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.


  1. Love your passion and vision! It gets better each installment I read. I know you and Anja will have great success -- Looking forward to reading each blog and visiting you guys at some point <3

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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.