Wednesday, December 30, 2009



I had breathed. I had gone outside and looked at the ocean and the jungles and I had wiped yet another quart or two of repugnant alcoholic smelling sweat from my brow. I put my seething anger and frustration aside and putting my head up, go back to retake my kitchen. Everybody has made their beans and rice and gotten their little afternoon meal, so I could continue.

If I haven't mentioned it yet, I should here and now; this kitchen is tiny. There is a front half where the cooking apparatus are. There is a flat top griddle, six burners, and a small oven. That's it. Facing out toward the dining room are two salad refrigerators, one that works and one that doesn't. A salad refrigerator sits about waist high and has two doors that open from the front and a top loading space for small inserts of dressings and condiments. Around one corner of the hotline, tucked into an alcove is an ancient French fryer perched on a rickety wooden table. I had yet to master the art of controlling the thermostat, so there was either a huge cloud of smoke rising above it, or else the oil lay inert and tepid.

Around the corner of the griddle was a narrow aisle way that served as the major artery between the front and back halves of the kitchen as well as providing the only access to the dishroom. This passway was, of course, where almost everyone chose to stand. A waiter and a busser who were new to us arrived and somehow quickly found their way into that crowded area of the kitchen. Despite the irrefutable reality of our opening in less than two hours, no one had seemed to take an interest in telling the new and untrained waitstaff where to go, what to do or, better yet, where not to go and what not to do.

The gentleman who supplied us with the Costa Rican cigars that we would sell at our bar arrived and wondered whether or not he could order some bocas (small plates), Kate was everywhere in and out of the kitchen but was getting nothing done while taking up a lot of space, and John and Carlos (the dishwasher) hatched a plot to drive to Randall's house in Punta Mala to see if he had gone home. We had reached what I could only hope was the height of disorganization and the kitchen felt as if it were getting smaller and smaller. And I was sweating in great flowing rivers. The demons in my head were screaming for a drink because, they assured me, three or four ounces of rum would take the edge off.

I started to make everything. Everything. I assembled the rice for the Jambalaya and fortunately the mirepoix vegetables had already been cut. I oversaw the making of "Chef Dave's Whack-amole"; my own four ingredient take on Guacamole. I finished seasoning the fresh pargo (red snapper) ceviche. I realized that I have forgotten to bake the tropical fruit bread pudding so I pulled the mother batch from the walk-in, added a little more eggs and cream (that makes everything better, right?) and slung it into the oven.

Betza was quite helpful. She was solid while Katya was willing, but not quite able She did and does have a sweet smile though. The two of them were almost able to do the work of one, and the salad/appetizer station was nearly together. I started in the back and checked the girls out for their salad prep. We had a shrimp cocktail with a nice spicy papaya cocktail sauce that came out just as I wanted. All three salads appeared to be ready including my favorite creation, the "Taste of the Osa", which featured marinated roasted beets, fresh hearts of palm in a light vinaigrette, and slices of avocado lightly dressed with mandarin lime juice. The girls and I chilled stacks of plates and I got a sense that we could actually serve food from here. This was a huge relief.

It was rapidly approaching 4:00 when John and Carlos returned and reported the already foregone news that Randall has disappeared entirely. Fortunately, amidst the swirling chaos, my professional instincts had kicked in and I was already well prepared intellectually and spiritually for his absence. Right. Menu in hand I proceeded to the front to start checking off what I’d forgotten and what I’d remembered.

Cigar Greg stuck his head in the kitchen again and politely reminded me about his food, the undirected floor staff was milling and meadering from place to place and there were so many people coming in and out of the front door of the kitchen it was madness. And for some reason smoke was filling the kitchen. I suddenly realized that although I'd had the two overhead fans running, I'd neglected to turn on the hood fan. I though that ought to fix things. But it didn’t.

