Saturday, November 28, 2009




As if the night before opening a restaurant isn’t in itself so nerve-wracking that sleep is nigh impossible, I had chosen to make it far more difficult still by tossing in another twist. In addition to opening a restaurant, I was making a valiant attempt to put an end to an obsessive and ugly drinking problem (yes, my own) . Talk about a recipe for twitching, fearful, sweating insomnia.

Our “day before the Big Day” prep work had gone as well as I could have hoped and I had even spent what seemed like some quality time with Randall, my appointed second. He sat and sloshed down a few Imperials and pretended to be interested while I pontificated about kitchens, food, cooking, and anything else that would keep my mind out of the bottle. Randall asked the right questions and I gladly worked at taking him under my wing. I would definitely need to nurture someone of his skill and apparent interest if I was ever to get any rest from this venture.

Speaking of rest, when I went down to my cabina, it seemed that rest would never come. I did the classic toss from one side of the bed to the other routine, moving from one pool of sweat to another. I got up and went upstairs to watch a little Monday Night Football. I drank a cup of herbal tea. I talked to my partner, John. I felt like the song from the 60’s, “I Couldn’t Sleep At All Last Night.” This was my second full day alcohol free and definitely the jumpiest, twitchiest. Yes, sleep did come, but hardly the quality of sleep that I was hoping for and needing from the night before the Big Day.

I got up at 5:15 and by 6:00 I was standing in my walk-in refrigerator over a bowl of cream set into a bowl of ice. I had been trying without success to whip egg whites and cream for the last three days for my chocolate mousse. The humidity on the southern coast of Costa Rica is so great that the cream will not whip at all, while the egg whites will stand up for a couple of minutes and then a pool of liquid appears beneath them and they collapse completely. I was sweating and chilling simultaneously while hunched over the bowl in the walk-in and OH MY GOD, the cream was actually whipping.

While I was tossing and tuning in my sweaty bed the night before I'd recalled that in the old days of kitchens, when they were all fiery cauldrons, the chefs had whipped their cream in massive copper bowls over huge tubs of ice. I even recalled that I had old cookbooks that prescribed this very method being performed as recently as thirty years ago. I guess the advent of the kitchen-aid changed all that, huh? So in an effort to duplicate the whipping feats of the past, I dragged my entire operation into the walk-in refrigerator.

And now, realizing that my cream was indeed going to whip, I raced out to the line and threw on a doulble boiler and grabbed a bowl for my chocolate. I hastily measured it and threw in a little coffee and Meyers's rum (“Have just a tiny shot” it called to me”) for good measure. Having placed the water bath and chocolate over the flame, I raced back into the walk-in, finished the cream, and started in on the egg whites. And it was perfect; everything whipped. I yelped with glee and despite being in a 40 degree walk-in, wiped the sweat from my brow and ran to fetch the melted chocolate. I folded first cream, then whites, then cream, then more whites into the melted chocolate and by God, it was going to work and there would be chocolate mousse.

Next was the lime tart and this was another one I'd been struggling with. I'd been using sort of a cheater method for the filling which involved using canned condensed milk instead of a true custard, but gimme a break. The main problem I was having was that I’d been working with a dough recipe that I'd used for years that incorporated a lot of butter which made it really difficult to work with in this heat and humidity. Finally I achieved success by freezing the tart ramikins ( I don't have tart shells), chilling the dough as cold as I could get it without freezing it, and pressing it into the ramikins (skip the rolling pin, that's a disaster) with my hands. It finally worked and I poured in the filling. That worked too; I was on a roll. So far so good, but I was a dripping sodden mess. I'd soaked through my second t-shirt of the day and hadn't even begun the work in front of the stove.

I needed to break down and bone out eight chickens before I could move on to anything else, although my mind was reeling with the things left to do. The boning of the chickens proved a mettlesome thing, mostly because of major interruptions. As befitted an opening night, the kitchen was continually filled with people passing through asking a lot of questions. "Chef, where is this?" "Chef do you know blah blah blah?" "Chef what do we do about...?"

