, so along with our rice and beans line we'd also have a salad line with a big green salad and acres of sliced tomatoes served with basil and splashes of oil and vinegar. I pushed hard for this approach and once I described just how long it was going to take to prep, assemble and cook chicken fingers, we had our menus. Keep it simple, make it good and make it fast; it made sense to all concerned.

All these plans were made as any group of right-minded and organized foldks would make them; early and with great organizational skills. The Calendar ladies would sell the tickets, keep us apprised of the numbers and Anja and I would shop accordingly. I've done ever so many large events in my many kitchen lives, so wasn't too awfully concerned. But as the count approached the projected number of 80, then zoomed quickly past it to 100 and almost immediately began to creep even higher, Anja began to grow visibly nervous. Her mantra became, "I've never served 100 people", repeated with trance inducing regularity.

When it came time to make the shopping and prep lists I used the opportunity to put it all into a somewhat logical framework. Once we knew what we had to buy and once we knew exactly what we had to do to make it work it would all be so much less daunting, right? Well, mas o menos. Despite the gentle reassurances of wily old Chef Dave, all nervousness was not dispelled. Ah well, the trip to the Feria was ahead of us and once the produce was safely in the trunk, there could be no more fears. One slow and sure step at a time.

I had called Marguerite, my Feria connection, to do the bulk buying for me. The onions, garlic, peppers, cukes and broccoli; the carrots and celery, potatoes and cilantro would all be waiting for us when we got to the Feria. All that was required of Anja and me was to do the fun stuff. We were to choose our fresh shelling beans (frijoles tiernos) for one of our big pots and then we'd pick each and every ripe tomato out of the mountain of cheap vine ripes for our platters of sliced tomatoes. And it was fun. We bought 8 kilos of whitish-pink beans and then spent half an hour in front of the tomatoes choosing the reddest and ripest. 10.5 kilos of the red beauties cost a whopping 2000 colones, or about $4.00. And hand picked as well; talk about bringin' it in under budget.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Just Another Saturday


I woke up at 5:45 this morning to the sound of the yapping dog owned by the constantly changing group of Germans who live across the street from where I am house-sitting. The dog's incessant barking continued for almost two hours and came just four hours after the German's had shut down the thundering backbeat of the techno music that they play almost every night. This is what earplugs are for.

I rolled down the road to the Uvita Feria somewhere around 9:00 and shook hands with almost everyone. I had big orders with all my vendors as we've got a party of 18 checking into La Cusinga this Tuesday for three nights and seven of them are vegetarian. I had chard, beets, organic lettuce mix, bok choi and a number of other fresh organic delights waiting for me, all bagged up. I also picked up a couple of kilos of smallish but ripe mangos and two kilos of maracuya (passion fruit) for sauces and juicing. I live for and love to walk out of there with bags of beautiful produce in my arms.

It was Feria to fereteria (hardware store); a classic Saturday morning jaunt and while I was having keys made I ran into Deepak. I met Deepak while he was having dinner at The Gecko and knew him by reputation alone as an Indian chef. I had heard just recently that he had taken over the Mar y Selva resort and is making quite a name for himself with private dinners of spectacular Indian food. He suggested that perhaps we should do a dinner for the public together and I thought this was a great idea. I suggested that we do an alternative Thanksgiving Dinner for the turkey-less locals and we made plans.

Deepak wandered away and almost immediately Christian, a tall and quite lanky young chef from Cristal Ballena wandered in. We started talking food and it turned out that he had a German friend, Axel, who worked in the fereteria, but was interested in selling German food products locally. Christian called Axel over and he burst in to excellent but highly accented Spanish while he described food he had for me to taste.

Axel ran to the car for his samples and while he was gone Deepak strolled up and I introduced he and Christian. Axel ran back to join us, red-faced and panting and there we were; an American, an Indian and two Germans, all chefs, talking food in the middle of a hardware store in the Costa Rican jungle. Ticos and gringos alike veered around us as the four of us talked excitedly about cooking, food and dinners amidst the typical clutter and hubbub of a Saturday morning in the fereteria. A classic morning here in the Zona Sur. Pura Vida.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is the second installment of the story of the opening of the Lily Pad, the restaurant at the Lookout Hotel in Ojochal, Costa Rica, in November of 2005.