I heard a tiny feminine Hispanic voice calling, "Chef, Chef", and looked over to see thick smoke billowing out of and above the ancient portable fryer. Katya had on the saddest face you've ever seen. Ryan had decided to master the thermostat and has adjusted the control knobs the wrong way and then walked away. The fires beneath the oil were glowing red hot and flames were leaping around the outsides of the unit. I grabbed a dry towel and turned down the heat, but realized full well that we wouldn't be able to use the fryer for quite some time. I snatched up two heavy pans, filled them with oil and put them on the stove. Betza and Katya would have to fry the first batches of chips for "Whack-amole" and ceviche on top of the stove, the old way.

With the fryer off, the smoke began to clear, and with that clairity it seemed as if we were set. I had all my portioned fish and chicken up front in my reach-in. The beans, yam-plantain puree, and chicken stock were in their water bath on the griddle top and it was up to temperature. The jambalaya was out of the oven, my table top mis en place (the things I’d need to assemble each dish) was ready, we could even feed Cigar Man. I fired off his fish cakes and a side of jambalaya and our first order, however unofficial, had gone out the doors.

The food going out the door seemed to signal or spark the hunger of the drinkers at the bar and our first official order was taken. It was for a shrimp cocktail for a well-oiled bar patron. I walked the girls through the construction, even though we'd made this plate together three or four times. It looked beautiful, the fat chilled fresh shrimp gleaming above the red-gold of the spicy papaya sauce and out it went. It wasn’t two minutes before the query came back from the bar to see if we had any “real” cocktail sauce. Cretins, all of them, cretins.

I stepped out the back door for a breath of fresh air just in time to see a mammoth SUV pull into the driveway and park across two parking places. The tall driver hopped out, let his female guest open her own door and checked in the reflection to make sure his very dark glasses were affixed just so. I guess SUV arrogance is not specific to the States.

The yuppie couple were to be our first restaurant guests. They were part of a reservation for four and they were shown to their seats at a very nice table looking out over the swimming pool and the mango trees. By 5:15 Karen White, one of the local entrepreneurs and her son had arrived and they were the early arrivals from a party of six. Tables were filling up but there were no orders yet. This is the time of the evening, at the very beginning, with the crowd gathering but not ordering, that makes my skin crawl, as if I needed more help in that department. God did I wish I had a tall and very strong rum and something to get me through the anxiety.

The second couple of that first four top showed up and it seemed, or perhaps just hoped, that things were about to get moving. The feeling in the dining room was as electric as it gets in a laid back tropical paradise. People who knew each other were arriving and there was a current of travel back and forth from table to table as our guests greeted each other. Ojochal is a very small community and we were that night’s “place to be”.

Headwaiter Olman called out "ordering", and placed the first ticket for the first four top triumphantly and grandly in the window. And just as he did, a huge roar was audible from the driveway. I gaped out the back door of the kitchen in wonder. At 5:45 on Opening Night, Coca Cola was finally here with the refrigerator we'd been pleading with them to deliver for the last month. Perfect. Undaunted, I cooked on, readying, assembling and then sending out the plates for the first order; chicken, pork, and two jambalayas. It had begun.

As the dining room continued to fill and as tickets for appetizers began pouring into the kitchen, a strange procession entered possessively through the back door. Three slickly dressed Costa Rican gentlemen paraded into the kitchen. They had laminated badges on and I realized that this was our promised (promised at 11:00 AM) visit from the Costa Rican Health Department. Just fucking great. Could there possibly be anything else? We had a full dining room, more reservations coming in, and two hard core gringo haters with badges and cameras (cameras?), plus a third body just for good measure (their muscle, perhaps?), fixing their gazes on every heated and unheated part of the kitchen.

I kept cooking as they yanked open the top of my salad refrigerator and peered in suspiciously. They took pictures. I kept cooking but also kept my ears open. John was tagging after them, trying to make sense of what they were saying, and babbling in his feeble Spanish. They went back to look at the dishroom, eyed the mountain of pots and pans (our one night dishwasher had decided it was far more entertaining and less work to be parking lot boy) and then made their way back out to where I was on the hot line. The obvious leader eyed me with no discernable fondness and asked me for a paper towel. I figured that this meant we were supposed to have them in the kitchen to satistfy some ordinance or another and I started babbling to them that we almost ALWAYS have them in the kitchen but that someone must have taken them out to do some cleaning. The head honcho, el queso grande, looked at me contemptuously and picked up nearby four-fold cocktail napkin. He then proceeded to do something I've never seen in 36 years in the business. He approached the stove with a bit of a flourish, placed the cocktail napkin on the palm of his hand and raised his arm over his head. He stuck his arm up under the exhaust fan and it was then that I realized that he was testing its strength. He raised his arm higher and higher until the napkin began to flutter and almost, almost begin to levitate from the feeble draw. He looked at John and me sadly and shook his head. Uh-oh. Our hood fan was definitely not going to pass the test.

