Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Restaurant In the Jungle Part 2

Vehicle woes behind me, I pressed on.  It was Monday and the week lay before me; open and inviting.  Cook it and they will come, or some such cliched blather.  I took my stack of flyers and hit every store window and telephone pole that appeared to have any public access at all.  I talked it up and I talked it around; I didn't talk it down, but talk it I did.  

This is both a far-flung and tightly knit community and getting credence and recognition here take a fair amount of convincing.  The year round Gringo residents are a varied bunch.  There's the Canadian contingent in Ojochal, the hippies in Uvita and the retirees or just plain refugees of the Northern continent, and they are all here to stretch their hard fought dollar as far as it will go.   There are a lot of nice looking homes up on those mountain slopes, but for some reason it's a lot more difficult to get the local populous to pop for food than it is for them to spend their buck on lumber or labor.

My one on one sales pitches were met with a standard, "$18, that's way too much", or "And you're only serving fish?", or "I have to bring my own mixer for my rum?"  I spent a lot of time calmly explaining that their $18 was going to buy them four courses of  the best fresh and local
ingredients (and that I was cooking it), that I was serving only fish because I could guarantee its freshness and that in the long run, they would save their hard-earned cash by bringing their own Coca Cola.

Thursday, the opening day, arrived, and with it brought a thoroughly mixed bag of omens.  Although we had reservations for both Friday and Saturday night, there were none yet for the inaugural dinner.  Unfazed I plunged ahead in good faith and with the best possible attitude.  I hit the feria in fine fettle, buying lettuces, tomatoes and goat cheese.  I planned my weekend menus as I walked up and down and around the aisles of farmer's offerings and grabbed blackberries for ice cream and heirloom beans for a surprise.  I launched my way back over the hill and braved an overheating car and a downpour of Biblical proportions to buy lovely braising greens and cherry tomatoes from a new organic farm connection.  

The final leg home brought a literal gasket blowing and the arrival of a well-timed Samaritan to help me  bring my prizes back to the kitchen for "Opening Night".  I arrived sans car but with arms full, to find that still, we were without a reservation.   I stored the groceries and laid out the ones that I would prep that evening.  The cherry tomatoes were plump and bright, perfect to accent the lettuces that had been pulled from the ground that morning.  I had steamed a hug batch of fresh organic spinach leaves in olive oil and chicken stock for a cold soup the day before and the ensuing puree would be delicious.  I went upstairs to sit for a moment, to collect my cooking thoughts and to let the sight of the ocean settle me, ever so slightly.

Ah ha!  Voices and a couple, led by Cindy, our manager, arrived to look at the view and to ask about our food and philosophies.  I launched into my full-on sales spiel, citing our commitment to organic, local and fresh.  I waxed on about the lovely fresh caught Corvina I was about to receive.  I verbally dragged them through that morning's feria with me.  I blew passionate and sincere, both.  And they were sold.  At last, a reservation for four.  Opening night would not be a shutout.  

As soon as I heard their car door slam I was in the kitchen, cutting board out and knives in hand.  I pulled out the mixer and my recipes for a flourless chocolate cake and my favorite mandarina pound cake.  Why not offer them two desserts?  The woman of the couple had said she was allergic to mango, so my first planned sauce was out.  No problem; I would roast fresh tomatoes, sliced onions and whole garlic cloves in olive oil and fashion a fresh tomato sauce for the Corvina.  I was definitely alive with the moment and burning to put my morning purchases to the best possible use.  The fish hadn't arrived, but I was confident that Jose would never let me down.  Our relationship went back years.  

The cakes came out, the tomatoes followed them into the oven and I took a breath and a look around.  Oops, still no fish and three o'clock.  I got on the phone and called Jose just to check in.  Oh no!!  This can't be happening.  Jose is telling me that when he arrived with our delivery while I was out in the morning, he had been sent away by our manager since we had had no bookings for the evening.  Shit!  This was bad.  I had told our guests that their fish would be fresh and I had no fish, no car and no options, except...the freezer.  I keep a few flash frozen fish filets in the deep freeze for emergencies and this certainly qualified.  I was inwardly enraged, but set to finding the what would be the nicest of the Pargo or Corvina filets in the depths of the freezer.