Despite alternating the hacking of bone with carefully orchestrated knifework, the number of chickens in front of me did not seem to be dimishing and the heat in the kitchen was building and swelling. The sweat continued to pour out of my pores, down the hollow of my back and off my forehead onto the chickens. Olman, our Tico head waiter showed up and helped me to prepare the mirepoix that I would need to start my chicken stock, but he's a talker and despite his help, I began to find his mindlessly happy chatter annoying. At this point even my own breathing was annoying. After what seemed like an eternity I finished breaking down the chickens and boning out the breasts for service. There really is nothing like the feeling of warm chicken meat clinging to your flesh in a 110 degree kitchen.

I was really starting to feel a bit weak and queasy at this point. I’d forgotten to eat anything since my corn flakes at 5:30 and the stress and lack of food in my body was getting to me. I’d been pounding water by the gallon, but it seemed to be coming out even more quickly and I went to change into t-shirt #3.

I slammed down a small bowl of black beans and jambalaya rice and went to lie down for a quick 20. Randall and Betza would be here at 1:00 and I needed to get them organized. I returned to the kitchen at 1:10 but no one was there. Just me and the food. Worried? Yeah, I was , but I started the major prep. By 1:30 I'd begun to really fret, but I keep plugging away. I assembled the mix for the fish cakes and finished the macque choux, a sort of uptown Creole creamed corn.

Ryan, John’s brother and another partner in our jungle venture, zipped in from a trip out into the world and told me he had just seen both Randall and Betza down at the soda (small local cafe) at the bottom of our driveway. I dispatched him on a search and rescue mission just short of 2:00. Betza showed up shortly thereafter in a majorly petulant mood. She had been dating Ryan and he was dumping her; (never sleep with the help is the lesson here) but there was still no sign of Randall.

Katya showed up just moments later and at least I have two of my staff. I asked Betza as to whether or not she had seen Randall, but she just shrugged indifferently. I dove into Randall's prep and really start to stress. I'd almost soaked through shirt #3 and it wasn’t even 3:00. John kept stopping by to tell me that our reservations were growing and it looked like we'd have a full house. I'd asked him to keep the number of guests at 30, but it's hard to say no to business on opening night.

It had become apparent in the hubbub of waiters chattering, my new dishwasher arriving, and the general confusion, that Randall would be a no-show on the most important night we might have. He’d been at the soda, had been seen there by a number of people, and then was seen riding the other way on his bicycle; away from the Lookout and back towards Ojochal. I would have stopped to be confused, but I don’t have time. At that point I was jamming and way too uptight. I’d gotten the girls in place and they were doing their best to pull together the salad and appetizer stations. I was starting to feel as if there was an outside chance we just might make it.

I was completely flying with the anxiety and stress of prepping not just mine, but someone else's station and convincing myself that, yes, I CAN do this. I scraped away the fish cake debris from my sticky hands and tried to make my way to the front line to get the started sauces finished and the fresh sauces started. But when the two hotel maids, plus Olman, the waiter, appeared in my already crowded kitchen and demanded to be fed, I just went off. There was too much to do, too many obstacles, and seemingly now way to do it all myself. But I knew I had to. I had to leave the kitchen and catch my breath or I was going to lose it in a big, big way.

I walked out to the front door, looked out at the ocean, heaved a series of huge sighs, caught that deep breath, wondered how it was that all of this was happening, and headed back in. I was wishing I could see the humor in it, but there was just no time for that. There was a restaurant to open, guests to feed, flesh to press and miles to go before I slept. The business waits for no one. There is either success or failure and not much room or forgiveness inbetween. And I was NOT going to fail.

Friday, November 20, 2009



Home from the Feria and two days in advance of the Big Party, everything looks good. The produce, the greatest part of our purchases is in da House and looking good. Our only other critical order is the 9 kilos of boneless chicken parts; six of thigh and three of breast, that we'll use for the chicken rice. Our plan is ready. Our menu is ready. I am ready.