What happened next was that chaos ensued for two hours and I came out on the other end; sweaty, greasy and covered in food. We had seated and fed 38 people when we had been prepared for 20-24. Every table had enjoyed the full menu offerings; appetizers, entrees and desserts. The girls held up the cold end of things as well as could be expected and I ran the front end side with the hot appetizers and all the entrees alone. Well, not alone, I had my demons along with me and every now and then they’d shout out that a tall cool alcoholic beverage would make all of this far less painful. When it came down to “doing the do”, the instincts of over 35 years in the business kicked in and all I knew how do to was cook the food and make it go away.

The reality was that it all went so quickly and smoothly that when it ended, it was a bit of a letdown. I had run out of a few things; the marinated pork loin first and foremost, but had kept enough food on hand to feed the room and make nearly everyone happy. Our crowd, being mostly Canadian, or at least North American, grumped a little about not getting a basket of bread on the table, about not having a big old piece of red meat on the menu and about not having potatoes on every plate; but by and large they were happy, well fed and well drunk.

I made my rounds of the room, accepting kudos and accolades and even, and this is tough to imagine, turning down offers of drinks. I grabbed an icy club soda and hied back into the kitchen to clear the debris and than the Tica girls (who had know grown up in a trial by fire) for their hardwork and their patience with the sweaty, swiriling, detoxing chef.

I was spent. I had put it all on the plate; patience, discomfort, eagerness to please in my new home and my professional reputation. And it had worked. The following night the excitement was over; the shine had worn off and we didn’t do a single dinner. Pura Vida.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fish Head in a Pot


Yes, it started off with a fish head in a pot; a rather large head (nearly 4 kilos) from what must have been a most formidable Pargo. And the fishhead became a rich fish stock and that stock helped turn our La Cusinga Christmas dinner into deep steaming bowls of spicy tomato-ey fish stew.

I had wanted to do something a little different for our Christmas Dinner at the Lodge and decided that a family-style, serve yourself meal would bring people a little closer together. I had searched far and wide for the local spiny lobsters, but when those were unavailable, decided that a big pot of fish stew on every table would create that sense of shared eating community.

I started off, before the fish head got involved, with a sheet pan of halved tomatoes, a couple of sliced onions and a big handful of peeled garlic cloves. I salted and peppered the tomatoes, poured a healthy dose of olive oil over them and at the last minute added a slice and very spicy chile pepper from our garden. The laden down sheet pan went into the oven at 450 degrees and roasted until the tomatoes were a crunchy brown on top.

And the fish head, oh the lovely fish head, was joined in a large pot by sliced carrots, onion, celery, a few halved heads of garlic, black peppercorns, parsley stems and bay leaves. I covered all this with water and brought it to a fast boil which I reduced equally quickly, to a very low simmer. When I make fish stock, I want the flavor and the clear stock, but don't want a lot of floating fish flesh particles. And it was for this very reason, 90 minutes later, that when I poured the rich broth through a fine strainer, I did it by just barley tilting and hardly moving the pot. Any excess movement or shaking frees the well cooked meat left on the bones and clouds the stock.

To get the base started, I sauteed still more sliced onions with still more garlic in still more olive oil. I added a few strands of grocery store saffron (to no discernable effect, it seemed later) and once the onions were well wilted, I added the roughly chopped cooked tomato mixture to them. A few quick stirs and then the fish stock went on top. This too was brought to a quick boil and then reduced to a mere simmer. I wanted this to cook together, ever so slowly for at least an hour or so.

