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.