Sunday, October 29, 2017

ALMOST THERE, PART 2 Building a Menu


Part 1.

Almost there, yes, we are almost there.  It has been an interesting and occasionally nerve-wracking couple of weeks planning, waiting, planning some more, and then waiting even more.  In the midst of rainy season here on the Costa Ballena our piddling plans to have a special dinner and then install a new Chef with a partially new menu, there have been a few minor setbacks and some serious intervention from Mother Nature.

We weathered a major hit from Hurricane Nate that left several areas near us underwater.  It poured buckets, sheets of rain for 48 hours.  Power was out for anywhere from eight hours to two days depending on where one was and we lost water at Ballena Bistro for nearly three days.  Two low-lying towns, Cortes and Sierpe were nearly washed away.  Food drives, clothing drives, and house-cleaning drives (you should have seen the mud!) were organized as the community came together to help people get back on their feet.

But as will happen, Nate blew over, life went on, and so did Anja and my progress in building, or rebuilding our new venture.  Feeling confident at that point we planned a special four course Dinner with the Chef of the Jungle for Friday night, October 27, and darned if we didn't book every seat within 24 hours. I wrote a menu that was comprised of favorite dishes I had done at La Cusinga, as a sort of "re-introduction" of me and my cooking style to the community.  The dinner was creating a buzz, even during the "low season" and we were buzzed.

 I got in the kitchen the Monday before the dinner with a couple of bags of nicely ripe tomatoes and made a batch of my Roasted Tomato Soup, a simple recipe, and a bit of a signature item for me.  Simple it is, but delicious as well.  We'd decided on "Death By Bananas" as a dessert and after I caramelized a couple of batches of bananas with butter and tapa dulce, the local cane sugar, Anja turned out some wonderful caramelzed banana ice creams.  We were ON it!  We'd made arrangements for the delivery of four pargo, the local ocean-going red snapper as our entree, to be paired with a green gazpacho sauce.  We had put in our order for organic produce  with my suppliers from seven years before, the married couple  Mauren and Ademar.  We were set, or so we thought.

 But there was to be more.  On the heels of Nate came Ophelia whose promise and portent was deemed of even greater impact by the prognosticators.  No, this is not a trait exclusive to weathermen in the US, or anywhere else.  It would seem that there is no TV weatherman anywhere who doesn't love a prediction of impending disaster.  For the two of us the notion of impending disaster did not fit in at all well with dinner plans four days hence and after 24 hours of nervous pacing, multiple texts, and yes, that hand-wringing, we pulled the plug on the dinner.  Sad, but even sadder would have been having several hundred dollars (or thousands of colones) worth of food and no way to cook it and no one to serve it to.  People understood.

The postscript to all of this is that although we got some heavy rains we never did get the full power of the storm and it sat off the coast for a couple of days and gradually dissipated.  Murphy's Law of restaurants tells me however, that if we had gone through with the dinner the storm would have clobbered us.  The dinner will be revived at some point, but the next step comes this Tuesday with a partially new menu and a new kitchen for Chef Dave.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

First Day in the Kitchen

First Day in the Kitchen

It was about time.  Anja and I had gotten the semi-permanent version of our first menu in place, so it was up to me to show that the Chef really could cook these things.  We chose a Monday, but it would have had to have been a Monday as it's the only day the restaurant is closed.  I didn't want to be stumbling around asking a bunch of stupid questions about where things were in front of the current staff, at least one of whom I would be working with.

Thus far, before being able to spend this day in the kitchen I had made it through moving out and all its attendant craziness; a killer cold that I contacted three days before I left Oregon but didn't really get to fully appreciate until I started getting on airplanes, one that lasted ten days;  a day and a half of traveling, a hurricane and serious flooding, and a completely debilitating stomach virus that caused me to lose several (probably not really needed) pounds.  So I was damn well ready to make the most of whatever time I had in my new kitchen, thank you very much.