I had no choice but to push on.  There was no point right now in finding out why I had been forced into this position; there was still cooking to be finished.  I cleaned the fresh greens from my new grower and marveled at the eight or nine varieties. I blanched the green beans; organic, and fresh from that morning.  I peeled garlic and pinched basil leaves from our plants outside the back door.  The tomatoes emerged from the oven, spitting and caramelized from their roasting in the olive oil.   I had changed my starch of choice from a camote puree to pasta when I had changed the fish sauce and I tossed the linguine in olive oil to keep it for an hour or so.

Finally; ready, prepped and set to serve.  My trusted helper and amigo Andrey had been given the weekend off so Jason showed up to set the tables, make our fresh juice and ultimately wash the dishes.  It was all ready and all I needed was for the fish to thaw so I could cut the filets.  I opted to flour it lightly and pan-fry it, something I don't generally do, to try to create a moister center and hopefully disguise that it might have been frozen.  And I knew, when I had frozen the fish this way a few weeks ago that there were few (other than myself) who would be able to tell.

Our guests arrived and immediately wanted to change their seating arrangement.  And Surprise!!  One of the other couple who I had not met was the food writer for one of our local monthly magazines.  Okay, here we go.  I was so confident in the quality of what I had bought and prepared that I didn't sweat it at all.  After we moved their table and served them a carafe of fresh juice the food began to flow.

I served the spinach soup and it was met with oohs and aahs after a few bites; all slurped down happily.  My salad of just picked baby lettuces, sliced ripe tomatoes and the cherry tomatoes, I topped with shredded local goat cheese and delivered to the table.  The food writer told me it was the best salad he'd been served on the coast.  And finally, the difficult part.  The panfried fish over the sauce-tossed pasta with yet more sauce spooned over the top.  It looked great, particularly when topped with a chiffonade of fresh and brilliantly green basil,  The addition of green beans tossed with red bell pepper strips and the braised greens made the complete.
Oops, the food writer and his partner could not eat onions.  A quick fix in the kitchen and new pasta was plated; the fish was wiped clean and anointed with olive oil, lemon and basil and reserved.  Voila, or as we say here, entonces.

One of the great rewards to a Chef is the absence of sound a few moments after the plates arrive at the table.   The only sound from my only table was the click and scrape of knife and fork against plate.  A few appreciative nods were seen and a kind of contented humming was just barely audible.  The plates were cleaned and the fish was eaten.  As I cleared the table of the empty plates, compliments came out as low murmurs of satisfaction.  "Great fish", said the husband, and "excellent, excellent" averred the food writer.  Phew.  I didn't feel good about "not" telling them it wasn't fresh, I had never reiterated the "fresh" part and I had done all I could to make it special.

Dessert was a breeze and a pleasure.  When given the choice between a flourless chocolate cake with organic cocoa ice cream and a mandarina pound cake with fresh blackberry sauce and ice cream, they opted for four chocolates, with a mandarina/blackberry for the table.  These too were finished happily and rapidly.  I love that.  

With all cleared, the check on the table and the convesration turned toward the future, the couple who had made the initial contact wished to return the following evening and the food writer wanted to feature us in his June issue.  It seems difficult to have asked for much more except perhaps, a larger opening night crowd.  But they'll be here, I sense it.


  1. A wonderfully spiced saga ChefDave! I beleive you have arrived at the place you belong. As we both know, all things in Costa Rica come with a great deal of challenge and require extra effort and patience when you're an outsider. Having learned a great deal about your background and knowing your personality I'm confident you will be very successful! Carry on my friend!

  2. Oooh, I enjoyed all of that vicariously -- the purchasing, the preparing, and the eating. I was intrigued by your opening -- it would be interesting to learn more about the various ex-pats -- why they're there, what they're doing, how they feel about Costa Rica and the U.S.

  3. Dear Chef Dave - I can't wait to get back to CR to indulge in your kitchen bounty again....and as Gayle and I are hopefully going to be one of those hillside dwellers you have written about I promise you this....We will build a simple and small house (or put up a tent) so we can afford some of your wonderful cuisene (sp?) at least a couple of times a week - that would be fab. La Cusinga and you are lucky to have found each other.....Cook on bro.

  4. The story is thriller, Cap'n! I was on the edge of my seat. Food writers can be trouble and I was afeared. But, you put one over the fence after fouling off those few nasty curve balls. Way to go, bra.


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.