I was in the jungle, but the cold sweats and the gnawing had started again. Here I was, standing alongside a long series of ramshackle buildings, odd and ancient machinery; wondering, yet again, what in the world is going on. My Ford Ranger 4X4 had cracked and broken a brake drum and the horrors of trying to get if fixed in a country that seems to never have heard of “Ford” coincided not so nicely with the legwork and prepwork involved in the last two days before opening a restaurant. Anywhere.

Our good friend Olman had a solution, since he always had a solution and dragged us along to the taller (garage) where his brother worked. This was a most unusual taller in that it was housed in the long narrow buildings that had been constructed specifically by Dole, the canning and fruit giants, at the turn of the century (no, not this one) as a workplace for the men who fixed the banana trains that Dole ran through the jungles from coast to coast.

Because it had been constructed to fix the trains of yesteryear, this particular taller had a lot of features not normally found in the garages that we’re all familiar (or not familiar in my case) with. One of the more remarkable of these massive tools was a metal press that could be used for fabricating steel parts that had become unserviceable. And so it came to pass that since Ford parts are virtually unobtainable in Costa Rica, George, brother of Olman, was going to use my broken brake drum as a template and make a brake drum for me, right there in the taller.

I was severly apprehensive at at the potential cost of this “new to me” venture and cautiously asked “cuantos” and sort of winced at the same time. George looked at me solemnly and declared, “Ocho mil colones, mas o menos”.

Huh? It was going to cost me in the neighborhood of $16 for him to make me a brand new brake drum, on this veryt spot. I was more than happy to do a bit more shopping while this feat of engineering was being performed and when I returned in the proscribed hour, the brake drum was made and on the truck. The work and the price had me stunned; stunned. I got back in the truck with a stll slightly baffled shake of the head and drove back up through the jungles to Ojochal and the Lookout.

Driving back I stressed and sweated and worried and stressed and sweated some more. I was trying to get a kitchen open yes, but there was more to it than that. I had chosen this particular time to try to “do something” about my increasingly problematic and prolific drinking and for some reason thought that the work involved in getting the restaurant open would provide the distraction from, and the channel for, the demons crawling inside my brain and an under my skin. The fact that I already had sweated through two tee shirts and was letting my brain run wild with worry was evidence that distraction was not immediately at hand.

When I backed the truck up the entrance to the kitchen, my entire “crew” was there. The slender and shy Betza; her opposite, the roly-poly and smilyfaced Katya; and enigmatic and stonefaced Randall. Randall was the only one of them with any restaurant experience and had, in fact, worked in our kitchen with previous owners. Randall had ridden up our rutted and steep driveway on his bicycle, appeared at my back door in a short sleeved chef’s coat and asked for a job almost two months earlier. I had told him there was no work yet , but he appeared at least twice a week for the next eight weeks, always in his slightly sweat-soaked chef’s coat and I couldn’t help but admire his dedication. He was definitely going to be my right hand man.

Groceries put away, we set to the food prep. I wanted to get all the basic sauces and dressings made so we fired up the smoker for smoking the tomatoes and hot chiles for one sauce and pulled out the food processor to start making vinaigrettes and dressings. The Cuisinart was a wonder to my two country girls and they oohed, awed and reeled back in fear from its spinning blades. I had put Randall on a longish vegetable cutting task, and had taken it upon myself to attempt to explain the dressings (try describing an emulsion in a foreign language) and the salad and first course set-ups to my two willing charmingly clueless Ticas.

I should probably stop here and explain to my readers who may be as “at sea” as my cute little student cooks, that an emulsion is a cooking technique whereby two things that are “unlike” become one through means physical and/or chemical. A classic example of this is oil and vinegar being bound together to make a creamy dressing (emulsion), with the addition of egg and/or mustard. The vinegar added into the egg forms an acidic base that will hold the oil (when it is added quite slowly) in suspension.. Mayonnaise is an emulsion. Another example of an emulsiton is Hollandaise sauce, in which melted butter, lemon juice and egg yolks come together in a rich, creamy sauce.

