Tuesday, June 23, 2009

DOING DEMOS

When I returned to La Cusinga in January of this year, one of my first stops was at the new (at least to me) Saturday morning Uvita feria. I loved it from the time I first laid eyes on it and walked around it, and I knew from that first day that I wanted to see it succeed and that I would do whatever I could to help.

It occurred to me after only a visit or two that while the Uvita feria was doing some of the right things; local produce, artisans, crude but locally generated music, it was also lacking a spark , a focus, a drawing card, if you will. I had already started a relationship with Tricia and Marguerite, the two woman who ran not only one of the stands, but also the business end of the feria and naturally, me being me, I had to make some suggestions. One immediate and obvious suggestion that came up was incorporating Chef Demos into the weekly routine. I had seen them work with an immense degree of success at the huge Ferry Plaza Market in San Francisco and other markets in the States; in fact, generating their own fan base, separate from the markets. I had also performed Demos at the Beverly Hill Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s in San Francisco in front of mobs of people and had seen how effective they could be in getting the crowd motivated into doing some retail therapy.

After I made my suggestions to Marguerite and Tricia I wrote out a two page outline of how the Demos should run, what equipment would be necessary and even recommended the first guest Chef, me, ChefDave. Naturally, nothing happened immediately and this being Costa Rica, nothing happened even more slowly than it might have anywhere else. Tricia left the country and sold her part of the business to Marguerite. My carefully wrought plans and ideas had gotten lost in the shuffle and needed to be retyped and resent. Marguerite was slowly absorbing all of the weight of running this new business and she was proceeding surely, if slowly. It took until the last week of May, with constant meetings and discussions at each Saturday feria for several weeks prior for us to finally establish a date and a “plan”. Saturday , June 20th would be the first Chef Demo.

I re-sent the list of equipment and serving needs to Marguerite. It became clear early on that we wouldn’t be ready or able to do any live flame cooking; just couldn’t get that damn propane thing together. Marguerite had plenty of lovely organic lettuces in her garden that she sold each week, each of the vendors had items fresh, organic and even pickled that they could offer, so we decided on a Salad Demo. I would contribute a couple of basic vinaigrette/dressing ideas and would assemble said dressings in front of the teeming throngs. At our final meeting, at the big feria in Perez, two days prior to the date of the blessed event, we addressed our lists of needs and requirements yet again. It wasn’t D-Day or Woodstock, but it was close.

That Thursday evening I created the two recipes that I would perform so I could print them up and hand them out, so all could read along as I performed. I had decided on the simplest most basic red wine vinegar/Dijon dressing I could think of, and a slightly more complex emulsified dressing that would require a food processor. I kept my writing succinct and left room at the bottom of the page for a few helpful salad making hints (and two of my pet peeves) like proper oil to vinegar ratios (abhor the old classic of 3:1 and move toward featuring the oils and NOT the vinegars in something more like a 5:1 ratio), and the concept of not overdressing our precious tiny organic greens into a sodden wadded mass.

On Friday my friend Anja from Mercado la Roca was kind enough to assist me in arranging and printing my flyers and helped me to add a little hyping of the restaurant as well. I wrote out my own packing lists; for food, Dijon mustard, oils, vinegars, S&P, etc.; and for equipment, whisks, spatulas, towels and of course, the Cuisinart. I went into Friday night’s dinner service fully ready for the next day. I had gotten excited phone calls that afternoon from Marguerite that Canal 6, our local TV station would be there filming both the feria and me and that I should be prepared to start later and stay longer.
Okay, fine, I was still ready.

Saturday morning arrived warm and sunny, and I bounced down off the hill, arriving at La Cusinga for the car exchange and a final spot check of my packing. I remembered extra towels and discovered that I had forgotten to pull my white chef’s shirts out of the bleach bucket the night before. It would have to be the stylish black shirt or nothing. And nobody wanted to see nothing.

I got to the feria in plenty of time and discovered immediately that I was not going to be a Costa Rican TV food star. There had been complications and the TV crew wasn’t going to make it. Naturally Marguerite was a little disappointed as she had told a lot of her regular customers to come later so that we could have a good crowd for the cameras. I was slightly disappointed, but also a little pleased as it did mean that we could start closer to our original time rather than going later into the morning. Despite the lure to my ego of being both on camera and in front of people, I still had fish to buy and a restaurant to run later that day and into the evening.

I did all the meeting and greeting that I usually do on Saturday mornings and made sure I took care of by weekly buying first. After that it was upstairs to the brutally hot upper level of the Rincon buiding where the feria is held, to drag down the tables I would set up on. I got the tables set, pulled on the plastic tablecloth and began the display. On went the black chef’s shirt and out came the cutting board, the Cuisinart, the oils, the vinegars, the mustard. I pulled out the stacks of printed recipes as well as flyers advertising The Gecko at La Cusinga and spread them around the table for all to see. Marguerite had begun to bring me the organic goodies for the salads and I arranged the cucumber, avocados and tomatoes in front of the board where I would cut them.

