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.