NIGHTMARES IN COSTA RICA
OPENING THE LOOKOUT PART 2
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.