As the crowd streams in we will have platters of old school crudites at the ready. We have carrots, celery, radishes, green beans and broccoli for dipping in the pesto mayonnaise and the classic Provencale rouille (a red pepper/garlic mayo) that I will make when I begin the prep on Friday morning. Our big buffet items will be a large tossed salad of organic greens plus garnishes, and platters of sliced tomatoes with basil, on the cold side; and simple, but tasty frijoles tiernos (cooked fresh shelling beans) and spicy chicken/rice on the hot side. My idea has been to keep the costs down by giving the crowd rice and beans (sort of a little gringo joke) but making them so good that they'd have to love them.

And so on Friday morning I left Cusinga, knives and food processor in hand, and breezed the kilometer down the road south to Mercado La Roca. I pulled on a white work shirt and looked around unsuccessfully for a cutting board and some towels. Working in someone else's kitchen is always curiously entertaining; filled with wonder and exploration along with a sense of discovery (usually of those things one does not have, but needs). I traded the tiny kitchen cutting board (tabla in these parts) for the larger one they kept at the bar (?!) and found a few semi-soiled towels to get me started.

My first project was getting the beans started, and I build a simple base of onion, lots of garlic and a ton of mixed spices (paprika, black pepper, cayenne, the ubiquitous Tico "sabor completa, oregano, bay leaves and salt) in the hot oil before adding the fresh beans, water and a couple of cans of diced tomatoes. These would cook in less than 45 minutes and all I had to do was bring them to a vigorous boil and then turn it down and walk away.

I figured that by the time the beans were ready I could probably bang out the two sauces and I was very nearly right. While Odile, my lovely Tica helper from La Roca looked on a bit wide-eyed, I threw a mesh screen over a burner and blacked ten ripe red bell peppers (chiles dulces). I put them in a plastic container with a tight cover to steam off the skins and moved on. I had brought pesto from my freezer at La Cusinga and I built a classic mayo starter with egg, garlic, s&p, some lemon juice and red wine vinegar in the Cuisinart before slowly adding the mix of olive and canola oils to emulsify the sauce. As it thickened I began to add the pesto by the spoonful and watched with great satisfaction as the sauce turned a lovely pale green.

I was starting to figure out the lay of the kitchen and was moving toward Chef Dave warp speed when I sensed Odile eying me from the corner of the kitchen. I had given her the somewhat methodical job of cleaning the veggies for the crudites and put her in the corner to give me some operating room, but it seemed that my kitchen dance was a bit of a curiousity to her. It would be my guess no one sings, dances and does a lot of multi-tasking in the kitchen there typically. I gave her a big smile and did a little dance step to the music I had put on, and she giggled oh so shyly; cute.

The heat was down on the beans by now so I got the peppers out and slipped the skins right off them under running water. I tested a bean for doneness with a squeeze between the fingers and gave the pot a stir. I rough chopped the peeled peppers and after cleaning the food processor I did the same set up for the rouille as I had for the pesto mayo. I started this time, though, with the chopped peppers, a lot of garlic, red wine vinegar, some s&p and a good splash of SriRacha (Vietnamese hot red pepper sauce). Again, I added the mix of oils slowly until the I heard the telltale change of the sauce in the machine that indicated that the rouille was thickening. I took a taste and then began to add the secret ingredient. I had a half a cup of roughly crushed garlic croutons that I added in a slow stream. The Spaniards do this in some regions with Gazpacho and I have seen French cooks from Province use this method to thicken rouille right at the very end. I love the flavor and texture it adds and it works for me. Done, both sauces.

And yes, as I had hoped, so were the beans. Now I would let them sit overnight and make their own lovely sauce. This is one of the benefits of using a fresh bean. There is still enough natural starch and liquid left inside it that it "throws" a sauce as it reposes. I covered and refrigerated the sauces, covered the beans and left strict instructions that they should be refrigerated upon cooling slightly.

But yes, this being Costa Rica, we had a glitch. Just as I was finishing up and wiping down, the chicken delivery came and the driver came in with two bags of frozen breasts and a limp excuse about there being no boneless leg and breast meat available. This was Friday. This was the day before the party. And this was totally unacceptable. Anja looked at me in bewilderment and mild panic and I told her that the only option was to get on the phone to Eduardo, our cheerful rep, and tell him that every powerful gringo on the entire coast was going to be here on Saturday night. And once she had his attention, to tell him that if he didn't get us the chicken, that I would personally make it known to everyone in attendance that our good friends at Pipasa were to be held responsible. She shrugged in presumed disbelief, made the call, and came back to report that Eduardo would personally deliver the chicken the following day.
We smiled in relief and it was time for me to go. Saturday was soon approaching and our numbers were reaching up and over 150 living, breathing, eating bodies.