We have decided, popular demand not withstanding, to make a few alterations to what is unquestionably a menu the locals, my soon-to-be regulars, have come to see as a constant in their lives.  Each time I meet someone new, (or someone who "kind of " remembers me) I get asked to please, please, please not change this, that, or another item on the menu.  Unfortunately if I am to honor each and every request no changes will be made at all and that's not what brought me here.  So let's figure out how to turn on the oven.

The kitchen is larger and better equipped than a few I have worked here in Costa Rica, although much of the equipment, the gas grill and flattop grill for example, have gone unused by the current kitchen staff and are in need of heavy attention. In addition to those two vital pieces of equipment there are also ten burners, a deep fat fryer, and two operable ovens.  There's plenty of counter space, but sadly, no refrigeration on the cooking line itself so unless things are out of the refrigerators and well-iced, a lot of walking needs to be done to reach the necessary items to be cooked.  Every time.

These are all things that will soon be dealt with but we were there to cook.  We had chosen four, maybe five items on which to do trial runs and once I kind of figured out where things were it was time to get down to it.  When Anja had picked me up from the airport hotel a couple of weeks ago we had swung by a funky Asian market for ingredients and I was eager to get into those.  I had picked up a gorgeous organic chicken at that Saturday's feria in Uvita, as well as beets, kale, quinoa, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

I cut up the chicken just to get to the thighs, which I boned, skinned, and pounded out a bit to get them nice and flat, but not too thin.  I wrapped up the other parts and set about making a Korean marinade that I had come up with when I was working up on Mt. Hood.  It's got a lot of the things you might expect in it, ginger and garlic, soy, raw sugar, sesame seeds and oil, vinegar, and, of course, the main ingredient, Gochujang.  Gochujang is a powerful paste distilled from fermented chiles and red beans and I love it.  Into the marinade went those nicely pounded thighs.  The cooking would come later and be done, “a la minute”, or as we say in the kitchen, “on the fly”.  The other part of this dish would be a warm cabbage slaw, something I hadn’t made yet, but sounded good to me, so I sliced cabbage and onions, and ran a carrot over the mandoline into thin strips.

Roasted vegetables would be major component of the new falafel dish (and if you sense a vegetable orientation, your senses would be spot-on), along with lentils.  Both of them would be pre-cooked and then tossed in a lemon-herb vinaigrette style dressing and would serve as a platform for the cooked falafel.  I cubed onion, zucchini, eggplant, peppers and halved peeled garlic and tossed them with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Into the oven they went for roasting at somewhere between (I don’t know my non-centigrade oven temps yet) 350-400 degrees.  I wanted them still firm but with a bit of color from the roasting.  For the lentils I sautéed diced carrots, onions, and garlic, added the lentils and water and slowly brought them up to a boil.  I wanted them cooked, but still a bit firm, certainly not mushy.

Next up was the Dragon Bowl, a vegetarian, and this case vegan as well, dish from my days upon Mt. Hood at Mt. Hood Medadows Ski Resort.  My rendition of it there been my best selling vegetarian dish ever so why wouldn’t I trot it out again?  The main ingredients are simple enough, cooked quinoa, shredded kale, medium slices of roasted chiles (jalapeno, and mild red) and onions, and some kind of nut or seed in a semi-spicy vegetarian Thai curry.  To get ready for it I cooked off the quinoa so it was nice and fluffy, tore the kale into bite sized pieces, and cut the peppers and onions into strips.  The sauce is simple--coconut milk heated with ginger, cilantro, miso, and Thai yellow curry paste.  A 20 minute simmer is all that's required for the flavors to come together and while they did I tossed the peppers and onions in light cooking oil and roasted them in the oven.  This is another dish that will be cooked at the last minute, taking only 4-5 minutes in the pan.

