Monday, August 3, 2009

Back In The Jungle

It took over a week of being back from the States to finally be able to sit down and put down a few thoughts about my trip and the ensuing return here to La Cusinga. As is typical of me and people like me, I had scheduled too much, tried to do too much and ultimately, amidst the joy of reunion with, and greeting of old friends and family, left a few people disappointed and/or angry. And so it is with a whirlwind trip such as the one I just finished.

Going from Austin to Portland to Yachats (on the Oregon Coast), back to Portland, down to San Francisco, up to the Napa Valley and utimately back to Austin on the last US leg may not have been the wisest of itineraries, but it's what I felt the need to do, so I did it.

The first pass through Austin featured a stop at the downtown Austin Farmer's Market, a Redd Volkaert matinee show at the venerated Continental Club, a fine dinner of grilled Muscovy duck breast over fresh black eyed peas; and oh yes, my sister Barbara's exemplary peach-blueberry cobbler to finish the meal. Austin was experiencing the hottest summer in its history and 103 was the lowest of the "highs" there in my visit. I was also fortunate enough to attend two meetings at Austin Recovery, where I got an 18 month marble and gave a brief but impassioned talk; and one at the Liars Club, the most powerful Men's Meeting that I know of. Lots of good stuff, love and support at each. From there it was on to Portland via San Jose; and I commend both airports for providing gratis internet service, something that the Houston and San Francisco airports could certainly implement without much loss of revenue, it seems to this jaundiced traveler.

I got in a PT Cruiser in Portland and made the three and a half hour drive out to the Oregon Coast in just over three hours. It's an easy jaunt down I5 and then a bit of a crawl through Corvallis and the wonderfully named Philomath on the way to the coastline highway. There is a twisting and winding drive to the coast marked at midpoint by a burg called Alsea that appears to have been forgotten by time and just about everything and everyone else. It looks like the place where hippies went to escape amidst the rednecks and somehow, someway, the crossbred. Lots of old multi-colored pickups, some running and some, apparently, not.

The coast appears quickly and the drive down is pretty damn scenic, but you need to keep an eye on those motor home drivers. The Oregon stay was nice. I got to see my 87 year old Dad and we went to lunch together. He treated us all to dinner at the one "fine dining" establishment in Yachats and lovingly and tenderly laid down 25-30% tips in both places. You can't take it with you, can you? We burgered one night out at my sister and brother in law's sprawling mini-farm down the Yachats River, and on the other evening my sister and I shared a mutual (and late) birthday celebration I cooked a scallop and fresh Oregon shrimp risotto with fresh peas from my sister's garden. The territory inland where my sister lives is as warm and pleasant as the coast was blustery and miserable (although kind of refreshing after Austin). I also feel compelled to give a Chef Dave Two Thumbs Up to the restaurant Local Ocean in Newport where my sister, Nancy and I lunched and shared a plate of perfectly charred rare Albacore skewers in a SE Asian glaze and the best made Dungeness crab cakes I can remember having.

Early on a Saturday morning it was back to Portland and the drive out from Walport along the river that ends at Alsea was glorious. The morning light from the east was sneaking down between the trees and the air was crisp. The crawl through Corvallis and the drive into Portland on I5 were, however, not quite as pleasurable. The Portland Airport was fine, and in fact, I kind of like the Portland Airport. It's wide where it should be wide, roomy without being sprawling and intimidating and yes, it has free wi-fi. I got on my Horizon Airlines flight (and at this point I've got to put a plug in for Horizon, my new favorite airline. Great people; easy going and downright friendly. On an airplane? Yeah, buddy...) and headed south to San Francisco.

Ah yes, San Francisco; home for 17 years and an airport I knew well. It's an easy wander out to the funny rail that takes you to the rental cars, but from there it got more difficult. I don't travel much on Saturdays and I hadn't psychologically or spiritually prepared myself for the logjam in the rental car area. It seemed that a lot of the people were new at this. Part of the problem is that a few of them were behind the counters. I got myself a zippy little black Nissan somethingorother and hauled out across lovely San Bruno to 280, the Skyline Highway. And it's all well and good until you hit 19th Ave. and he crawl begins. And lasts. All the way into Golden Gate Park (helluva way to see a park), up to and across the Golden Gate Bridge. You gotta love all those people on their first visit to SF who are over there in the right lane trying to get into the tiny little parking lot for the Lookout view out over the Bay.

I blasted through Marin and made the turnoff that heads across the top of the bay and up to the valleys, Sonoma and Napa. I made great time since it was late afternoon and I was going the opposite direction of the daytripper wine tasters. I followed my Google Map instructions; walked into a house I'd never been in; greeted people I'd never met and grabbed a plate full of porchetta, tri-tip (delicious!), heirloom tomatoes and lemon bars and dug in. My good friend Elsbeth looked up from her own plate and said, "Chef Dave, you made it." All the guests were winemakers and winery workers, so conversation was a bit specialized.

We blew that party for one that was absolutely fascinating. One of those parties where you are almost happy not to know anyone just so you can wander around and gape. We were at a private home, right at the edge of the vineyards, tucked way back in behind St. Helena. When we drove up the road was lined with cars for a half mile up and down the narrow country road and when we reached the patio of the house, there must have been 350 people, all with wineglass in hand, milling and talking; loud. This was Napa Valley society, all dressed down and casual and ready to party. There was a professional looking stage with risers (!) and stacks of amps, guitars on stands and on the top tier, a huge drum kit and a percussionists rack. I'd been told that the catering was coming off a Taco Truck, and sure enough, that humongous line that snaked around the patio did end at a Taco Truck, or what you could see of one.