There we were, the three of us huddled over the Cuisinart while I wiped away the sweat, the olive oil and the flecks of flying egg yolk. I was well on my way to soaking through yet another shirt and had a good case of the shakes that my rookie helpers couldn’t help but see each time I lifted the oil bottle to drizzle the oil into the whirling would-be emulsion. And it didn’t get any better when I went into our walk-in refrigerator to take deep breaths and try to slow it all down because my fully soaked shirt was clinging immediately and clammily to my torso,, chilling me to the bone. If I could just get through today, then…

Ah, but onward. I had to finish the sauces and the first truck of the day (hallejuh, the phone calls to those faceless and happy Spanish speaking voices had worked) was pulling in with the dry goods delivery. I checked the smoker where the tomatoes and chiles were getting an even char and a nicely smoky scent permeating. These would be pureed with roasted onions and garlic to make a Spicy Smoked Tomato sauce for grilled fish. It was time for another shirt change and I could feel my stomach, my brain and my entire being calling out for just a short shot (if not a tall shot) of rum and a beer to get me though.

Aside from Randall’s heavy chopping, it was me, me, all me doing this necessary prep work. The girls were cute and the girls had nice smiles, but they were otherwise useless. Thank God I had decided to open with a small menu to protect myself against situations exactly like this one. They stood back and stared with what I can only presume was a sense of horror as I sweated, mumbled and cursed through the whizzing and whirring that would yield me four different sauces. My shirt was soaked, my face was red and greasy and my hair, although tied back, was slipping from the rubber band and plastering itself against my forehead.

“This” was certainly not what I had envisioned those ocean view, tall drink, tropical dream months ago. What “This” was was a greasy, disorganized, brainaddled, detox hell. A twisted version of opening a restaurant in a foreign country in a foreign language with a work crew who were certainly foreign to whatever it was I was trying to accomplish. But it was almost done, at least on this, the Day Before, and I’d treat the girls to a coke, Randall to a cold Imperial, slam another quart or two of water myself and try to figure out just what we (I) had to do to keep from deeply embarrassing myself on Opening Night.

Monday, October 12, 2009


This is the first piece, and accompanying recipe that I did for the Dominical Days November issue. I am limited to 320 words per column which will certainly help my editing skills.

Chef of the Jungle

Greetings and thank you for joining me for my inaugural column. I am presently the Chef at La Cusinga Lodge and have cooked professionally for my entire working life. I will call upon my experience in the food world to give support to what I will write here, but I hope to keep my comments and thoughts directed more to the food around us rather that to what is cooked professionally by me or those in other restaurants.

My focus here will be more toward my passions for cooking, and the practices of eating locally, organically and supporting those who practice sustainable food production. Upon my return to the Costa Ballena this past January I took it upon myself to search out, to source as much locally grown, produced and caught food as I could in an effort to throw support to those who were struggling to make it available to all of us.

The term “local-vore” has cropped up to describe those chefs and cooks who attempt to use as much product within a limited radius as is possible.

The benefits of this practice are many. By buying locally we support our local economy, help sustain our farmers and fisherman, and perhaps most importantly, gain a closer relationship to and knowledge of where our food comes from. A head of lettuce with the roots still attached is more reassuring that one pulled, sweating, from a plastic bag.

Here on our coast we have access to so much beautiful local and organic food.The Feria in San Isidro is just over the hill and local farmers are now selling their products in Uvita. We can buy “fresh from the ocean seafood” up and down the Costanero and pull fruit right from the trees. We, the consumers, are the ones who can support “local food” and by doing so,will ourselves, “reap the harvest” in so many ways.


Ayote is a local squash; round, with the coloring of zucchini, it has the seed structure of a pumpkin or other winter squash. When it is hollowed out it makes a perfect vegetable to stuff with any number of savory fillings. This one is simple and makes use of cooked food on hand. The chorizo and hot chile are, of course, optional.

This makes a great and complete dinner when served with a nice salad.