Anja had spied a salad she liked in a cookbook we are enjoying that employs thin cut planks of jicama but since we have no jicama here we decided to try both yucca and chayote.  Yucca is a fibrous root vegetable, local to our area, and it proved to be all wrong--too fibrous and not at all good tasting raw.  It also turns out that eating raw yucca can be bad for you, as it contains hydrogen cyanide precursors.  Good thing it didn't work.   It was also a good thing that our local chayote squash, peeled and sliced into planks on the mandoline were nicely crunchy and just mild enough for our purposes.

 The salad we had seen was served on a pool of a minted emulsion sauce, but our efforts didn't give us what we wanted.  The sauce kept separating and it was back to the drawing board.  Anja's next effort, with basil rather than mint held together pretty nicely and tasted damn good.  In my mind it was a keeper. The other components of this salad were something red, berries (maybe pomegranate?) in the original, but roasted beet cut into small dice and soaked in red wine vinegar for our purposes; orange segments, and again, because we had them, roasted sunflower seeds for crunch.

All of this sounds as if it came together in scant moments, but with the working in a new kitchen (for me), the experimentation, the new ideas, plus a trip to the store it took over four hours for all of this to get ready to cook.  Once we had the deep fryer up and running the falafel came together easily and it was just as I had imagined it.  Separately I dressed the cooked chilled lentils and roasted vegetables in a simple lemon-herb-oil mix and set them on the left and right hand side of the plate.  A nice sprig of watercress went at the top and I drizzled that with the dressing for good measure.  I quartered the hot crisp falafel and set it on the top as casually cool as I could manage and drizzled it with a simple minted yogurt.  I liked it.  Anja liked it.  Her son Felipe like it.  Bingo.

Next up was the Dragon Bowl and it was a simple bang, bang, bang.  Into a hot saute pan went a tiny bit of cooking oil, some chopped garlic and ginger, and the torn moistened kale.  Sputter spit went the pan and I tossed the kale to coat it with the oil and and then dashed in some vegetable stock to help it  steam and wilt slightly.  On top of that went a small handful of the roasted chiles and onions.  I spooned in about a cup of cooked quinoa and retossed the pan so that everything was nicely mixed.  It was a simple process to add a cup or so of the yellow curry sauce and I turned the heat down to let it all simmer together.  I pull down a large wide soup bowl and using tongs lifted the mass of greens  veggies, and quinoa into the bowl and gently poured the curry sauce around it.  Crunchy toasted sunflower seeds went on top along with a mixture of chopped mint and basil.  Yes.  Again, we liked it.  A lot.

It was time to cook the marinated chicken and into a hot hot pan it went.  Part of the process with this dish is to caramelize the marinade on the outside of the chicken, forming a tasty crust.  Ideally I would cook this on a charbroiler or on a hot griddle, but a pan is what we had and it did what it was supposed to do.  While the chicken was cooking I heated chicken stock in another pan and added the thin strips of carrot.  I let that come to a boil and added the onions and cabbage.  I gave it a good toss and added white vinegar and pineapple juice to the pan.  I wanted the cabbage to wilt and be coated with a sweetened yet tart flavor.   When the cabbage softened it went on the plate and the two pieces of chicken went on either side with some cilantro over the top.

This was the first not fully realized dish but it would be an easy fix.  The chicken was good, crisp on the outside and moist in the middle but salty from too much soy.  No problem The cabbage was too tart, the plate seemed incomplete--it needed something else to bring it together.  It was decided that the legendary green rice would make the plate fuller and that less vinegar and more pineapple would be better.  It was agreed that the cabbage should wilt just a bit more.  And I decided that I want to put pieces of caramelized pineapple over the top of the chicken.   Like I said, easy fix.

Last was the salad and while Anja was harsh on herself and her creation, her son Felipe and I both raved about it.  The basil crema had been pooled on the plate, the planks of chayote were laid around and on it in a casually arranged fashion, the oranges were dropped in here and there as were the jewels of vinegared beets.  Anja tucked some sprigs of cress in and around the chayote and dotted the plate with toasted sunflower seeds.  Mis amigos, this one was a winner--crunchy, sweet, tart, creamy, all the things you like on one plate.  Yes, the red wine vinegar was a bit harsh for the beets but not overly so, balsamic will be better, but everything else on the plate worked.  I could tell that because Felipe used his fork to scrape every last bit off the plate.  The proof is in the eating.