So I did the best possible thing, I got an ice cold bottle of water out of one of the bins and I wandered and yes, gaped. Just about that time, the band members climbed the stage, strapped on thousands of dollars worth of guitars and rocketed into "Just What I Needed" by the Cars. Holy 80's! They were loud and not too bad and it turned out they were all dignitaries and mucky-mucks in the wine business. No surprise there. I may have been the only person there with no connection at all in the Valley or the wine biz.

The party was a serious see and be seen Napa Valley affair and it was interesting being the fly on the wall. The dress was "Valley casual", but not too casual. The wine was flowing, the band was rocking and when they rolled into "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" the white people really let it all hang out. Ooooooh-eee, some serious white people dancing stuff going down.
The wait for the Taco Truck was about 45 minutes to place one's order and another wait of close to an hour to get one's food. The taco's were authentically spiced and spicy and the view during the wait made it all worthwhile. Bella, Elsbeth's 5 year old daughter and I did a few hot steps together, too.

The Valley experience was nice. I only felt the need to venture into the City one day for a lunch with the former GM of the Elite Cafe, where I was the Chef for over three and a half years. We lunched at a Cal-French joint owned by Michael Mina called MR 74 and I sucked down a soft-shell crab sandwich. The previous day, Sunday, I had stayed in the Valley and had a superb and almost otherworldly lunch at Ubuntu, a "vegetable" restaurant, where Elsbeth's husband, Dan, is the GM. Their take on vegetable cooking is easily among the most creative in the world and the food is stunning. That evening I was treated to dinner at Redd, a serious Yountville dining post, and the food, while excellent, paled in comparison to what I had eaten at Ubuntu.

I was so glad not to have felt it necessary to sprint back and forth up 101 to the City and I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with Dan and particularly Elsbeth. I had worked with her in the City back in the 90's and it was so fulfilling to see both she and Dan living out their dream of succeeding in the Valley. Additionally, I had had the pleasure of creating the food for their wedding eleven years ago. My final day Elsbeth and I made an assault on the cult favorite Napa charcuterie/butcher shop, Fatted Calf, and loaded up on sausages, duck rilletes, salami and salads. From there we went straight to the produce market at the Oxbow Market Place and bought a small fortune worth of organic veggies. Chef Dave was going to do dinner.

I fired up the kettle and grilled off eggplant, zucchini and crookneck squash, peppers, onions and tomatoes as the fire died out. When it got to "that" point, I put the two racks of ribs that I'd dry rubbed that morning in to smoke. In the kitchen I chopped the grilled veggies and tossed them with EVOO and a mix of vinegars for a salad, sliced up a big mess of heirloom tomatoes and topped them with basil and fresh goat cheese, and cleaned several precious tiny heads of baby lettuces. We had duck rilletes on crackers from Cowgirl Creamery while the ribs smoked. We had bowls of almonds and olives. I threw a couple of Toulouse style sausages on the grill and we powered through those while the ribs smoked. We invited in neighbors and friends. When the ribs hit the required tenderness point I removed them, sliced them into individual ribs and served them with four different salads. Life was good. And later that night I had the pleasure of watching Dan tear into and devour an entire rack by himself. It's tough when you work in a "vegetable" restaurant.

The next morning it was back to the City in the tail end of the commute traffic and the whole process in reverse. Drop off the car and the tram into the airport. It was SF to Dallas and Dallas to Austin, rather painlessly and again, there was my long suffering sister to greet me at the airport. She had ordered some goodies from my friend Chef Jesse Griffiths at Dai Due Catering and Butchery and we fought our way through Austin to find him. I'd done a number of caterings and private dinners with Dai Due while in Austin and it was nice to find him at home in his spotless new kitchen. He had stuffed whole, but boned, quail with figs wrapped in sausage and then wrapped the quail in pork belly. Yum. We also picked up what looked like a brick of pate with pears and prunes and he graciously gave us a long link of pork and roasted red pepper sausage.

The final hours in Austin were a quick blur of a lovely pasta dinner with Barbara and Pete; a buying spree for the folks back home; a very nice lunch with friends from AR; a meeting with my Austin sponsor, Tony, and then finally, those quail served over fresh creamer peas and bacon with braised greens. This was followed by another of Barbara's peach and berry cobblers and that was it. We were all up early the next morning and it was back home to Costa Rica. It's an easy flight from Austin to Houston, and even the Houston to San Jose flight is relatively easy, taking less than four hours.

My buddy Cass met me at the airport and the next morning drove me back over the mountains to the coast, the beautiful coast. I did the vehicle shuffle, picking up two vehicles and moving each; went up the hill to feed the dogs and unpack, and headed back down to La Cusinga to get back to being Chef of the Jungle. We had 28 hungry students and just barely enough food to feed them and it felt like being at home.

The reacclimation took a couple of days. I sweated through multiple shirts a day, rather than one. I found things in the refrigerators I shouldn't have and threw out a few things I would rather not have seen. Overall, my sidekick, Andrey, had done an exemplary job. He'd handled parties of up to 25 with grace and aplomb. It seems he's learned pretty well. The trip had been great, if a trifle overbooked, but it was so good to be back to my kitchen, my food and my life.


  1. Sounds familiar! Just got back from Oregon. Great read! But that second night in Austin, it was a crisp, not a cobbler --


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.