I breezed through my Friday dinner service at La Cusinga and woke up Saturday morning ready to run not one, but two food operations for a day. I had prepped a lot of the things that we'd need to serve our eight guests at La Cusinga and had consulted with my very nervous helper, Angelica. Angelica has just started working with me and this was to her first night flying solo.
I had left her the soup, already done; salad dressing and fixings; fresh cut fish and sauce; and that evening's dessert and ice cream. All she was going to have to do was prep the veggies, which she does each day, and put the whole shebang together, course by course.

Off I went to Mercado La Roca one more time; this time with extra pots and pans, again my knives, a Kitchen-Aid mixer, and this time, my little computer speakers so I could really rock out while I cooked. I had brought the Kitchen-Aid so I could put together the batter for three large Pyrexes of pineapple upside down cake. I rolled in with a smile, dropped my tools and set up the computer music system and got down to it. I checked each of the previous day's makings for flavor and was happy indeed.

I am a big believer in getting the desserts out of the way first so it was off into Pineapple land. I made a big batch of caramel with butter and two types of dark sugar, a local azucar moreno and tapa dulce and poured it into the bottom of the Pyrexes. On top of this I layered sliced, cored pineapple and began to assemble the dry ingredients. The mix is a classic butter/sugar plus egg plus flour batter, but this one also gets ground almonds mixed with the flour and I use natilla, the local soured cream in lieu of milk or sour cream. I make this cake a lot and it has become my "go to" dessert for large groups, so it was easy to throw it together and I had it in the oven in no time at all.

The chicken, yes the chicken, had arrived, hand delivered by the sheepish but proud Eduardo himself. It's always nice to come to the rescue, even if the impending disaster is of one's own making. I had had Odile chop mountains of sweet red peppers, onions and garlic the day before, so all we had to do was clean and cube the chicken and it would soon all be in the pot.
I made a nicely hot dry spice mix and tossed the chicken cubes in it to give that bland, bland meat a little flavor. After I seared the chicken I tossed the veggies in the same pot, to pick up a bit of the flavor the searing had created in the pan and sauteed them with more of the dry spice. I added a quart or two of chicken stock that I had brought as a secret ingredient, let it boil up the bits off the bottom and then added the chicken back in with the peppers and onions. This baby was done, and it tasted pretty damn good.

This was all happening per the plan, but every time I turned around the numbers kept going up and we were getting a whole lot closer to 200 than I was comfortable with. Ah well, that's what the food stretcher is for. The cakes were coming out of the oven perfectly, the beans were on the stove at low heat and coming up to temp, the chicken was done and I had cooked two massive pots of a bright yellow achiote rice. I would need to mix the chicken and sauce with the rice, but I'd decided to do that as needed for the buffet so I was looking good. Cooking is, however, a team sport.

It seemed that the other part of what needed to be done, the chores that the lovely and charming Anja was signed up for were not getting done with quite the alacrity I had been hoping for and expecting. Odile had a good hand on the crudites, so I put her on salad detail and she soon had a sink piled full of an organic greens mix. Unfortunately the hummus, now on it's second day in the making, and the salad dressing, on the counter half-finished for over two hours now were, as yet, undone. Liz and Natalie had been in and out several times, the guys were doing the lighting, the room was being transformed, the beer was being stocked and each and every one of these things called Anja out of the kitchen for an inspection. Distraction is not the mother of production.

I decided that it was a good time to head back over to La Cusinga to make sure all was well in hand and to let the kitchen do what it might to come together, so I hopped in the old Toyota and went over the hill. And all was peaceful, tranquil and oh so together at my home base.
Angelica had, in her desire to please and out of her newbie nervousness, put the mis en place right in its place. She was nervous but ready so I gave her a pat on the back, helped her through a few service questions and headed back to the Big Fun.