Not bad for the first time in the kitchen and the first tries at these dishes.  There are some good tweaks, minor tweaks we can make, but I think we were all pleased with the results.  Now, of course, the test will be convincing those people who just can't bear for the menu to change.  I have faith, however, that we can and will slowly bring them around.  They might just like something new.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

He Llegado (I have arrived)!


He llegado, as we say here in Costa Rica.  I have arrived!

The traveling is but a distant memory and I am happily in residence in my little cabina in the jungle.
All the purging, packing, cleaning, and moving is behind me.  I successfully navigated 150# of "stuff" in a trunk, a suitcase, a carry-on, and a backpack from my apartment to the rental car, from the rental car to the hotel, and then finally, at 4:30 in the morning, to the Portland airport.  After eight hours in the air the process was repeated in reverse upon arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica.  I must express my gratitude to all the people who helped my push, pull, haul and shove this bulky assemblage on its journey.

 Anja was kind enough to make the trip up the coast and into the big city to pick me up and we took off down into the center of San Jose on a shopping expedition.  I had wanted to gather a small pantry of Asian flavors to combine with the various vegetable and fish dishes we had in mind.  Mostly I was after miso.  Anja got us right to the Asian market without a hitch and when we arrived it was hard to even tell it was a market.  But then we went in through the barred doors to a rather stunning array of groceries, ranging the map from China to Japan with stops in Korea and Thailand.  Naturally I had to have some of everything--yes, miso-two kinds, Thai curry pastes, noodles, Hoisin sauce, wonton wrappers, gluten free soy, and more and more.
From there was a stop at PriceSmart, the Central American version of CostCo, for more restaurant supplies, groceries, etc. before we hit the road toward the Costa Ballena and, more importantly, lunch.

The drive from San Jose to the coast is mostly one lane and it lurches along behind over-filled ancient pick-up trucks, fruit vendors, and drivers intent on keeping to the 80kmh (49.7mph) speed limit.  It may take me a while to remember I'm not driving up and down Hiway 84 through the Columbia River Gorge.  The drive is hilly and wooded until it reaches the turnoff to Jaco, at the coast, where it is a bit flatter, but for one or two places, and substantially more tropical.  The road to Jaco is filled with funky fruit stands, each displaying rows of papayas, bananas, pineapples, and the more exotic local fruits like maricuya (passion fruit), along with dyed tapestries and cold drinks.

About halfway to the coast we crossed Rio Tarcoles, famous for it's crocodiles, and sure enough there were entire families peering over the guard rail down into the river to get a look.  Anja commented that they've always just looked like floating gray lumps and I'm inclined to agree.  Past the river the highway begins to run along a gulf and there is evidence of approaching the coast.  There are plenty of marisquerías (seafood restaurants) along the highway to Jaco, some with just funky little wooden benches under an awning, and some full-blown restaurants.  We chose one with a lovely covered patio that sat right at the edge of the beach and lunch was on.  No other customers were there  but that seemed to be the norm at all the places we passed.  But when we pulled in there was a Tico gentleman beckoning to us where to park.  Classy!

We were close to the water, in fact right on it, and there were fishing boats pulled up onto the beach.  There was a wonderful breeze coming in off the water.  All was good.  We could see a fisherman sitting in the shade on his upturned boat mending a net.  Yes, the real deal.
Anja had ceviche and I ordered a coctel de camarones "pinkies".  There were two choices of shrimp, jumbo and the pinkies, which can range greatly in size.  The prices reflected it as the jumbo coctel was 14,000 colones, or about $25, and the pinkies were 6700 colones, $11.70 in US dollars.  Anja's ceviche looked good and was nice and fresh, but the coctel blew me away.  I was presented a parfait glass with 15 (!!) beautiful perfectly cooked fresh shrimp ringed around a bowl of sauce, that were BIG and deliciously sweet.  Eating that shrimp, hanging out with Anja, and looking out across the beach at the beautiful blue sea and sky was the best welcome home I could have had.

