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.

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.