Dusk was falling and when I walked in the place looked great. The newly strung lights were glowing, the tables for the silent auction were all decorated, the Brazilian band was doing a sound check and the room was ready for a party. And at the end of the counter between the bar and the kitchen, Anja was spooning the hummus from the food processor into bowls. Hallelujah, the the hummus, the third dip for the crudites was done. The vinaigrette still sat in its bowl on the kitchen counter, but it appeared that progress had been made.

The French Bakery in San Isidro had donated 26 baguettes and so I got to slicing them and setting up bowls for the buffets. The tomatoes were the last large job and I had Odile begin to scoop the stem end out of the 150 ripe red babies that Anja and I had picked out, one by one.
I had originally thought to buy only 80-100 tomatoes, figuring that at four or five slices per tomato we'd easily have enough to feed 100-125 people, but as the count grew, I was happier and happier with my decision to buy big. And hell, at 150 colones per kilo it wasn't really a bank buster. We'd bought 10.5 kilos for about the equivilent of $4.00 American.

I went from bread slicer to tomato slicer without losing, and with perhaps, gaining, a stroke and a slice. Odile took the sliced tomatoes and shingled them tightly on the Pyrex serving dishes and we put together five trays in no time. I drizzled them with olive oil and white wine vinegar, hit them with fresh ground pepper and sea salt and put them on hold. The chiffonade of basil would go on at the very, very end.

It had gone from dusk to dark and from empty to partially occupied when I looked up and out through the kitchen doors. It was only 6:30 and there were already people milling around out there, beers in hand. Anja and I had gone through the schematic for the layout of food in the cold and hot tables as she was (YES!) finishing the vinaigrette. It seemed to me that it might behoove us to get some food out there for the eating public and so the crudites with their three tasty sauces hit a couple of different spots in the room. We also dropped off a couple of bowls of bread slices at strategic locations and turned our attention to the salad bar. The first load of lettuces was loaded in along with a bowl of sliced hearts of palm, one of red onions and another of sliced cucumbers. I slid two of our tomato/Pyrex boats in on the left to complete the set-up and at least that part was ready.

We had agreed to wait a bit to put the hot food out, but I did retreat to the kitchen to make sure the beans were hot (but not burned on the bottom; thin pots) and that the chicken and rice were ready for mixing. The room was definitely buzzing. The ladies were in finery and the dudes were in their best Hawaiian shirts. Our bar staff was assembled and it was just about time to Rock. At just past 7:00 I loaded up the first trays of beans and the chicken/rice mix and the feeding frenzy was on.

For the next two hours I felt as I was working the trough. Anja had no appropriate transferring vessels, so I used the bottom of a pressure cooker to fill the trays out on the steam table. I kept my pots of beans warm, the chicken and sauce warm and the rice in the oven. Between the shoveling of the beans and rice I sliced more and more tomatoes. As I had thought, the sliced tomatoes with basil on the salad bar were a huge hit and people were grabbing four and five slices for their (and thank goodness we'd decided on small) plates.

The lines at the bar and the food tables were huge and snaked out into the center of the throng. The roar of the crowd was surprising and although I couldn't see too far into the room from my post at the kitchen door, I could sense the movement, the pulse of the crowd. It was amusing and only slightly horrifying watching people load their plates from the buffets and I remembered that I previously always done my best not to watch. To see one's labors of love (because despite it all, food is always love) get heaped and piled onto paper plates willy-nilly is not good for the Chef. It is much better to return to the kitchen and get more food ready.

And we were blowing through the food. There was a point about an hour in where I considered briefly the notion that we would run out of food, and when the hearts of palm were the first to go, I wondered what would be next. But we hit a rhythm, and the buffet-ers, while still hungry and still lined up, seemed to have settled into a manageable (for us) pace and I knew that we would have enough food. Not way too much, but certainly enough.

The bossa nova was bouncing, the beer was flowing and the crowd was feeding the hunger. It was a good party, no, a great party and Liz and Natalie were all smiles. Tripod was certainly going to fatten their coffers and with any luck there would be no stray male dogs with balls anywhere on our part of the coast shortly. I looked around at our kitchen messes and wasn't too displeased. We'd at least managed to keep the tomato mess in one area (and it was an easy clean), the chicken and bean mess on the top of the stove, and the floors were surprisingly clean.