Since I have arrived Anja and I have met several times and at her urging we created a "mind map" of all the things we want to do and need to do, both immediately and in the glowing future.  Our ambitions are high and I like that.  We've already scheduled a reservation only Dinner with the Chef of the Jungle in late October.  We're both thinking beyond just the restaurant and dreaming about making and selling our own vinegars, sauces, and pickles; getting a functional hydroponic garden up and producing, and raising chickens for our own eggs.  To be able to become as fully sustainable and self-supporting as possible is the dream.  Yes, it will be step by step, but WHY NOT??

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Leaving This Town, Part 2 (A whole different trip)

Leaving This Town, Part 2

There is an entry, far far back in this blog, that chronicled the frantic, sweaty, vodka-soaked exit I made from San Francisco back in the Fall of 2005.  It was filled with (cock)tails, insincere good-byes, and a lot of self-serving palaver.  It may have made for entertaining reading but it was actually a rather pathetic time in my life, one that would soon change.

We now move ahead 12 years and here I am, again making the big move to Costa Rica.  This time, however, things are a bit more orderly, a bit more composed, and yes, sober.  Rather than moving into the great unknown, I am heading to something that I know well enough that it draws me back.  This journey south, in reality, the third move to Costa Rica, is one filled with promise and ease rather than the boozy faux-confidence of the first and the nervous, newly sober anticipation of the second.
Hey, this time I got places to go and things to do and I couldn't be happier about it.

To get back to the "leaving this town" part, however, requires a bit of background.  I moved to The Dalles first as a four day a week semi-commuter, and then as things changed, as things do, as a single guy in a small apartment.  While there has been a bit of the sifting through the accumulated detritus of well paid, single guy life (too many jackets!!), this has been the exact opposite of my move from San Francisco twelve years ago.  This time I am not leaving a place I loved dearly, nor am I leaving a place where I had lived for 15 years.  I am also not trying to pack, edit, and organize my life while in a constant alcoholic haze.  This time I had a plan, I made lists, I gave myself enough time, time not uninterrupted by endless social engagements.  Funny how quitting drinking will do that to/for you.

When I realized I would be moving I began to assemble lists of the things I knew I would have to
jettison in order to beat a hasty and neat departure.  First, of course was the car.  I had bought myself a beautiful 2016 Subaru Crosstrek, thinking, at the time, that it would be the last car I'd own, that I'd drive through each and every snowstorm and across every iced street in it until I could no longer grasp the wheel or see the road.  When I bought it at the end of last October in anticipation (I must have sensed something coming) of a nasty winter, I figured it meant I would me, might well be, staying in Oregon for some time.

The old saying, "Man plans, God laughs" is all so very fitting for my car plans, my Oregon plans, my future plans.  When it became clear to me last April that I was to be a Costa Rican homeowner it also became clear that I would have to part with the first car I've ever truly loved.  I was sure, however, fiercely certain, that there would be a line of people stretching out my door for the opportunity to buy my "desert khaki", leather-seated, All Wheel Drive baby.  Was that ever a harsh lesson.

It turns out that running ads on any of the Facebook community want-ad sites here in the Columbia Gorge only attracted a whole passel of "looky Lous" who were more interested in things cheap or free
than they were things that were of value, but still a good deal.  I had begun by pricing my Crosstrek at $2000 under what the dealerships were getting for the same year and model.  A shattering lack of response had me nudging the price down, and as the days of my time here in The Dalles dwindled a mild form of panic set in.  I knew for a fact that if I were to return my car to the dealership that they
would screw me several shades of blue.