So now it was on to sorting and cleaning the seafood that would go into this rich concoction. Undaunted by my inability to find lobsters, I had fallen back on fresh local shrimp, tiny local clams called "almejas", fresh small local squid and a glisteningly fresh filet of Pargo. The shrimp were peeled, the clams rinsed, the squid seperated head and body and then tenderized and the pargo cut into small thick slabs.

Traditionally in the south of France when Bouillabaisse is served, it comes with rouille, a spicy/garlicky red pepper mayonnaise that is spread on toasts dunked into the fish stew. In many parts of Province, the rouille is stirred directly into the stew, adding a garlicky bite to an already garlicy base. For the rouille I roasted and peeled red peppers and put them in the Cuisinart along with an egg yolk and a whole egg, roasted garlic, fresh garlic, a handful of garlic croutons (to add texture to the rouille), salt and pepper and a couple of dashes of our house-made chilero sauce (a Habanero based beauty). Once I had this pureed into a paste, I began to drizzle in the olive oil; first slowly and then a bit more quickly. The sound of the machine let me know as the sauce thickened and it came out beautifully; pale pink and full of garlic and chile bite.

Our guests were making arrival noises so we got soup on the table, quickly followed by a salad of sliced organic tomatoes and just picked organic lettuces. I had pulled some rarely used tureens from our bodega and readied them for service. The bread had been spread with garlic butter and toasted and the rouille dolloped onto it. All I needed to do was get the seafood in the individual cooking pots (for groups of four) and get it cooking.

In went the clams, the squid and some simmering tomato broth; then the shrimp and the fish pieces. I brought it up to a low boil, covered it and let it simmer. I repeated this with the other sauce pots for the other tables. Once I had them all filled I returned to the first pot and peeked in. The scent sent out by the steam was terrific. All the flavors were present even in that first whiff. I gently ladled the fish out and poured the steamy tomato-ey goodness over the top, filling the tureen. I put a handful of a mix of chopped garlic greens and parsley over the seafood mixture and returned the top to the tureen. I repeated this for the other tables and it was time to serve.

I had explained our need for audience participation and each table had ladles, spoons and bowls. The rouille toasts went out on a separate platter, the tureens hit the tables and it was time for dinner. The room got quiet as the tops were taken off and then the community eating vibe kicked in. There was nervous laughter as the first bowls were ladled full and the a lot of slurping and contented oohing and aaahing. Knowing full well what happens when I eat something like this with my family and friends, I passed around second plates of rouille toasts at each table and watched as the seafood soups disappeared from the tureens.

I don't do this style of service often, preferring to be able to create the plate design myself, but food like this is meant for a sleeves rolled up, help yourself, participatory meal and this was it.
As the tureens emptied and the guests sat back in satisfaction, I cut the almond torte for dessert, enjoying the moment and the mellow sound of a well fed dining room full of guests.

Friday, December 11, 2009


It is the early part of December, we have hit double digits as far as the date, but it still seems early. Our business is hit and miss right now, some nights are just a couple or two from the Lodge and others nearly reach 20. And it's difficult to predict. We know that sometime in the third or early fourth weeks of December the gates will open and the winter tourists will arrive, but it's just not today, or even this week.

Here in the Zona Sur we're seeing a return of the "part-time" people. That's not to say that they're only people part time, but that they only live here part time. They return to their ocean view homes high above the Costanera when the going gets too chilly and too tough in the Northern climes of Canada and the US.

Our Lodge guests are appearing in twos and fours beating the Christmas rush. We will get busy. We know we will get busy. And we just have to wait patiently until we do get busy. It makes staffing difficult, purchasing difficult and management/ownership uneasy, but we all know the business is lurking in the wings; the unspoken of gorilla in the room.

But yes, we will fill up and we will rock the Coast. A month from now this blog will be re-read (at least by me) and chuckled (yes, chuckled) about. We have decided to open The Gecko to the public on Sunday nights, giving us four nights, and I am now cooking lunch on Mondays, opening to the public as well. This should be a great year for us and I'm looking forward to it.
Onward into 2010 and nothing but good eating.

Chow for now...

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.