Monday, August 3, 2009

Leaving This Town

What follows is a piece that will be published in the Ester (AK) Republic later this month. This was written at a point in my life (coming to Costa Rica the first time) when change; physical, spiritual, chemical, was imminent.



The Lookout Hotel sat on a sprawling piece of property perched on a bluff at the edge of the rainforest. The view from the restaurant/bar looked out over the white drifts of Playa Tortuga and even further out over the blue Pacific. It was a Costa Rican idyll; a paradise above the ocean. It was painted a number of different “tropical” pastel shades and was accessed by a long well-rutted and steep driveway best ascended in first gear or better yet, four wheel drive. It had been open under a number of names for over ten years but now had been closed for over a year and a half due to the owner’s illness. My associate John and his partner Kate had seen an ad for it on the internet and had bitten hard. I had been flown to take a look at the property and the kitchen and figure out the best ways to combine the “fresh from the water seafood” with the luscious jungle fruits I had greedily gobbled up during my visit. Mangoes and seared yellowfin tuna, dusky papaya and sautéed shrimp, grilled dorado and carmelized pineapples; I could taste it all in the palate of my mind. I had my menu written and the plane hadn’t yet hit the runway on the return flight. I was primed for a life of cooking in the jungle. I was leaving San Francisco after 18 years and moving to Costa Rica to become the Chef of the Jungle

Getting out of the City and CityLife, however, wasn’t going to be as easy as simply sub-letting my longtime apartment and taking a van to the airport. I got back to the large studio apartment I’d lived in for over eight years and instead of looking at it and seeing a clean and empty box; I saw mountains of clothes hardly worn; shelves and shelves of books, well loved and well read; and over 2000 cds that certainly weren’t going in anyone’s suitcase. There was the bike and the exer-bike; the bed and the entertainment center; the pots and pans, oh, the pots and pans. Where would they go? And my wine glasses; the fine stemware accumulated over these many years. What would I pack? What would I keep. Who the hell would even want all this shit?

It’s easy to forget that the things one collects over the years are a whole lot more personal than we originally thought. The concept of saving them for posterity is selfserving and ludicrous. That jacket from the 70’s, those rock and roll posters with all the rips at the corners, and all those things you painstakingly cut out of newpapers and magazines; no one but you give a good goddamn about them and they’ve got to go. So ruthlessly and heartlessly I set to throwing away my past. With jaw set firm and a quart or two of vodka I began to not just edit my belongings, but to delete them. It was like a clearance sale in a cheap department store. Everything Must Go!!!

I got right in the middle and just started pulling things off the shelves and out of closets and throwing them into boxes. Boxes and boxes of magazines that I had been certain were vital to my existence were to go out on the street. Two closets and two dressers full of unused doo-dads, unworn and tattered T-shirts and, unfortunately, a lot of things that really required more attention. The momentum was lost almost immediately when the first box of old magazines and clippings was opened. This stuff was Fascinating! Suddenly my frenzy was stilled and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor face deep in newsprint from 20 years ago. Apparently this was going to be far longer process than I had intended.

Four weeks, multiple “going away” dinners and parties with friends, even more quart bottles of vodka, serial hangovers and several rolls of packing tape later; except for the final cleaning, I was done . There had been six trips to Goodwill and three to the dump. And who knew that they’d actually charge me to take my old refrigerator? I had been too lazy and far too “smart” to buy an iPod. Instead I had loaded my Top 200 cds into a heavy binder (stupid!). I had decided on twenty or so books that would keep me aware and stimulated. (stupid!) I had sweated and I had drunk; I had broken my own heart several times by callously throwing the memories of my youth into boxes bound for the dump. I stood, in a daze; the only figures on the horizon standing between me and a good sweep and mop were the mountainously piled suitcases. It was really going to happen. I was really going to move my life; knives, shorts and t-shirts to Costa Rica.

Then there were the friends. All those people who had drifted in an out of my City Life for the last 18 years and now just “had” to see me before I left. I wondered where they had been recently, but didn’t allow myself to dwell on it. Instead, I did the opposite. I ran like an idiot from lunch with one long lost buddy to afternoon cocktails with another and stopped by the restaurants and bars of countless more. “Will we ever see you agains”, ran into “Oh My God, I’m so envious”, ran into “So you’re going to leave it all behind”, blurted into an unmeant “We’ll just have to come see you”, coupled with the inevitable hearty slaps on the back and two more shots. Oddly, none of those friends were available when it was time to go to the dump, but I suppose that’s entirely different.

Cynicism aside, there were also the people who were indeed hard to leave behind. The woman with whom I’d shared an off and on relationship with for eight years wondered if this was indeed the “famous final scene”. The few friends who had been regular visitors during my long recuperation waxed both happy and said. They were also the ones who were intuitively concerned about my breaking all ties and fleeing (?) to the jungle. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright down there?” they’d ask. “It’s going to be just you and that whole family.” And I’d laugh the hollow laugh of the blindly confident and assure them through a cocktail haze that I had it all under control. Those final days in the City I’d come to both love and hate were hard and I couldn’t wait for the leaving to leave.

And then one morning the Super Shuttle showed up and I walked out of the empty room dragging two giant suitcases, an overstuffed duffle and two back packs behind me. I was moving to another country. For good.

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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.