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.