For some reason I kept trying this part of the Gorge area, The Dalles and Hood River, sure that the people here knew about winter and that they knew about Subaru.  I went through a whole week of getting no responses and then, at last, I had a buyer.  She was a lovely young woman with two kids and two dogs; a California transplant who knew she needed a Subaru.  However, after stringing me along unintentionally for five days as she exhausted her loan possibilities, she dropped out.  Finally the light bulb went off--Craigslist, Portland.  Why not?  And within an hour of posting the ad, albeit for just as much as I needed to pay off the remainder of the loan, I had the line out the door I had been dreaming of.  My buyer was willing to drive from Portland to The Dalles, coming over Mt.
Hood because of the fires, and within 24 hours the car was sold.

The same pattern repeated itself with the clothing I tried to sell for pennies on the dollar, and even cookware.  Most peculiar.  Unless I was giving stuff away, there were no takers.  So I gave it away--to Goodwill and St. Vincent de P's, winter clothes, lots of them.  And that's fine.  I've managed to donate boxes of books to the local library, and the ones they didn't want also went to St. Vinnie and Goodwill.  I hired a local mover to take the last of my furniture, the things that were far too heavy for this energetic but senior guy to take down the stairs, again to St. Vincent's.  A large portion of the last three years of my life is now up there.  Does anyone want some monogrammed chef coats, though?  Perfect.

Tonight I sit in my nearly empty apartment, two lawn chairs, a camp chair, and two end tables are all that's left.  I pack and repack the trunk to get the most of what I want in it, but still keeping it at just under 50#.  I'm debating on suitcases, but keep coming back to the reality that I don't need nearly as much as I think I do.  So much of this move is about simplifying.  I look forward to my log cabin, a wardrobe consisting of shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops, and a job that is about cooking and working with someone I know and respect.   It will not be about the accruals for the winter quarter.  In five days I will be leaving this town.  I couldn't be happier.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Journey Begins--First Steps

I am sitting at my desk in my cabina looking out the swinging wooden window down my driveway to the bumpy dirt road that passes in front.  The air is clean, and it's warming up after the morning clouds have thinned.  There is a constant undercurrent of thrumming from cicadas, birds, and whatever else is out there in the trees expressing its alegria para vivir (joy for life).  It is early on in my residency in this, my new home, four days is all and despite it being a brief stay, I'm already developing a resentment over having to leave.  This is home.

I've brought down three pieces of luggage, two of them right at the 50 pound limit the airlines allow.  (In reality, one was over, but the woman checking in baggage was so harassed and overwhelmed by the Saturday morning airport mobs that she let it go.)  I brought clothes, toiletries, some carefully packed framed artwork, a stereo woofer/speaker set-up, kitchen supplies, and, even though I was advised not to, books.  I've placed things somewhat tentatively around the cabina, still not knowing where they will ultimately end up. It will all fall into place--or it won't.

Until Hurricane Harvey hit, the only thing that had made me nervous upon leaving for this trip was the luggage, its weight, and my bad back; recipe for a travel disaster.  But it couldn't have been easier.  From the van driver at the not so nicely maintained Airport Ramada in Portland, to the baggage handler at the San Jose airport (a charming Tico named Isiah), to the guy from the rental car agency who met me outside the airport they were all happy to help me and grateful for a generous tip.  Fortunately Hurricane Harvey was a non-issue as American Airlines goes through Dallas and not Houston.

Once I found my way out of Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, and only after a couple of mis-turns and backtracks, the drive on a Sunday was slow going but beautiful.  The coast was my destination, and the first city there is Jaco, a beautiful spot, despite being a tourist mecca marred by ugly hotels, some of them unfinished or abandoned.  The highway, or carreterra leading to Jaco is hilly and winding and the Costa Rican Traficos have set a low speed limit which is well enforced.  The latest threat is taking away the license plates of rental cars which have been caught speeding.