It all started to slow down with the silent auction and then the Hawaiian shirt contest. I was able to do a little schmoozing of my own and while I still had an eye on the buffets, knew we were reaching the end. It was nearly over, but for the drinking and the dancing. I took a wander outside and nearly went ass over teakettle in the mud looking for a place to suck in some cool air. The parking lot was packed and I knew it would be a while before I would be able to grab my things and slink away. I wandered back in, checked the kitchen and then found a seat on the perimeter so I watch the fun. Somewhere between 9:30 and 10:00 the crowd began to say their good byes and ease themselves out the doors (these were baby boomers, not gen-Xers, after all) and one could see across the room.

I gathered in the kitchen with Anja, Natalie, Liz and a few others for sighs, kisses, backslaps and hearty handshakes. We all nibbled a bit and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. This had been the biggest gathering in these parts in a while and had been a smashing success. The Tripod coffers were fattened and the folks were well fed. We agreed to do a bit of cleaning, but to leave the bulk of the cleaning and returning of pots and pans for the morrow. I eased my tired bones into the tiny Tercel and wheeled off into the night; a bit greasy, wrinkled and spattered, but happy with the way the evening went. Hard work and good fun for a good cause.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Work and Some Play Part 1, The Set Up


It just have been around 8:15 or so and I felt as if I were just moving food from one trough to another. I would scoop huge bowls full of spicy chicken and rice into the bottom part of a pressure cooker (no other large vessels available), mix them thoroughly and edge my way through the food line, announcing loudly, "Food guy, food guy, make way for the food guy". It was hope against hope that the starving teeming masses would yield their positions when they realized that without me their plates would remain empty. I would turn the steaming chicken/rice into the buffet's steam table and dart back to the kitchen to get back to slicing more and more of the 150 tomatoes to lay out like shingles in our armada of Pyrex containers.

It is the Sunday morning after the biggest event of the social (hah!) season here in the Zona Sur and I must confess to a slight weariness. Saturday night was the "unveiling" party for the Barenaked Ladies Calendar, sales of which will benefit the Tripod Foundation, a wonderful charity here in our community. What had begun at an estimate of 80-100 guests exploded into an estimated 200 before our startled and ever-widening eyes.

The Tripod Foundation, started by Natalie and Liz, was started to provide care to local abandoned dogs who are in need of medical care, and blossomed into a much needed spay and neuter service, often provided for free. It seems that all of Costa Rica is home to abandoned and stray dogs who breed with wild and reckless ferocity. It is a sad truth that many dogs brought into families as cute and cuddly puppies are subsequently turned out when their care and lodging becomes too expensive or bothersome to maintain.

Familiar to many communities as a fund raising device is the "Naked Lady" calendar, first exposed to the world in the British movie, "Calendar Girls". The Tripoders leapt upon the idea here and got the cooperation and bodies of 12 "over 50" members of our women's community.
The calendar has been "the buzz" for the last several weeks and tickets for the party revealing the finished calendar have been a hot item.

Since I didn't need a calendar but am good friends with Natalie and Liz, the founders, I found myself donating my time and energies to helping to prepare the food for this benefit party.
I am a frequent visitor to Mercado la Roca, the cafe/market site offered by its owner Anja Sonnenberg to the Tripod ladies and felt that I should, in some small way, do my part as well.
It seemed simple enough to me. Anja had originally volunteered to do the whole shebang, but it was clear almost immediately that professional help would be needed.

Immediately it fell to me to take the initiative, so being the kind of guy I am, I did.
I discarded all suggested notions of this hor's doeuvres or that boca and nixed everything that would entail any kind of rigorous and repetitive hand work. It was clear that this was to be a mass feeding and that "precious" and "labor intensive" were nasty words. I went straight to the belly of the beast by suggesting the unthinkable. Serve the gringos rice and beans and make them so delicious that they'd have to love it.

