Monday, January 17, 2011



I often forget, and how easy that is for me, that there are people out there in this world who do not look upon food as I do, or perhaps even as the readers of this blog do. I tend to think that the greater portion of reading and traveling humanity shares an appetite and fascination for all things culinary, similar to my own. Why would they not be enraptured by the freshness of the food, the purity of its credentials and the wondrousness of the combinations of flavor therein?

There are times at our seasons at La Cusinga where that difference in attitudes and "food visions" are more clear than others. This is one of those times. This is our "high season" and along with guests who come to relax with their spouses and/or families we also entertain a number of groups who are traveling through Costa Rica and make many stops. La Cusinga is but one of those destinations for their birdwatching, flora/fauna studying, yoga retreating visits.

This was quite evident this past weekend. We were host to a group of traveling gardeners from a particular organization and a mid-western US state that shall go unnamed. They were a group of 20 and had arranged to take their morning, mid-day and evening meals with us for three nights. Because we are also open to our general public over the weekends, it was an interesting opportunity to observe the basic differences in people's approaches to the feeding process.

On the evening that most represented this schism of "food values" we had our group of 20 at our large round table (along with a few satellite tables) and at another table we had two couples who are regular customers of mine and big fans of our food. With the addition of a cold soup course for the smaller table, the menus and food served to the two groups was identical. The reactions were not.

Our first course went out; a tossed mix of organic greens in an emulsified citrus-dijon dressing. Served alongside the dressed greens were organic tomato wedges drizzled with a mandarina/olive oil mix, roasted organic beets marinated in balsamic and herbed vinegars, and a mini-salad of cucumber and paper thin slices of organic celery mixed with minced garlic greens and tossed with an herbed white vinegar. All of these sides to the basic greens were seasoned with fresh ground black pepper and sea salt.

Because I watch every plate that comes back from my dining room I was able to see that the plates that came back from my regular guests had been nearly licked clean. The called me over to the table and because they had astutely picked up on the differences in the dressings (four vinaigrettes in all!) wanted to know just how I had dressed each of the components. (And they wrote to my Facebook page the next day to express their appreciation of the combinations and the balance.)

The plates that came back from the large table were perhaps split equally between those that had been cleaned of the salad and the ones that had had the components of the salad segregated into small piles and shoved off to one side or the other. A lot of the beets went untouched, which is not unusual; most of the cucumber-celery salad had not even been tried; and , surprisingly, a lot of the lovely vine-ripe organic tomatoes had not been eaten. Several of the salads appeared untouched. And these people are gardeners!

The entree plate was composed of a puree of camotes (our local white yam) and plantains; a braise of a mix of eight organic greens; a saute of broccoli and green beans with garlic and red peppers; and the entree was freshly caught Dorado (mahimahi) set over the puree and topped with a delicious and brightly colored mango salsa. I love this dish.

Again, when the plates returned to the kitchen, the ones that came back from my local group of four were cleaned. No, wait, there was a broccoli floret uneaten on one of the plates. As I readied the desserts the plates began to come back from the large group, I could see the mountains of uneaten food piled up on them. Untouched puree, whole pieces of fish (!), salsa pushed to the side and a lot of untouched braised greens. Granted, there were a number of plates eaten clean but the amount of uneaten food surprised me.

Our dessert for the evening was a mango-almond tart topped with my own homemade mango ice cream and it was not surprising that nearly every dessert plate came back from both tables with the dessert completely eaten. There were, as there nearly always are, those who don't eat either the cake or the ice cream, but these were few.

What does this tell me? Well first, it tells me that my friends, my regulars, had come to eat and to eat well. They had brought two bottles of wine and they relaxed and enjoyed themselves; they dined. My other guests, the large group? I had compassion for them. They were traveling, living out of suitcases and carry-ons and in a whole new and quite different environment. They were gulping wine, but almost desperately. But above and beyond that, it still strikes me as odd that grown-ups (!?) no matter where they are from, still carry their food prejudices with them to the degree that there are certain things that they just will not try.

And perhaps I live in a bubble. Food is my life and it is unthinkable to me to consider that I would not try something put before me on a plate. I have traveled considerably, and look forward to the opportunity to try things that are unfamiliar; I try everything once. I am not sure that I would be able to travel if I were so concerned about whether or not I was going to like the food.

We have guests who plop down in their chairs, right in front of the glistening blue Pacific and tell me, "I won't eat fish". Please note, that is "won't" not "don't" or "can't". Are we arrogant if we travel and demand that the food be made to suit our own specific likes or are we merely exercising our right to demand that our tourist needs be met? I am not sure of the answers to these questions. I do know that it is strange to me that I would visit a foreign country and be pre-disposed to not want to eat the food. As I said, perhaps I live in a bubble.


  1. Chef, it is the same everywhere. I would bet that the Midwesterners were about 25-50 lbs. overweight as well. At least it was only 3 days. Let them go back home to their heart attack food!

  2. Wow. Since we had the opposite experience--it was the off-season, quiet, it rained part of the time, and therefore the FOOD was one of the highlights of our day--it is hard to imagine going to La Cusinga and getting picky. We only grew full. Aah! Looking out to the wintry landscape I would trade places with them anytime and then walk down to the river afterward. Look forward to your book!

  3. Hey Dave, interesting observations for sure, but I think they are the ones living in the bubble, I just cant imagine not trying the food based on your photos. Having been a waiter for years it always amazed me how picky people can be. take care, Kevin

  4. I think it comes down to the part food plays in a person's life. I think there a LOT of us out there that view our attitude toward food as part of our identity...kind of like clothing...there are those out there that will wear anything and experiment, and others that love their clothing routine and would be wildly uncomfortable stepping out in...say...deliberately mismatched shoes.

    Being a card carrying member of the food adventurer crowd, my recent exploration of the world of healthful eating (protein shakes...can be rough for a food lover) was a bit difficult. I still sometimes feel I'm betraying my roots by forgoing a chive and lobster omelette for a whey protein with almond milk, banana and flax oil

    I think we all live in our own little bubbles. With my group of international food lovers, it's easy for me to forget that some people live lives as food purists, and have no desire to venture from what they know.

    Amazing post by the way...had NO idea you were such a good writer:)


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.