It was just over three hours from hotel to cabina and I arrived gratefully, happily, and ready, oh so ready, to be HERE.  When I bumped and bounced the poor rental car over the raised dirt across the culvert that took me through my front gates I couldn't help but notice, first thing, the work and care that my friend/caretaker Jackie and her son Aury had put into landscaping the yard--stones arranged on either side of the driveway, succulents, flowering plants, it all looked great!  The work is still going on, but what a great start.  With Jackie's help I dragged the heavy suitcase and trunk into the house and this part of the journey was done.

I did a rough unloading of the over-packed luggage and bumped back down the road I live on to the Costanera, the main highway, to visit my other new home, Ballena Bistro.  It was a good reunion with my soon-to-be business partner Anja Sonnenberg and we got right down to it.  We have met four times since I got here and every time all we can talk about is the things we want to do and the things we can do.  We've got dreams and we've got the passion and the emotional werewithal to make it happen.  Our dreams are about more than the food and creating more and more happy customers.  We want a retail outlet in the front of the building, cooking classes, and monthly (and perhaps more) special dinners.

Ballena Bistro is a successful operation and I am extremely grateful to be coming into a situation with so much already going for it.  Anja has both passion and integrity for what she has been doing and we hope to carry that to the next level, and the level beyond.  I hope that my love for cooking, my years of experience, and my devotion to quality ingredients will help push us in a direction that satisfies us just as it satisfies our guests.  This future is wide-open and I am so excited to get to be a part of it.

I'll head back to the US tomorrow, to floods, fires, and Donald Trump. All that's left is to finish out my last four days in the Google kitchens, sell my car, and empty and clean my apartment.  I'll say a few good-byes, but I can't wait to get back here, to the jungles, to my new home, and to Ballena Bistro.  The future awaits.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

So How Did This Happen?


As I continue the packing and purging process I occasionally stop to marvel at how seemingly quickly this all came about--my decision to move back to Costa Rica, how the cabina I will call home fell into my lap, and how my now business partnership with Anja at the Ballena Bistro came about.
Perhaps you wonder as well...

Eight years ago (it may have been nine) I rented a little log cabin in the jungle, down a dirt road and a mile or so off the main coastal highway that runs along the Pacific and through the town of Uvita.  It was perfect for me.  It was within a 15 minute drive to work, it had a large covered back deck, it sat back far enough from the road, and it had every simple convenience I might need.  For reasons we need not go into, after eight or nine months I ended up moving out of it for the lure of a house-sitting opportunity that included free rent in a lovely house higher up in the hills that looked out at the Pacific.  Who could blame me?

We now move forward to the late winter/early spring of 2016 and I am in Oregon, working as the Executive Chef/GM at a Google Data Center and going through heavy chemotherapy for treatment of lymphoma.  I'm not feeling so good and really have no idea what lies ahead and how much of it there will be.  Interrupting this somewhat depressing scenario I get an email from a woman whom I've never met who happens to have bought the cabina in the jungle that I had rented.  She is inquiring as to whether I, as a former dweller/tenant in the cabina might be interested in buying it from her.  It has proven to be too small for she and her husband and the price she offers me is great, reasonable, but as I have no idea what my (hoped for) recovery holds I have to tell her that no, this is not something I can do.  Sigh...

Let's move forward another year, to the horrible, dismal, ugly, frozen winter of 2016-17.  I have decided that, as Popeye once said, "I've stood all I can stand, I can't stand no more..." and that there will be no more winters in The Dalles, OR for me.  I can no longer endure three and four layers of ice in the streets, the only passageway to Portland and civilization being shut down for 3-4 days at a time, and having to put on knee-high snow boots just to get out to my car.  No!!

It also turns out that I am struggling to endure the encroaching and ever-widening corporate maw that is taking over the food operation I run at the local Google Data Center.  What was once a real cooking Chef job, creating the menu daily, buying local produce, and supporting local vendors is and was rapidly turning into a purely administrative position.  I spend my time supporting corporate ideals and turning over my freedom to purchase and cook the ingredients for which I live.

