How I Went From A Dude Who Likes To Cook To A Fine Dining Chef In The Jungle Of Costa Rica

Posted by Noam Kostucki

I grew up in social environment in which doing manual work wasn’t valued and I felt obliged to do something “intellectual” to maintain my social status. A year ago, problems pushed me to make money working with my hands, and it turns out that I absolutely love creating things with my hands. I want to share the story of the last year of my life because I hope this post will help someone else do what they love but are scared to do.


I dropped out of university and I spent 12 years working as a corporate trainer and business coach. A year ago I bought a small piece of land in the jungle in Costa Rica to build a retreat center for my coaching clients, only to discover the internet was too slow to do my coaching work. I felt stuck and I had no way of making money the way I used to. I felt like I had lost everything.

The best question I found to help me make sense of what was happening was by asking myself “if this was a message from the universe, what is the universe trying to tell me?”

The answer I found was “no internet and no virtual for you until you do something with you hands in the physical world”

I’ve always loved eating food and I’ve been cooking for myself and my friends since I was in high school. As I was self employed for over 10 years, I worked from home and cooked for myself two to three times a day. To make a bit of money while figuring out the internet situation for my coaching, I decided to start cooking dinner for friends and people in the area who complained there wasn’t fine food in Costa Rica.

I never trained as a chef, nor worked in a restaurant or even a bar. I didn’t know how to run a restaurant, so I decided to reduce all chances of anything going wrong: I created a set menu of 7 plates that I rehearsed and prepared carefully in advance. This meant that I only have to worry about dish at the time and while they’re eating I can prepare the next one. I only did seafood dishes. No meats, no vegetarian. With this model, I reduced the uncertainties and it became like theatre: as long as I followed a very strict script, chances of fuck-ups were very low.

People slowly started coming for dinners and I would wait with a lot of anxiety for their reviews. Every time I read a new review, I blushed because they made it sound like I had a real fine dining restaurant. I started publishing photos of my plates on Facebook and within the first month of opening, a Michelin star chef offered to cook at my place as a guest chef. Within another few months, the restaurant website Open Table told me one of my dishes was selected out of 40,000 restaurants to be featured on their “25 dishes to travel around the world for”.

Within a year, my “restaurant” – which was really just 2 picnic tables in the garden – is now #4 best fine dining on TripAdvisor for the province of Guanacaste (Costa Rica) and I have many clients who traveled 5h each way to eat at my home.

The very first paying clients who found me online and didn’t know about me before ate their dinner on 21 January 2017. At the end of the dinner, they told me “we’re coming back to Costa Rica next year and we’d like to already book dinner”. I remember thinking “I don’t even know if I’ll be open in 3 months”.

On 20 January 2018, they came back for dinner and I am feel a sense of magic that my first year as a chef will ended so magically. They were amazed by how much everything had changed, and seeing my last year through their eyes was insightful.

This has been an absolutely wonderful and insane year: my cooking days were from 6am to 9pm with only breaks to have a quick lunch and a shower before guests arrived. Working in the a 5 square meter kitchen (53 sqft) was always a logistical challenge, and my legs got exhausted from standing all day. As I couldn’t afford a cleaner, I cleaned everything by myself: dishes, floors and more toilets in a year than in my entire life. I loved almost every moment of it.

When I bought my piece of land, my dream was to build a home. Without my income from my coaching, I didn’t have money to build so I spoke with local contractors who helped me design a rustic home. I helped the workers cut trees and carry them on our shoulders back home. I then peeled the bark by hitting them with a stick or with cutting it with a machete depending on the tree. I helped cover them with anti termite coating and dig holes to place them. I look at this house, and I have help build small parts of it, which is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. The house / restaurant / kitchen is still far from finished (for example, I’m still missing a couple of walls upstairs), but it’s now at least a functional construction and a more beautiful environment for guests. Two and half month ago I moved to my new home and it still feels like a dream.

A month and a half ago, a friend came from New Year to help me with in the kitchen and most importantly build an organic garden so that we can serve food we grow ourselves. For Christmas and New Year we served a special 10 course menu and for the first time I had five dinners in a week. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t just a dude cooking in a shack, but a fine dining chef with a jungle restaurant.

As I reflected on this year, I compiled seven insights that I’m taking from this adventure. If you are still reading this post, I hope what I learned, unlearned and relearn this year can be useful to you. If there is something you love doing that you worry you can’t do, I hope these few insights can help you make that jump.