1 Ayote

1 Yellow Onion, diced

1 Red Bell Pepper, diced

4 Cloves Garlic, peeled and minced fine

½ hot chile, seeded and minced fine

½ # hot or mild chorizo

1 Cup cooked rice

1 Cup cooked beans, black or red

½ cup shredded cheese

cooking oii

Heat oven to 350

Cut stem end and opposite end off the ayote so that it sits flat

Cut it in half around the hemisphere and using a teaspoon, cut around the seeds and scoop them out. Using the edge of the spoon hollow cut more of the ayote away until only about a half inch of flesh remains near the skin. Rub the inside of the ayote with oil and salt and pepper it.

Place the ayote cut and open side up on a cookie tray or in a sauté pan and roast 30 minutes, or until tender. Turn ayote over and roast for ten minutes more, until ridge around the center is golden. Remove from oven.

While the ayote is cooking brown the chorizo; add garlic, onion, peppers and cook until tender. Stir in rice and beans and mix gently. Sprinkle the cheese in (reserving a little) and mix until blended.

Stuff the ayote with the bean/rice/cheese mixture and top with reserved cheese.

Return to oven and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until heated through.

I like to serve this with a fresh tomato sauce or a simple salsa fresca

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The following are a series of vignettes, glimpses and flashbacks from an American Chef trying to open a restaurant in Costa Rica for the first time. PT. 1

Although we had all arrived from San Francisco in early September, the restaurant and hotel were not ready to open to the public until mid-November. The scraping, painting, bribing and learning experience had taken us that long and perhaps should have taken longer. We opened the hotel first for friends and family and then prepared to open the doors to “The Lily Pad” restaurant, named after the owner’s one year old daughter.

I had been testing menu items (again for friends and family) for weeks and like the veterans in the NFL’s Pre-Season, I was champing and chafing for some live action. My menu was simple; five appetizers/salads and five entrees with nightly specials to feature fresh fish. We put out the word in our small coastal community and the response was overwhelming. We had 42 reservations for a dining room that held just over 30 and we would have to set up tables in the bar area as well. It was two days before opening and we had virtually no waitstaff, a novice bartender and a kitchen crew had who never worked together or even been trained; our budget was as bare bones as it gets.

When we (much more than naively) began this venture we had no idea of the frustration, heartbreak and pitfalls attempting to do business in a Third World country doesn't just present, but throws in your face in a repeated and somewhat numbing fashion. Imagine, if you will, the prospect of opening a restaurant in the states with no vehicle, and working telephone; no fax, no internet and no one on the selling and providing end who seemed to care whether or not we bought from them, or whether or not we failed miserably.

On the day before we are to open, all the food has been ordered or run out for; or in some cases, begged for. We waited with the faith of children for the trucks to rumble up our driveway bearing the necessary items (milk, juice, flour, oil!) that one would deem necessary but ridiculously simple to access anywhere else but here on the south Costa Rican coast.

Attempting to get deliveries where we are, and bear in mind it's even remote for Costa Rica, is perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences I've ever encountered. When one is able to make phone contact, the company on the other end happily tells you that someone will be there manana and then no one shows. You call them the next day, if and when the phone works, and they remember you, greet you with great joy, and happily tell you that the truck or representative will be there manana. This call and response can last the entire week.

One of the interesting facets of deliveries here is that most of the drivers are their own businessmen. You order from the driver and you pay the driver. Only two companies, the dry goods people (who are notorious for never even showing up to take the order), and the beer company (who it seems stop by almost every day) send a representative. One finds oneself driving up and down the Costanera Highway (when one has an operable vehicle) desperately searching for the Coke truck, or the Dos Pinos (dairy) truck, or whichever particular supply you are either running low or out of and begging the driver to stop by when he's a little further toward your end of the route.

I had spent the day before the grand opening of “The Lily Pad at the Lookout Hotel” running and sweating trying to get everything I would need to keep me from having to leave my kitchen at any point of opening day. Unfortunately, this running also included having to be driven to where my moneypit Ford Ranger 4X4 was in the shop (again), and was promised, promised to me for this, the most important of days. It wasn’t ready so I embarked on the final assault on food procurement via taxi and on foot. I was in the town of Palmar, a dusty beaten town known primarily for cold beer and the only whore house in the vicinity for kilometers and kilometers.

