Monday, January 10, 2011

Full Speed Ahead?

Welcome to January. The holidays are past us, and in true high season form we have gone from a standing start to full occupancy with nary a chance to draw our collective breath. As usual, the Christmas and New Year's inundation left us reeling and gasping and now we need to find our feet and figure out how to logically set ourselves up to be busy Every Single Day.

As I have lived a life in the restaurant business (and not that I'm recommending that to anyone, oh, no No NO!) I am used to coming in to work each day and prepping for a full and busy night. It is second nature to me to peer into my refrigerators each day, clear out the debris, see what can be reshaped or reformed and then organize myself combining those things with the new and fresh. It is a dance, a puzzle, a new breathing of life each and every day. I must confess that I love the challenge and I love putting my hard-won skills to work solving the puzzle.

Unfortunately, it is not something that one can teach in a short period of time. It certainly was nothing that came to me early on, but rather, a philosophy I had to develop myself as well as grow into. I had an amazing mentor, Lucien Kuwamoto, in my "green and raw" days, who beat me up and taught me to use my hands, but better yet, taught me to think, to consider and to plan. He also instilled in my a philosophy of how to work, as an individual, but also how to make a kitchen work and run.

Well trained chefs do their purchasing and their prepping with an eye to utilization. In a properly run kitchen, nothing goes to waste and each purchase is made with an eye to how it can be used to each and every advantage. The great god of Food Cost was the determining force of so many decisions related to purchases. In theory, nothing will go to waste.

I learned that one made the most money for the "house" (and therefore might be entitled to more oneself, with any luck and patience; always patience) by learning to butcher and subsequently using all the disassembled parts in various ways. Hind quarters of beef and veal became steaks and roasts, the glory cuts, yes. But it was the trimmings and the lesser regarded sections of the animal where the money was made. Veal scallopini gave way to veal parmagiana which gave way to blanquette de veau which gave way to various forms of stroganoff and other cost effective stews. The unusable bits, the silver skin and the membranes were roasted with vegetables and turned into a "mother sauce". Truly, nothing was wasted.

The way I work now, at La Cusinga, and in places past, puts more emphasis on the fresh. The menu ostensibly (?!) changes each day and the challenge is now to incorporate that which was fresh and new yesterday into something that is equally fresh today. Equally, the challenge exists to get a staff of young country women, not trained professionally, and in some cases, not trained at all, to grasp, however remotely, that concept of utilization.

I love the learning process, and it has been a joy to me to see the light come on in faces not used to being taught and not used to being encouraged to take pride in the things they do. The realization that rice can be cooked in the oven and doesn't have to boil on the stove until the bottom of the pot is thick with crusted burnt grains is a concept that has only recently been embraced (particularly since this makes the cleaning of the pot much easier). I am moved hearing the pride in the voice of Angelica, my day cook, when she tells me that the mix has been made for a batch of ice cream, or that the bananas have been roasted so that another mix may be started.

The busier we get, however, less of those concepts learned are put to use, and in what is just human nature, our kitchen staff goes back to what they know. Sadly, this often translates to small bits of food hidden away, obscured in a giant hunk of aluminum foil, or a myriad of tiny bowls filling an entire refrigerator shelf, each with a slightly less than usable portion of some treat from days gone past. Despite my pleadings the cover of choice remains aluminum foil as opposed to clear wrap. The foil is about four times as expensive, but is so much easier to handle.

Each night at the end of my shift I place plastic container of usable cooked vegetables in the front of the refrigerator that holds the lunch products and each day when I arrive, there it sits; unused and perhaps unnoticed. I put portioned fish and pieces of chicken that can be used in lunch specials there as well. I want to be able to reach these young women some way, some how, but the connect, the lightbulb, the vision is just not something I seem to be able to communicate. I am not sure if I am battling against a cultural issue, a training issue or a motivational issue.

I want so much for the women I work with to feel the pride, the joy, of a job well done and I would love to sense that more often. Frequently I sense an "oh well, another day" as they scrub their pots and mop the floors. Of course there are moments of light and they do give one hope. There has been some staying a bit later to make sure ordering is done and there are moments of inspiration and even motivation. Yes, there are and I must make sure I notice them. I must also remember the patience that my mentor had with me, so much patience.

One of my favorite quotes is from the baseball manager, Tony LaRussa, in which he says, "Good management is putting people in a position to succeed." I will continue to try to break through. I will continue to praise, to teach and to patiently explain the "why". I will keep doing damage control each day, going through the many tiny bowls and unwrapping the mystery packages. It may make me crazy either way, giving up or forging ahead, but the only way I know how is to keep at it, to keep making the point and explaining the "why". After all, we are in "that" part of the year and it is Full Speed Ahead.

1 comment:

  1. Keep the faith Chef, just when you least expect it the "light bulbs" will go on. I think it is a cultural thing..the mystery packages. My cooks used to leave a tortilla on the grill every time they used it, for the Gods, I think. Anyway it worked with lovely food coming out of the kitchen.


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.