And so the still fertile Mahler mind begins to churn with dreams of heading back to the jungle, to reaching out to the friends and connections I made when last I cooked there, to where my heart lies (lay?).  I contact my friends at La Cusinga to inquire as to whether or not they might have knowledge of any properties that might fit in with my meager retirement dollar.  I contact other friends via Facebook, and all the usual social media options.  Sadly, it seems that my meager retirement dollar isn't going to get me very far.  Until the notion pops into my aging and occasionally sieve-like mind to get back in touch with the owners of the little cabina in the jungle on the outside chance, hope, dream, that it might not have sold.

As they say, as the Four Tops said, I reach out.  I reach out in the darkness in the dim hope that my dim hopes might brighten.  I wrote back to ask about the cabina in the jungle, has it sold, and Que Milagro, it has not!!  The couple who owned it, a couple of Canadians, decided to stay in it another year to gather their resources and are just getting ready to put it on the market.  Without a moment's hesitation I tell them I'll take it.  They accept my offer.  I am stunned, then...YES!!!  I WILL own the cabina, and I WILL move back to Costa Rica.

Now, being a landholder in Costa Rica I write back to friends and connections and in those writings I contact via Facebook Messenger, my friend Anja Sonnenberg, the owner of the Ballena Bistro, a very cool little jungle restaurant that sits just off that coastal highway.  I tell her of my return to Costa Rica and the first thing that pops up on her Messenger screen is "No Shit!!  Let's work together!" Another semi-miracle.  I WILL cook again in Costa Rica!!

I had already booked a trip to New Orleans to visit my old friends Philipe and Debbie for Jazz Fest and it was oh so easy to just piggyback a little jaunt further south and down into Central America on the back end of my trip.  I had sent the check, I had written to the abogado (attorney), and I was ready to put my name on the paper.  I had a whirlwind visit to Costa Rica following a wonderful four days in the Big Easy and put my name on the papers, met with Anja, and caught up with old friends to share my good news

The second half of the equation, the other piece of the puzzle had fallen into my lap, even easier than had the first.  I was and still am somewhat stunned by the ease with which this happened.  Now I pack, and I purge, I visit Goodwill, and the homes of friends who will help me store my things.  I am finishing out at work, and I am readying myself for a pack mule/reconnaissance trip to Uvita at the end of next week.  It is all happening SO fast, but I can handle it.  After all, it's time to go home.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Blog Awakes!!

The Blog Awakes!!

Yes, I am taking the wraps off the sleeping Chef of the Jungle blog and giving it new life, just as I am giving myself new life by returning to the kitchen.  I am leaving my big-time Corporate Chef job in which I spend 80% of my day in my office for the heat, the intensity, the creativity, and the love of the kitchen.  I've risen to the point of not even being a clipboard carrier, but to one who oversees the clipboard carrier, and I am DONE.

As well, I am leaving the bewildering, shaky, and not so friendly confines of the United States, to return to Costa Rica.  I am going into partnership with my friend Anja Sonnenberg in her Ballena Bistro on the Costanera in the Zona Sur.  For those of you unfamiliar with the lay of the land down there, this is way down the southern Pacific coast at the top of the Osa Peninsula, about two hours north of Panama.  The area has been dubbed the "Costa Ballena" in honor of the annual migration of the whales who arrive to spawn, to calve, and to frolic each Spring.

I am looking forward to returning to the creativity I felt daily in Costa Rica, the land of beautiful fresh fish, mangoes, pineapples, papayas and so much more.  Anja and I are both concerned about eating and serving healthy foods so as we change the menu together it will be with an eye and a palate tuned to a more vegetable-centric cuisine.  This is not to say we won't be serving fresh fish, locally raised organic chickens, or some of the great pork that is raised in Costa Rica, but vegetables and fruits will play an equally important role in our cooking.

I've got a head full of ideas and am counting down the days.  Stay tuned here as the Chef of the Jungle rides again!!!

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.