Anja had two buffet style food stations, one for hot food and one for cold, so along with our rice and beans line we'd also have a salad line with a big green salad and acres of sliced tomatoes served with basil and splashes of oil and vinegar. I pushed hard for this approach and once I described just how long it was going to take to prep, assemble and cook chicken fingers, we had our menus. Keep it simple, make it good and make it fast; it made sense to all concerned.

All these plans were made as any group of right-minded and organized foldks would make them; early and with great organizational skills. The Calendar ladies would sell the tickets, keep us apprised of the numbers and Anja and I would shop accordingly. I've done ever so many large events in my many kitchen lives, so wasn't too awfully concerned. But as the count approached the projected number of 80, then zoomed quickly past it to 100 and almost immediately began to creep even higher, Anja began to grow visibly nervous. Her mantra became, "I've never served 100 people", repeated with trance inducing regularity.

When it came time to make the shopping and prep lists I used the opportunity to put it all into a somewhat logical framework. Once we knew what we had to buy and once we knew exactly what we had to do to make it work it would all be so much less daunting, right? Well, mas o menos. Despite the gentle reassurances of wily old Chef Dave, all nervousness was not dispelled. Ah well, the trip to the Feria was ahead of us and once the produce was safely in the trunk, there could be no more fears. One slow and sure step at a time.

I had called Marguerite, my Feria connection, to do the bulk buying for me. The onions, garlic, peppers, cukes and broccoli; the carrots and celery, potatoes and cilantro would all be waiting for us when we got to the Feria. All that was required of Anja and me was to do the fun stuff. We were to choose our fresh shelling beans (frijoles tiernos) for one of our big pots and then we'd pick each and every ripe tomato out of the mountain of cheap vine ripes for our platters of sliced tomatoes. And it was fun. We bought 8 kilos of whitish-pink beans and then spent half an hour in front of the tomatoes choosing the reddest and ripest. 10.5 kilos of the red beauties cost a whopping 2000 colones, or about $4.00. And hand picked as well; talk about bringin' it in under budget.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Just Another Saturday


I woke up at 5:45 this morning to the sound of the yapping dog owned by the constantly changing group of Germans who live across the street from where I am house-sitting. The dog's incessant barking continued for almost two hours and came just four hours after the German's had shut down the thundering backbeat of the techno music that they play almost every night. This is what earplugs are for.

I rolled down the road to the Uvita Feria somewhere around 9:00 and shook hands with almost everyone. I had big orders with all my vendors as we've got a party of 18 checking into La Cusinga this Tuesday for three nights and seven of them are vegetarian. I had chard, beets, organic lettuce mix, bok choi and a number of other fresh organic delights waiting for me, all bagged up. I also picked up a couple of kilos of smallish but ripe mangos and two kilos of maracuya (passion fruit) for sauces and juicing. I live for and love to walk out of there with bags of beautiful produce in my arms.

It was Feria to fereteria (hardware store); a classic Saturday morning jaunt and while I was having keys made I ran into Deepak. I met Deepak while he was having dinner at The Gecko and knew him by reputation alone as an Indian chef. I had heard just recently that he had taken over the Mar y Selva resort and is making quite a name for himself with private dinners of spectacular Indian food. He suggested that perhaps we should do a dinner for the public together and I thought this was a great idea. I suggested that we do an alternative Thanksgiving Dinner for the turkey-less locals and we made plans.

Deepak wandered away and almost immediately Christian, a tall and quite lanky young chef from Cristal Ballena wandered in. We started talking food and it turned out that he had a German friend, Axel, who worked in the fereteria, but was interested in selling German food products locally. Christian called Axel over and he burst in to excellent but highly accented Spanish while he described food he had for me to taste.

Axel ran to the car for his samples and while he was gone Deepak strolled up and I introduced he and Christian. Axel ran back to join us, red-faced and panting and there we were; an American, an Indian and two Germans, all chefs, talking food in the middle of a hardware store in the Costa Rican jungle. Ticos and gringos alike veered around us as the four of us talked excitedly about cooking, food and dinners amidst the typical clutter and hubbub of a Saturday morning in the fereteria. A classic morning here in the Zona Sur. Pura Vida.

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.