Palmar also boasted the carneceria (butcher shop) of smiling David, my favorite three fingered (well, three and half if you’re really counting) butcher. And although he and I had built up a pretty good relationship based on our shared knowledge of the workings and subsequent disassembling of pigs, I had yet to summon the courage to ask him just how it was that the dedos (fingers) came to be missing. I did however, avail myself of he and his fine quality swine products. I also liked visiting David because he would let me come around behind the counter and swing a cleaver or slice with the scimitar knife with him. You don’t get a lot of that back home.

In any case, I picked up four beautiful center cut pork loins and their attendant (but separated) rib bones, a couple of long skeins of smoked chorizo and a few kilos of bacon (tocinetta). I had made the mistake on my first visit to David of ordering tocino, which my old friends in Mexico call bacon. I was taken back a bit that first time when I looked in the bag and saw caul fat, the membraned fat that lines the pigs’s stomach. Turns out that in Costa Rica, that is what passes for tocino. David reminds me of my folly each time I visit and I remind myself not to mention the missing fingers.

I move on to the produce stand where I pick up a pre-arranged order and stop in at the grocery to try to find any kind, any kind of flavored vinegar that is actually made from a wine product. Good luck. Oddly, it's all artificial here, a vinegar concept I was unfamiliar with.

I am nervous about the truck being ready, but equally nervous about what might be going on back in the kitchen while I am not there to direct traffic, offer chefly advice and do all I can do to prevent crimes against food. I have recipes and I have talked ideas, but there the food sits and what if, just what if they were to take some initiative and start in on their own? This turned out to be an unfounded fear.

The labor pool for cooks here in our rural jungle location is pretty damn slim. I have interviewed plump abuelas (grandmothers) in aprons, hard faced single moms who cook the local bean and rice “gallo pinto” at greasy sodas (the local diners) and a succession of willing but oh, so young, Ticos, mostly girls. I have hired three locals; Randall, a 26 year old (he looks 15) who has experience cooking, and has in fact, worked in this very kitchen for previous operators; Betza, an 18 year old slim-hipped beauty who has no previous food experience, but is bright and attentive; and Katya, another 18 year old, who is as roly-poly as Betza is slim, and is the angel faced mother of a 2 1/2 year old son. Explaining my food to them has already been interesting, frustrating and confusing to both them and me. Now getting back to the restaurant to get them to prepare my food correctly is the huge remaining challenge of the day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009



One of my delights and minor perversities in cooking is getting my guests to eat things that they wouldn't normally try (or that they think they don't like) and having them enjoy them. I try to put at least one vegetable on every entree plate, for example, that is either unfamiliar or has gone untasted due to early life prejudices. I use a mix of organic braising greens that contains three different kales, mustards and amaranth; all greens normally uncooked in the typical household. I have also made it a point to serve either ayote or baby chayote, two local and relatively unfamiliar squashes at almost every meal. It is ironic how many people still cling to notions about various foodstuffs that were brought on by the kitchen crimes of their childhood.

Lately I have offered two entirely different dishes that are not way up there on the cravings lists of people, but have been gobbled down by our La Cusinga guests with great gusto.
The first of these is chicken legs. I must confess, and speaking as a chef, that the American trend toward skinless boneless chicken breasts, eaten in the interest of health, was one I found appalling. I was in a relationship for years with a woman who would not eat the dark meat of the chicken, the meat that I found to be the richest and most flavorful. And I found that peculiar.

There was a period of time, several years ago, when I had searched for a way to cook duck legs in a way that would mimic "confit"; the process of cooking duck slowly in its own fat until the meat nearly fell away from the bone. I came upon the notion of braising the legs in wine, herbs and liquid in the oven at a medium heat for an hour and a half or so, until they were at that "fallin' of the bone"point. And once I got there, I realized that it was going to work equally well for chicken. It would give a crisp skin (for those who still deign to eat it), tender flavorful meat, and contribute a rich sauce as well.

