Friday, May 15, 2009

A Restaurant in the Jungle

A restaurant in the jungle?  Well why not?

This past weekend we opened The Gecko at La Cusinga, our first stab at opening up our jungle and ocean view dining room to the public.  Previously only the guests at the Lodge were able to enjoy the fresh local cuisine but we felt that it was time to share the bounty and the surroundings with our friends here in the Uvita/Ballena/Ojochal area.   We decided not to overwhelm the public or ourselves and opted for a three night a week schedule, with one seating at 6:30 and a daily changing for course menu for a whopping $18 per person, before tax and tip.

It may appear on the face of it that this is not a particularly giant leap.  We had the Chef, we had the kitchen, we had the dining room and we had the food.  However, this being a remote and rural part of Costa Rica, nothing comes easy.  

First there was the issue of how to let the locals know that we were indeed open.  People in our community live up and down the coast, up and down the mountains and in a variety of not necessarily "tuned in" spots in between.  It's not as if we can go to the local press (although, in a way we did), a website is not particularly viable, and there are no TV or radio spots from which to create a buzz.  Almost anything that anyone wants the public to know about is posted on a 8 1/2"X 11" flyer and scotch taped or stapled to a store window, local bulleting board or even a telephone pole.  Primitive?  Yes, but sooner or later, everyone needs to go to the grocery store.

I asked Geinier, our General Manager, to help by creating a flyer with a logo and all the pertinent information.  No problem.  He put together a nice package and emailed it to me to get printed.  This is where it becomes interesting.   I have no printer for my laptop and while La Cusinga has a printer, it doesn't print in color.   The hunt was on for a color printer in our tiny village.  Using what little common sense I have remaining, I first went to the Uvita information center, where Sonia handles, car rentals, excursion packages, mail deliveries and sundry other community related tasks.  

Sonia knew of two people who had color printers but first there was the issue of getting the downloaded email into a printable package.  I went to see Tra, my good friend, and owner of the Tucan Hotel, a hostel/hotel and community center.  Tra hooked me up with a zip drive key and I was in business.  Maybe, and not yet.  Neither of the two shops I visited that had color printers had any toner.  Uh-oh.  It was appearing that an hour drive each way over the mountain to Perez Zeladon was in my future if I wanted to get the word out.   I stopped in at Marina Ballena restaurant and bar, a local watering hole and another community center.   Over an icy club soda it was suggested to me that I go see Tom.  Tom had, I was assured, a state of the art color printer.  Tom is a local character; a big bearded burly bear of a guy, but also a photographer, somewhat of a recluse, and like me, an expat from the San Francisco/Bay Area.  

I needed to get this done and I immediately hopped into R2, my 1991 Toyota Tercel (and what would appear to be the national car of Costa Rica) and bumped and dodged my way up the rocky road to Tom's house in deep Uvita, just before the river.  I should take this opportunity to point out that as soon as one leaves the main highway, road care and efficient grading are not always available and four wheel drive is preferred.   But I had needs, big needs, and I desperately wanted to avoid another trip up and over the big hill.  And Tom did have the 

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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.