Wednesday, September 30, 2009


The following are a series of vignettes, glimpses and flashbacks from an American Chef trying to open a restaurant in Costa Rica for the first time. PT. 1

Although we had all arrived from San Francisco in early September, the restaurant and hotel were not ready to open to the public until mid-November. The scraping, painting, bribing and learning experience had taken us that long and perhaps should have taken longer. We opened the hotel first for friends and family and then prepared to open the doors to “The Lily Pad” restaurant, named after the owner’s one year old daughter.

I had been testing menu items (again for friends and family) for weeks and like the veterans in the NFL’s Pre-Season, I was champing and chafing for some live action. My menu was simple; five appetizers/salads and five entrees with nightly specials to feature fresh fish. We put out the word in our small coastal community and the response was overwhelming. We had 42 reservations for a dining room that held just over 30 and we would have to set up tables in the bar area as well. It was two days before opening and we had virtually no waitstaff, a novice bartender and a kitchen crew had who never worked together or even been trained; our budget was as bare bones as it gets.

When we (much more than naively) began this venture we had no idea of the frustration, heartbreak and pitfalls attempting to do business in a Third World country doesn't just present, but throws in your face in a repeated and somewhat numbing fashion. Imagine, if you will, the prospect of opening a restaurant in the states with no vehicle, and working telephone; no fax, no internet and no one on the selling and providing end who seemed to care whether or not we bought from them, or whether or not we failed miserably.

On the day before we are to open, all the food has been ordered or run out for; or in some cases, begged for. We waited with the faith of children for the trucks to rumble up our driveway bearing the necessary items (milk, juice, flour, oil!) that one would deem necessary but ridiculously simple to access anywhere else but here on the south Costa Rican coast.

Attempting to get deliveries where we are, and bear in mind it's even remote for Costa Rica, is perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences I've ever encountered. When one is able to make phone contact, the company on the other end happily tells you that someone will be there manana and then no one shows. You call them the next day, if and when the phone works, and they remember you, greet you with great joy, and happily tell you that the truck or representative will be there manana. This call and response can last the entire week.

One of the interesting facets of deliveries here is that most of the drivers are their own businessmen. You order from the driver and you pay the driver. Only two companies, the dry goods people (who are notorious for never even showing up to take the order), and the beer company (who it seems stop by almost every day) send a representative. One finds oneself driving up and down the Costanera Highway (when one has an operable vehicle) desperately searching for the Coke truck, or the Dos Pinos (dairy) truck, or whichever particular supply you are either running low or out of and begging the driver to stop by when he's a little further toward your end of the route.

I had spent the day before the grand opening of “The Lily Pad at the Lookout Hotel” running and sweating trying to get everything I would need to keep me from having to leave my kitchen at any point of opening day. Unfortunately, this running also included having to be driven to where my moneypit Ford Ranger 4X4 was in the shop (again), and was promised, promised to me for this, the most important of days. It wasn’t ready so I embarked on the final assault on food procurement via taxi and on foot. I was in the town of Palmar, a dusty beaten town known primarily for cold beer and the only whore house in the vicinity for kilometers and kilometers.

Palmar also boasted the carneceria (butcher shop) of smiling David, my favorite three fingered (well, three and half if you’re really counting) butcher. And although he and I had built up a pretty good relationship based on our shared knowledge of the workings and subsequent disassembling of pigs, I had yet to summon the courage to ask him just how it was that the dedos (fingers) came to be missing. I did however, avail myself of he and his fine quality swine products. I also liked visiting David because he would let me come around behind the counter and swing a cleaver or slice with the scimitar knife with him. You don’t get a lot of that back home.

In any case, I picked up four beautiful center cut pork loins and their attendant (but separated) rib bones, a couple of long skeins of smoked chorizo and a few kilos of bacon (tocinetta). I had made the mistake on my first visit to David of ordering tocino, which my old friends in Mexico call bacon. I was taken back a bit that first time when I looked in the bag and saw caul fat, the membraned fat that lines the pigs’s stomach. Turns out that in Costa Rica, that is what passes for tocino. David reminds me of my folly each time I visit and I remind myself not to mention the missing fingers.

I move on to the produce stand where I pick up a pre-arranged order and stop in at the grocery to try to find any kind, any kind of flavored vinegar that is actually made from a wine product. Good luck. Oddly, it's all artificial here, a vinegar concept I was unfamiliar with.

I am nervous about the truck being ready, but equally nervous about what might be going on back in the kitchen while I am not there to direct traffic, offer chefly advice and do all I can do to prevent crimes against food. I have recipes and I have talked ideas, but there the food sits and what if, just what if they were to take some initiative and start in on their own? This turned out to be an unfounded fear.

The labor pool for cooks here in our rural jungle location is pretty damn slim. I have interviewed plump abuelas (grandmothers) in aprons, hard faced single moms who cook the local bean and rice “gallo pinto” at greasy sodas (the local diners) and a succession of willing but oh, so young, Ticos, mostly girls. I have hired three locals; Randall, a 26 year old (he looks 15) who has experience cooking, and has in fact, worked in this very kitchen for previous operators; Betza, an 18 year old slim-hipped beauty who has no previous food experience, but is bright and attentive; and Katya, another 18 year old, who is as roly-poly as Betza is slim, and is the angel faced mother of a 2 1/2 year old son. Explaining my food to them has already been interesting, frustrating and confusing to both them and me. Now getting back to the restaurant to get them to prepare my food correctly is the huge remaining challenge of the day.


  1. You are obviously dedicated and tenacious as hell. Good for you!

  2. I like your descriptive writing style, the little bits of back story you share make everything so colorful. Your blog makes for some great reading and I'm looking forward to the next installments. a


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.