Monday, March 8, 2010

THE PLATE, THE WHOLE PLATE

THE PLATE, THE WHOLE PLATE

I have been fortunate enough to have been able to enjoy dinner at what are considered to be two of the best, if not the best, restaurants in the Uvita-Ojochal area. Both are "jungle elegant", nicely appointed and touched with a European influence. The service at each leans toward formal, and if it doesn't quite accomplish serving the guest well, at least the intention is there. Each of these restaurants enjoys a great reputation, gets plenty of coverage in our local press and promotes themselves colorfully and expansively.

And while the food I had at one was markedly better than at the other, I was struck by something that I've been considering for a while, and attempting to overcome in my own kitchen. On each of my entree plates, the protein product was clearly the "star of the show", but the rest of the cast of characters, the starch and the vegetables, seemed lackluster, added as if they "had" to be there. And in fact, the vegetable accompaniments at each restaurant were exactly the same; a nicely arranged, but lukewarm (and unseasoned) combination of haricot vert, carrot, cauliflower and broccoli.

Additionally, at each of the restaurants, the starch accompaniments were a bland unseasoned white rice, mashed potatoes, or sauteed potatoes. There was no thought given to whether or not these starches represented an appropriate (God forbid they should be challenging or interesting) compliment to the protein product. Our choices of rice or potato were there simply because they "had" to be there. It would be unthinkable to put our an entree plate without rice or potatoes.

I had a Swiss couple in for dinner the other night and at the end of their meal they stopped by the kitchen to thank me and the woman made a comment that I appreciated and took as a form of confirmation. She told me that she enjoyed that my plates were "balanced". I asked her what she meant and she remarked that it was clear to her that each of the items on her plate carried equal importance in the construction of the dish. I had served her fresh shrimp sauteed with a roasted tomato sauce on risotto; a mix of braised organic greens, sauteed Chinese long beans with garlic, and steamed cauliflower florets.

This attention to the full plate is what I am striving for and what I wish I could see more of in other restaurants that I visit. We live in an area rich with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; too rich to allow us to limit ourselves to "safety cooking". This concept of letting the protein product and its sauce be the "main attraction" is an old school notion and addresses neither an awareness of the way people are eating, or an awareness of the way cuisine is shifting.

I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who have chosen to be Chefs to take responsibility for many aspects of our guest's experience in our dining rooms. Comfort, yes; escape, yes; satisfaction, naturally. But moreover, we have responsibility to help our diners to explore new regions and new sensations. We have a responsibility to the health of our diners, physically and spiritually. Certainly, the guest wants and needs a "comfort zone" experience from time to time and he should know where to go to get it.

At La Cusinga, however, I will continue to buy the best, freshest and sometimes the oddball ingredient from my farmers. I will continue to place an equal value on everything I place on my plates. And I will continue to encourage my guests to open their palates, open their eyes and, most importantly, their minds. Dining out should be a fresh, bright experience, not sadly predictable.

2 comments:

  1. Nice post, Chef. You know I am a cranky vegetarian on this very topic. Although the FDA has lowered daily protein guidelines over the years, we continue to live in a meat-centric cultural which has become the global norm. Politics of food another time.

    It matters not to me what others choose to eat, but it makes all kinds of sense that animal protein is best as a side, garnish or a balanced part of a dish, such as your guest noted about your entree.

    Out of habit, a dish is described *first* by the protein. What if you were to say, "Risotto with Roasted Local Tomatoes and Shrimp, and Braised...?" You could start a quiet revolution.

    Freedom for vegetables from same-old!
    XO,
    Christine

    ReplyDelete

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
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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.