“Marguerite”, I called, “where is your extension cord?” Oooh, blank expression (not good), and then, “I don’t know. Won’t your cord reach?” We all knew it wasn’t going to reach and it was apparent that that part of the check list had somehow been overlooked. Marguerite shuffled off to ostensibly look for a cord, but I knew that it just wasn’t going to happen. After I set up the rest of the table it had become entirely clear to me that issue of the extension cord was just going to be quietly ignored, so I hopped into R2, and went off to see who I knew that would have an extension cord. My friend Tra’s Hotel Tucan was closer than The Dome (also known as the Mango Café) and I knew his staff better than I knew Brent, the Dome’s owner. Sure enough, Rosa, Tra’s hugely pregnant day manager was happy to lend me an extension cord and I was so happy myself I stopped at the Corona market across the street from the feria and bought grinders of pepper and sea salt that I had somehow forgotten to bring.

I returned triumphantly, plugged in the food processor and was just about in business. Marguerite asked me if I would start shortly after 10:00 so I had several minutes to get the mis en place in place so I set to work. People began to drift by and stare. I find it fascinating that one can stand with an entire kitchen set up, wearing obvious chef’s clothes; a knife in one’s hand, vegetables in the other, and with flyers announcing one’s intentions festooned all around and people will, without batting an eye, say, “What are you doing?” Over and over again they will say it. This is a reaction not specific to any region, locale or country. It is not gender specific. It is however, frighteningly consistent.

They came, the saw, they asked. And patiently and gently I explained why and how it was that I had come to be there, dressed in my funny clothes and chopping vegetables. The lights went on. There would be free food. That was the core message of all that they saw. As we neared the appointed time, I laid out a display of cut vegetables onto the lazy susan that Marguerite had brought. I pulled the stems and roots off heads of tiny lettuces and fluffed them into the salad bowl. A few chairs were pulled up, a small (think five or six) crowd had gathered and I launched into my spiel. I was Chef Dave from The Gecko at La Cusinga and here’s what I’m going to do.

From that point forth it was all second nature. I cut, I tossed, I explained. I mixed together oils and vinegars and mustard. I shook and I blended. I salted, peppered and sliced. I made eye contact and spoke with assurance and confidence. Soon I had a bowl full of dressed salad and was serving it forth. A glaring weakness was quickly discovered; the bowls were few and the back-up bag of plastic forks turned out to be plastic spoons. I talked on. I answered questions, nodding wisely and supportively. I encouraged people to take the recipes and flyers and to even go so far as to read what was printed on them. I explained the concept of “emulsification”.

The concept of free food is one of the most popular on the face of the earth. Small children thrust bowls in front of me. Vendors from other tables came over to eat. I smiled and served. I cut and recut. I added more lettuces and more dressing to the bowl, each time explaining which dressing it was and asked them to notice how lightly I was dressing these tender young greens. I winced when people reached for the dressing I’d made and added more and more to their salads. I winced even harder when one of the Tico vendors grabbed the spoon protruding from the Dijon and dumped three healthy spoonsful onto his salad. I kept smiling, serving and sweating, yes, sweating. It was hot and the black shirt was not helping. Marguerite rushed about trying to wash used salad bowls two or three at a time. Our crowd of five or six had turned into an eating machine of thirty or so. But that’s why I was there.

The lecture and demo part of the morning over, the crowd thinned and I was left with the stragglers who wanted to know, “What is this?”, “Who are you?” and “Do you have any more forks and bowls?” I started to neaten and re-pack but Marguerite was asking me to keep making salad. She had asked her friends and regulars to come later. She brought more lettuces, more tomatoes, more avocados. I loaded up the bowl again and kept packing. I told my story and sang my song over my shoulder as I loaded up my bustub. I filled the bowl again and again. I made a run to the trunk of the car to deposit my dirty food processor bowls, tongs and spats. Nearly done, nearly done. I thought about my drive down to Ojochal to buy fish and how the breeze would blow through the windows of the car.

Marguerite’s face was sad when I told her that I absolutely had to go, that there were two cakes to bake, a large fish to filet and 15-20 diners in my future. “But people are still coming…”, she said. I nodded. People would still be coming all the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. But the Chef Demo was done, the free food had worked its magic and now, it was time to head down the jungle road to the next part of the day.

3 comments:

  1. Free salad? Oh boy! Sign me up! Especially if it's not in a sodden, wadded mass.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I found this due to a Ferry Plaza google alert, and just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed reading the travails of your demo that took place 1) in a new farmers market unfamiliar with cooking demos 2) in a culture not known for hurrying or attention to detail 3) without a kitchen.

    For years we operated from folding tables, using cassette feus, without amplification. It has only been in the last few years that we now have a mics, mirrors, and a truly stocked kitchen (not to mention a dedicated staff person to coordinate)--and as you know, we are at San Francisco's Ferry Building. We all start from where we are and try to improve.

    How universal it is in dealing with the public--how we don't read the signs and just want to ask the person busily working about what is happening right in front of us!

    Good luck to you in your cooking and teaching, and visit in San Francisco us when you can.

    Christine Farren

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sounds like it could be a fun Saturday morning activity, with dependable electricity, propane and your imagination, this could be quite the series... get parts of it on video so we can see, too.

    ReplyDelete

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
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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.