I have been buying fat and tasty organic chickens from Mauren and Alomar, my organic farmers, and damned if I was going to let those lovely legs go to waste. Each chicken wears two breasts and two legs and in order to make back my money and completely utilize my chickens I was going to have to sell, and sell my customers on, those legs. Overcoming the (particularly) American notion of only wanting the chicken breast calls for a cultural and societal (not to mention class oriented) upheaval of ideas, but I was ready for it. To the ovens I went, the braising notion full in mind.

To begin, this past Sunday night, I salted and peppered the whole chicken legs and put them in medium rondo (round medium-high sided casserole) to brown and began the search of my refrigerator for the flavors and add-ons that would create the sauce, and ultimately "make" the dish. I found a container of organic tomatoes, onions and garlic roasted in olive oil and I was there. I already had chicken stock and some white wine that a guest had left and that was all I needed.

I pulled the legs out of the pan once the skin was golden and crisp and poured off the fat. After renestling them together in the pan, I waited for the pan to get sizzling hot and poured in a cup of white wine. I let it boil up and suck the flavor from the bottom of the pan and then added four cups of my rich chicken stock and a couple of healthy spoons full of the roasted tomato mix. This liquid came up the sides of the legs so that just the skin was visible and I brought it all to a boil. Once the liquid and "future sauce" in the rondo was aboil, into the oven it went at 400 degrees, until the legs hit that perfect point of tenderness.

Now I needed the perfect bed to lay my chicken in; something to absorb and accept the rich bold flavors from the braising sauce. I have used rice, risotto, polenta and even pasta for this noble yet humble role, but tonight, it was going to be what I consider the perfect match; mashed potatoes. And not just any old mashed potatoes, either. I had whole cloves of roasted garlic and I also had beautiful potent basil leaves from the La Cusinga gardens. Butter had been pulled out to soften and all of these ingredients went into the food processor to become "as one"; a compound butter to bring those basic potatoes to life. And while the machine whirred and the basil and garlic integrated and insinuated themselves into the butter, I poured in just a bit of extra virgin olive oil to "help" with the richness and smoothness.

At the end of about 75 minutes I could see the skin at the "ankles" of the chicken legs pulling away from the bone. These babies were ready. I pulled the rondo from the oven and set the peeled potatoes on to boil. I gently lifted each leg from the chunky crimson broth and put them on a plate. I tilted the pot slightly and could see the fat from the chicken collect on one side. I spooned as much of it off as I could, gave the sauce a stir, admiring and savoring its rich smells and laid the chicken back down inside.

The potatoes had reached the point of nearly falling apart when I drained off about 90% of the water, leaving a bit in the pan. I set the pan on a medium flame and dropped in several softened chunks of the basil-garlic compound butter. I could smell the richness of the herb as the heat opened it up. I smashed in the butter, added a cup or so of milk and checked for salt. Yum, these mashers were GREAT! I set up a bain-marie for the potatoes and awaited my guests.

I had slender organic green beans and fluffy leaves of locally grown tri-color chard for the vegetable accompaniments and I sauteed and steamed them respectively as my guests worked their way through soup and then salad. I had returned the chicken in its sauce to the oven to re-crisp the skin and to bring it back up to heat and it was ready. A rich dollop of the pale green mashed potatoes went onto the plate with a scattering of the green beans and a pile of he steaming and garlicky chard. And then the chicken; mounted atop the potatoes with a spoon of the rich tomato-chicken sauce over the top and oozing down, surrounding and soaking the potatoes.

I took a picture. I had to, it was a beautiful plate; and then I served it to my guests, all Americans. I only had to check in once to see them eagerly spooning the mashed potatoes and sauce into their mouths and to notice that yes, the meat was coming easily from the bone and yes again, the bones were nearly bare. It appeared I had overcome the "leg prejudice" with guile, cunning and just plain good flavors. That'll do it every time.


