Thursday, October 29, 2009

This is the second installment of the story of the opening of the Lily Pad, the restaurant at the Lookout Hotel in Ojochal, Costa Rica, in November of 2005.



I was in the jungle, but the cold sweats and the gnawing had started again. Here I was, standing alongside a long series of ramshackle buildings, odd and ancient machinery; wondering, yet again, what in the world is going on. My Ford Ranger 4X4 had cracked and broken a brake drum and the horrors of trying to get if fixed in a country that seems to never have heard of “Ford” coincided not so nicely with the legwork and prepwork involved in the last two days before opening a restaurant. Anywhere.

Our good friend Olman had a solution, since he always had a solution and dragged us along to the taller (garage) where his brother worked. This was a most unusual taller in that it was housed in the long narrow buildings that had been constructed specifically by Dole, the canning and fruit giants, at the turn of the century (no, not this one) as a workplace for the men who fixed the banana trains that Dole ran through the jungles from coast to coast.

Because it had been constructed to fix the trains of yesteryear, this particular taller had a lot of features not normally found in the garages that we’re all familiar (or not familiar in my case) with. One of the more remarkable of these massive tools was a metal press that could be used for fabricating steel parts that had become unserviceable. And so it came to pass that since Ford parts are virtually unobtainable in Costa Rica, George, brother of Olman, was going to use my broken brake drum as a template and make a brake drum for me, right there in the taller.

I was severly apprehensive at at the potential cost of this “new to me” venture and cautiously asked “cuantos” and sort of winced at the same time. George looked at me solemnly and declared, “Ocho mil colones, mas o menos”.

Huh? It was going to cost me in the neighborhood of $16 for him to make me a brand new brake drum, on this veryt spot. I was more than happy to do a bit more shopping while this feat of engineering was being performed and when I returned in the proscribed hour, the brake drum was made and on the truck. The work and the price had me stunned; stunned. I got back in the truck with a stll slightly baffled shake of the head and drove back up through the jungles to Ojochal and the Lookout.

Driving back I stressed and sweated and worried and stressed and sweated some more. I was trying to get a kitchen open yes, but there was more to it than that. I had chosen this particular time to try to “do something” about my increasingly problematic and prolific drinking and for some reason thought that the work involved in getting the restaurant open would provide the distraction from, and the channel for, the demons crawling inside my brain and an under my skin. The fact that I already had sweated through two tee shirts and was letting my brain run wild with worry was evidence that distraction was not immediately at hand.

When I backed the truck up the entrance to the kitchen, my entire “crew” was there. The slender and shy Betza; her opposite, the roly-poly and smilyfaced Katya; and enigmatic and stonefaced Randall. Randall was the only one of them with any restaurant experience and had, in fact, worked in our kitchen with previous owners. Randall had ridden up our rutted and steep driveway on his bicycle, appeared at my back door in a short sleeved chef’s coat and asked for a job almost two months earlier. I had told him there was no work yet , but he appeared at least twice a week for the next eight weeks, always in his slightly sweat-soaked chef’s coat and I couldn’t help but admire his dedication. He was definitely going to be my right hand man.

Groceries put away, we set to the food prep. I wanted to get all the basic sauces and dressings made so we fired up the smoker for smoking the tomatoes and hot chiles for one sauce and pulled out the food processor to start making vinaigrettes and dressings. The Cuisinart was a wonder to my two country girls and they oohed, awed and reeled back in fear from its spinning blades. I had put Randall on a longish vegetable cutting task, and had taken it upon myself to attempt to explain the dressings (try describing an emulsion in a foreign language) and the salad and first course set-ups to my two willing charmingly clueless Ticas.

I should probably stop here and explain to my readers who may be as “at sea” as my cute little student cooks, that an emulsion is a cooking technique whereby two things that are “unlike” become one through means physical and/or chemical. A classic example of this is oil and vinegar being bound together to make a creamy dressing (emulsion), with the addition of egg and/or mustard. The vinegar added into the egg forms an acidic base that will hold the oil (when it is added quite slowly) in suspension.. Mayonnaise is an emulsion. Another example of an emulsiton is Hollandaise sauce, in which melted butter, lemon juice and egg yolks come together in a rich, creamy sauce.

