Monday, July 25, 2011

Coming Home

Kathy and I live just above the Eastern edge of the Willamette Valley and as we each make our morning commutes over to Salem on the West side, we connect to an odd grid of farm roads, which, at this time of the year, are suddenly grown high at either side with berries and veggies, tall fescu, bent grass and wheat which seem to have risen from nothing. There are interspaced bean fields and acres of cosmos, marigolds and poppies. Lavender fields roll out along the valley floor casting that peculiar and wonderful unfocused purple layer of color that seems to hover about 18 inches above the rich valley soil.

My move here to Oregon has obviously represented a huge change for me and it's taking time for me grow into it, but the recent arrival here of summer, however tardy it may be, is certainly helping. I drove home from a job on Saturday night as dusk was sliding in over the Valley. The smell of the newly cut hay was strong and the aromas from grills and the voices and calls from houses and campgrounds rang through the evening air. For the first time it felt as if summer had arrived and it brought with it a sense of belonging, of joy, and even of relief.


We had a good meeting of the "board" last Wednesday in Jean's office at Willaby's Catering, where I am the Chef. One of the suggestions I made, in light of a changing economy, one in which not so many companies are able to afford caterers and catered events, that we begin to make and sell food products such as sausages, stocks, salsa and sauces, etc., seemed to go over quite well. With luck, the help of the zoning laws in our neighborhood, and a good marketing program, we may soon be selling Willaby's products designed and cooked by Chef Dave, the Chef of the Woods, in addition to providing fine catering around the Willamette Valley.


Yesterday afternoon Kathy and I took pitchfork, shovel and gloves out to the garden to do the first harvest of the potatoes we planted not more than 11 weeks ago. We had bought a number of "seed" starters, including red, white and different types of creamers and fingerlings, and the reds had come to flower and then fruit first.

We had a long and rainy spring, and it certainly appeared to have done well by the red potatoes. We dug up and down our two rows of plants, being careful to only apply the pitchfork under and around the plants that had died. I had never dug potatoes before and this was high adventure for me, particularly when Kathy shrieked in triumph when we turned the soil around the very first bush under and it yielded five or six fat reds covered in earth and another four or five tinier spuds. And it went like that up and down the two rows we dug.

It was like digging for Easter eggs and our baskets were definitely full, as were the boxes and old kitchen pots we had brought out. We kept digging and the potatoes kept coming. I was having a ball, down on my knees, pawing through the earth Kathy was turning over, and there was definitely a child-like glee I was experiencing as I kept finding more and more potatoes under the fresh turned earth.

We ended up with between 50 and 60 pounds of fresh reds of varying sizes (but lots of big ones) from our $5 investment in the "seed" potatoes. And now it's up to me to figure out enough ways to use them so we get the most return without burning out. That's the kind of challenge I like.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Am I here to announce the end of the Chef of the Jungle? Well, the part about the jungle anyway, perhaps. The Chef is in me always. But it certainly appears that any return to the jungle will not be in a cooking capacity. For those of you I haven't been able to tell in person, I have turned down an offer of a working partnership in a restaurant in Dominical and will remain here in Oregon.

The decision was a hard one, very hard. In turning down this very generous offer from some very good people I knew I would be walking away from some things I had dreamed about for quite some time; a partnership, artistic freedom and an opportunity to put my hard work into my own dream rather than the dreams of others.

I had thought that I would make my last stand in a kitchen in Costa Rica and that I would cook there always. I loved the environment, the climate, the fruit, the fish and the freedom that came from heading off in totally new culinary directions for the area I was in. I had been promised that the job I had would be mine until I no longer wanted it. Sadly, the final days of my time at La Cusinga made it clear that I was and would always be a gringo visitor and that Costa Rica is not my country.

When I considered the notion of trying to make what could possibly be my last effort at having my own restaurant in this, the summer I turned 60, I realized that it would never happen in Costa Rica. I watched other gringos attempt to realize their dreams there and saw frustration and failure mount. I watched rules and regulations vary and wander depending on those whom they were being administered to. I listened, and this part makes me so sad, as people I had come to trust and respect, people I had labored hard and long and honorably for, began to recant things they had said as truths. I came to the hard realization that this was the nature of the culture and the society and that it would never work for me to put my last and final eggs in this leaky basket.

So yes, the Chef of the Jungle is hanging up his self-penned sobriquet and is becoming the Chef of the Woods, or the Chef of the Trees, or whatever new moniker may fall upon him. Does it make me sad? Well yes, it does; sad, disappointed and a bit betrayed and hurt as well, but I have moved on and need to keep moving on away from those feelings. I am far too old and have experienced far too much in my life to blame disappointments on anyone but myself. I have always had the (in)ability to hear what I wanted to hear and a dreamer's nature that doesn't always temper what I hear with what is real.

I am lucky and grateful that I have the love of a woman, a wonderful woman; a home that feels for the first time to me in years, like a home; and a job that promises growth and opportunity. The jungle will always be in me, but I now know that the jungle belongs to those who come from it, and not to those who try, however hard, to be part of it.

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.