I have a particular fondness for goat cheese, but am well aware that it is not as well loved by others as it is by me. In my time here in Costa Rica I have bought several different types and styles of queso de cabra with varying degrees of flavor, texture and overall appeal. The style that seems to be most successful here is a fresh cheese, not overly aged or "goaty" and almost like a dense ricotta or even a moist feta in texture. I've bought a few of the dryer and more and more aged versions but found them to have lost a great deal of flavor in their drying. I liked the fresher cheeses.

After several purchases form different cheese makers and with wildly differing results, I had become a little frustrated and when my regular and best connection stopped production due to "mal leche", I was stumped. My asking around the San Isidro Feria brought me to Chris, a smiling and affable gringo with a goat cheese that I had bought in the past but thought flavorless. It turned out, after a bit of questioning, that he was not particularly "married" to his current goat cheese recipe and was having trouble selling it. He was amenable to turning out a batch for me to be available in a week so off I went.

The first batch from Chris was moist and crumbly; too wet, really. The flavor was mild, but almost too mild. I wanted it to be sharper, more acidic. So we went into Week 2 and Batch 2, which turned out to be somewhat better but still not quite there. Chris was adding a buttermilk culture to the cheese and had been afraid to go too far. "Amp it up", I said and awaited the results of Week 3. And it was just what I wanted; bright enough in flavor to cut through the mild lettuces I would serve it with and excellent for pairing with either roasted beets or sliced salted tomatoes. Happily and eagerly I took it back to La Cusinga to play with.

Chris was making a 1.4 kilo batch of cheese each week and I was buying all of it. I needed to find ways to use this great fresh cheese other than just pairing it with salads. Off to Google I went and perused all the goat cheese recipes it had to offer. I wasn't much inspired by the hot or baked cheese recipes I came across, but when I saw a recipe for a goat cheese cake, I stopped and pondered. Would it be any good? Would my guests go for it after I'd spoiled them all these months with various cakes and ice creams? Who knew, but why not?

The recipe called for 12 ounces of cheese creamed out with white sugar. I immediately dumped the white sugar idea and used tapa dulce, the local natural sugar made from the boiling down of sugar cane. I could see it was going to give it an interesting color, but that was fine. Now it would be "my" cheesecake. I added the zest and juice from a couple of mandarinas and a splash of vanilla. The recipe called for six eggs, separated, with the yolks added to the cheese and the whites beaten to stiff and folded in just before baking. The mixture seemed light and too liquidy to me, but into a buttered and tapa-dulced pan it went and into the oven for a mere 25-30 minutes; no water bath, no nothing.

The cake rose like a souffle from the egg whites and once out of the oven, fell gently in the pan. I let it cool just slightly and turned it out onto a sheet pan. It was great looking, a pale tan color and shiny on top from the sugar. I slipped it into the refi to cool through and thought about how to serve it. It needed fruit and I couldn't decide if I wanted it to go with the blackberries I'd bought that morning or something different; more tropical. I decided after a bite or two that the moras (blackberries) were too seedy and too tart; I'd save them for ice cream.

I wanted mangos. A mango sauce to spoon over the top. And so I cubed ripe mango and tossed it with yet more tapa dulce so it would make a sauce as it sat, and also a bit of local organic honey. The cake and the sauce both rested, but I didn't. I thought about cheesecakes and what made them appealing and remembered sour cream. Here I buy a local organic sour cream called natilla from a muy amable gentleman at the Feria named Mario. I decided that instead of smoothing it over the top like an "old school" cheesecake, I'd just gently spoon it down over the mango sauce.

And that's how I served it that night. A nice slice of the cake, smooth and easily cut; a generous spoonful of the sweetened and saucy mangos, and a soft spooning of the slightly runny natilla drizzled over the top. My guests had reacted somewhat predictably when I had informed them of their (only) dessert option for the evening. There was the "I don't really like goat cheese that much" response and there was the "bring it on, I love cheesecake" response. All the plates were cleaned, so it seemed as if it had crossed the boundaries and borders that would keep people from liking it. It was and is a keeper and has become part of the dessert rotation at La Cusinga. I also have a viable and delicious way to help move 1.4 kilos of goat cheese through my refrigerator each week.

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.