There we were, the three of us huddled over the Cuisinart while I wiped away the sweat, the olive oil and the flecks of flying egg yolk. I was well on my way to soaking through yet another shirt and had a good case of the shakes that my rookie helpers couldn’t help but see each time I lifted the oil bottle to drizzle the oil into the whirling would-be emulsion. And it didn’t get any better when I went into our walk-in refrigerator to take deep breaths and try to slow it all down because my fully soaked shirt was clinging immediately and clammily to my torso,, chilling me to the bone. If I could just get through today, then…

Ah, but onward. I had to finish the sauces and the first truck of the day (hallejuh, the phone calls to those faceless and happy Spanish speaking voices had worked) was pulling in with the dry goods delivery. I checked the smoker where the tomatoes and chiles were getting an even char and a nicely smoky scent permeating. These would be pureed with roasted onions and garlic to make a Spicy Smoked Tomato sauce for grilled fish. It was time for another shirt change and I could feel my stomach, my brain and my entire being calling out for just a short shot (if not a tall shot) of rum and a beer to get me though.

Aside from Randall’s heavy chopping, it was me, me, all me doing this necessary prep work. The girls were cute and the girls had nice smiles, but they were otherwise useless. Thank God I had decided to open with a small menu to protect myself against situations exactly like this one. They stood back and stared with what I can only presume was a sense of horror as I sweated, mumbled and cursed through the whizzing and whirring that would yield me four different sauces. My shirt was soaked, my face was red and greasy and my hair, although tied back, was slipping from the rubber band and plastering itself against my forehead.

“This” was certainly not what I had envisioned those ocean view, tall drink, tropical dream months ago. What “This” was was a greasy, disorganized, brainaddled, detox hell. A twisted version of opening a restaurant in a foreign country in a foreign language with a work crew who were certainly foreign to whatever it was I was trying to accomplish. But it was almost done, at least on this, the Day Before, and I’d treat the girls to a coke, Randall to a cold Imperial, slam another quart or two of water myself and try to figure out just what we (I) had to do to keep from deeply embarrassing myself on Opening Night.

Monday, October 12, 2009


This is the first piece, and accompanying recipe that I did for the Dominical Days November issue. I am limited to 320 words per column which will certainly help my editing skills.

Chef of the Jungle

Greetings and thank you for joining me for my inaugural column. I am presently the Chef at La Cusinga Lodge and have cooked professionally for my entire working life. I will call upon my experience in the food world to give support to what I will write here, but I hope to keep my comments and thoughts directed more to the food around us rather that to what is cooked professionally by me or those in other restaurants.

My focus here will be more toward my passions for cooking, and the practices of eating locally, organically and supporting those who practice sustainable food production. Upon my return to the Costa Ballena this past January I took it upon myself to search out, to source as much locally grown, produced and caught food as I could in an effort to throw support to those who were struggling to make it available to all of us.

The term “local-vore” has cropped up to describe those chefs and cooks who attempt to use as much product within a limited radius as is possible.

The benefits of this practice are many. By buying locally we support our local economy, help sustain our farmers and fisherman, and perhaps most importantly, gain a closer relationship to and knowledge of where our food comes from. A head of lettuce with the roots still attached is more reassuring that one pulled, sweating, from a plastic bag.

Here on our coast we have access to so much beautiful local and organic food.The Feria in San Isidro is just over the hill and local farmers are now selling their products in Uvita. We can buy “fresh from the ocean seafood” up and down the Costanero and pull fruit right from the trees. We, the consumers, are the ones who can support “local food” and by doing so,will ourselves, “reap the harvest” in so many ways.


Ayote is a local squash; round, with the coloring of zucchini, it has the seed structure of a pumpkin or other winter squash. When it is hollowed out it makes a perfect vegetable to stuff with any number of savory fillings. This one is simple and makes use of cooked food on hand. The chorizo and hot chile are, of course, optional.

This makes a great and complete dinner when served with a nice salad.

1 Ayote

1 Yellow Onion, diced

1 Red Bell Pepper, diced

4 Cloves Garlic, peeled and minced fine

½ hot chile, seeded and minced fine

½ # hot or mild chorizo

1 Cup cooked rice

1 Cup cooked beans, black or red

½ cup shredded cheese

cooking oii

Heat oven to 350

Cut stem end and opposite end off the ayote so that it sits flat

Cut it in half around the hemisphere and using a teaspoon, cut around the seeds and scoop them out. Using the edge of the spoon hollow cut more of the ayote away until only about a half inch of flesh remains near the skin. Rub the inside of the ayote with oil and salt and pepper it.

Place the ayote cut and open side up on a cookie tray or in a sauté pan and roast 30 minutes, or until tender. Turn ayote over and roast for ten minutes more, until ridge around the center is golden. Remove from oven.

While the ayote is cooking brown the chorizo; add garlic, onion, peppers and cook until tender. Stir in rice and beans and mix gently. Sprinkle the cheese in (reserving a little) and mix until blended.

Stuff the ayote with the bean/rice/cheese mixture and top with reserved cheese.

Return to oven and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until heated through.

I like to serve this with a fresh tomato sauce or a simple salsa fresca

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.