Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Flying Through August/Big Night


August she is a flying by and I'm flying right with her. We have had a full house here at La Cusinga since the early part of the month and keeping up with supplies has been a push. If only the San Isidro Feria was three days a week and not an hour drive over the hill. If only I knew that Victoriano would have fresh fish each and every day. If only there were two or perhaps three of me on some days. If only I knew then what I know now.

These are not complaints, but more the reactions to the thrill of good business and the excitement for the future. We had a record July, and August will prove to be excellent as well. Our guests have been kind enough to go to sites such as Trips Advisor to post their (mostly) rave reviews and the ongoing feedback has been paying off. We had a guest last week who came in convinced that the Trips Advisor testimonials were trumped up, fake, written by us. As she was leaving she told us that despite her doubts, everything she had read was true, and her visit had far exceeded her expectations. She avowed as to how she would be posting her own testimonial soon.

The kind reactions from our guests, coupled with increased revenues will buy us new plates and kitchen equipment this fall, and miles of good will for the future. Come September we will slow down and more writing will get done, more menus and specials will be researched and more ice creams will be made.

Our good friend Prof. Howard Dougherty of York University in Toronto just came through with his second group of the summer. Howard is the head of the Ecology Dept. at York and brings a group of his students through for a three day intensive study of the area; sort of an on-going field trip ending with a lecture/discussion each evening.

Howard, a guest lecturer or two, an assistant; their Tico driver, Oscar and 23 students join us for a three day/night encampment that gives them a good overview of our property, tours of this Eco-region, and three meals a day. Feeding 28 at one time, in addition to feeding a few extra hotel guests, plus feeding our "de la calle" restaurant guests is a bit of a challenge and puts a strain physically on our tiny kitchen. The students, being students, have numerous (generally self-imposed, but occasionally religious as well) dietary restrictions and when we serve them, our guests and the public, we can end up serving four, five or six different menus a night. One chef/cook and his assistant/dishwasher struggle at times to keep up with not just the physical, but also the mental challenge of keeping all this straight. As my friend Greg Douglass wrote in an old Country Weather song, "it puts sucha sucha strain on his little brain".

So planning is key. Purchasing is critical and the good news is, the mercado in Uvita keeps a nice supply of fresh fruit. The group arrives on Saturday, so my Thursday run to the San Isidro Feria is huge. The fruit buy for breakfast alone is huge. Students eat a LOT of fruit. Sandia (watermelon), melon (cantelope), papaya, mango, bananas (so many bananas), plantanos and more make up a huge weight in the back of the tiny Tercel. And this is only breakfast. We have to have two vegetables per night for nearly 40. We need the staples; yellow onions, red onions, red bells (do we ROLL through red bells), carrots and celery, green onions, eggplant, and yes, more. Regular restaurants do this daily, but don't do it out of two stand-up home refrigerators and one large two door reach-in.

For the first dinner, last Saturday night, we had the group of 28, a family of hotel guests who numbered six, and eight locals who had booked the four course meal at The Gecko. Yes, a total of 42. The kids got three courses; salad, their various specialized and unspecialized entrees and dessert. Our other guests got the full four course spectacular, including a cold soup at the beginning of their meal. Normally our student groups eat early; kids get hungry. But they had not arrived until nearly 1:30 in the afternoon and lunch hadn't been powered down until well after 2:00. This meant that, unlike other evenings when we could do the mass feeding early, all our groups were going to be sitting and eating simultaneously. As the old Kirin placemats used to say about the horseshoe clam in the early days of Sushi restaurants, "challenging".

I had four straight up vegetarians, six who would eat fish but not chicken, one who would not eat fish but would eat chicken and 17 who (bless their pointed little heads) had no food issues. We pre-set their salads about five minutes before we anticipated their arrival to ease the burden in the kitchen and to give us a little room to maneuver. We had to get the other guests, the 14 started while our students ate their salads, but the cold soups are an easy dish-up, and something that Karla, our waitress can do with ease. Andrey could start the 14 other salads of organic greens, basil-ed tomatoes, hearts of palm and croutons and I would tend to the stoves.

We generally always make rice for a large group, but still had to contend with two different vegetables and 42 pieces of fish, not wanting to overcook any of them. The fish for the kids had gone straight onto sheet pans for baking, but the filets for the guests had been seared on one side to give them a nice golden crust and they were kept seperate. More sheet pans held slices of roasted ayote squash for one of our vegetables and a bowl full of a room temperature ratataouille (a time saver for groups of this size) sat on the counter. Counting down to dish up time.

The sheet pans of fish went in the ovens as the kids sat down and as they were halfway through their salads we started dishing up. A pile of rice, ratatouille to the right and two ayote wedges to the left. The fish over the rice and a spoonful of roasted tomato/basil sauce over the top. A quick wipe and off they went. The vegetarians got a halved ayote stuffed with red beans, hearts of palm and cheese. One girl got a chicken breast. The hard part is to get the special requests to the people who actually ordered them, as more often than not someone who thinks it looks good will claim it, leaving the veggie head without an entree (and this happens a lot!). Seven stacks of four plates each; filled, sauced, wiped and delivered.

On to the six and then the eight, two by two by two by two. Basically the same plate, but with the nicely seared fish. Off they went, just in time for me to leap into action as the dessert server. The student group was getting my big party "go to" dessert of pineapple upsidedown cake. Baked well in advance, it only gets better as it sits and the caramel seeps into the cake.
28 plates and then for an added degree of difficulty, a scoop of housemade caramelized banana ice cream (a new flavor and an instant favorite) on each one. Bang, bang, and bang. And those plates came back almost as quickly as they went out.

The desserts for our Lodge guests and the restaurant patrons was different but similar; flourless chocolate cake, in their case, topped with yet more of the caramelized banana ice cream. A scant fourteen of those and then it was all over but for the bussing and washing. There was, and always is, food to store; fish to wrap, sauces to cover and leftovers to attend to.
The staff dinners get plated and the Chef heaves a huge sigh of relief. Only two more nights to go.


  1. Sounds like a dynamic lodge! If Howard is still in residence, tell him Dana says "hi"

  2. sounds delicious! Just read about you on Chowhound and I'll be stopping by for a meal next week.


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.