Love,

Noam

1. It’s my way or the highway

I started with a fish menu and refused to do vegetarian, vegan or meat. By doing this I lost some clients, which felt painful, but it gave me focus and as a result I became better at that one thing. By only doing things the way I like, I enjoyed every moment of the experience and clients often remarked that my happiness was contagious. It’s not that I was always “right”, but even when something didn’t work, I had the chance to try what I wanted the way I wanted. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, I could decide to pursue in figuring out a way to make it work or look at the problem / solution completely differently. Ultimately, this allowed me to do my learning and figure out for myself what worked for me.

2. I can do everything alone

I didn’t have money to pay people, and I wanted to everything done the best… so I was forced to do everything myself. I cleaned the toilets before every dinner, clean dishes, prepared food, served food, took photos of dishes, made videos for Facebook, managed the page, the accounting, relations with clients, service providers, and everything else. As a result I learned to understand the work flow from all angles, and as I was alone I had to become extremely efficient at each tasks. This taught me to simplify all processes so that I can do more with less.

3. I can’t do everything alone

The more I did everything alone, the more I realized where I needed help the most. I started working with people who help me where it is most important. I live in the jungle, I don’t have a car, there are no buses or taxis so I rely on my neighbors to get to the closest shop. First, I needed was good food that would come to me: I met food providers who have amazing produce and are reliable. Secondly it opened my restaurant to guest chefs whom I would cook with. I learned from them and got inspired to create new dishes. Finally, as bigger opportunities arrived my way, I discovered the limits of my ability and when I was invited to serve food at an event with over 400 people, I found myself surrounded by amazing people who helped me make it a success. The better are the people around me, the better I become.

4. Selling myself can make people happy

Like most people, I don’t like having to sell myself and I hate being the annoying person who promotes themselves all the time. As I shared photos of food I cook, I received positive comments and I discovered looking at beautiful food makes people happy. When clients leave they always gives me a big hug and tell me how amazing an adventure it was. I often hear they don’t like something like beetroot but that in my dishes they loved it. That’s when I’m happiest. I love seeing people’s face when plates are placed in front of them because they looked like me when I saw a David Copperfield show when I was a child. Seeing how happy people are at the end of each meal makes me want to share this experience with more. I found it to be a wonderful virtuous cycle.

5. I can do everything with nothing

I live 30 min away from the closest town and there are no buses. Clients are always shocked to discover that I don’t have a car and do everything thanks to neighbors giving me rides. When they look at my kitchen, they are surprised to see how small it is and that I don’t have any fancy cooking equipment. I discovered that when I have nothing, I am forced to be creative and become more resourceful. With the little I have access to here, I somehow end up doing more with than when I had all the resources available to me. Stripping away from everything helped me focus on what really matters.

6. A name is meaningful

I always used to believe a company name doesn’t really matter. Yet when I was looking for a name for my coaching retreat – long before cooking and fine dining was on my radar – I ended up spending a lot of time looking for a meaningful name. Something that represented everything I do, and that represented the DNA of what I create. That’s how I arrived to “HiR”, the integration of Him and Her, the integration of opposites. What I do in coaching, as well as in photography, cooking and everything else is integrating opposites. And I read HiR “here” because for me it’s not a physical place, it’s a place in our mind where we are open to bring together two things that seem like they shouldn’t be together. That can be ideas (coaching) or ingredients (food). I believe that when we are HiR in our mind, we are open for magic to happen. I understand now that a name can be very powerful and be a wonderful guide in what we do, how we do it and why we do it.

7. Practice makes perfect

A year ago, I didn’t know how to do most things I make today in the kitchen. It feels like I had to learn pretty much everything. And by repeating the same movements and processes, they became familiar. Now they feel like skills and knowledge that are part of me, as if I had always known it. It’s like riding a bicycle: once you know how to do it, it’s difficult to imagine yourself not being able to. I believe that anything can be mastered, given enough smart repetition. It’s not just about repeating, but also making small changes and adjustments to understand how to do things better every time. I have now served over 2,500 plates HiR and the difference with what I was making a year ago is worlds apart. The more we practice, the better we get.

TripAdvisor Reviews – https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g7290580-d11875840-Reviews-HiR-Pinilla_Tamarindo_Province_of_Guanacaste.html)

25 Dishes To Travel Around the World For – https://willflyforfood.opentable.com

More info: hiradventure.com

BEFORE / AFTER – photo of my food before I started HiR Fine Dining and my food today

ALIEN DELICACY – crispy squid on a squid, zucchini and fresh turmeric cream topped with roasted pumpkin seeds

BUTTERFLY IN THE WILD – Lightly cooked mahi-mahi rolled in papaya seeds on a bed on beet leafs, arugula and uchuva with a sweet plantain and avocado croquette, a two parsley tahini sauce and a butterfly of kale chips.

PURPLE SCALLOPS – Scallop sashimi on a purple cabbage vinaigrette topped with roasted papaya seeds. Served with deep fried rice noodles, crispy ginger and a salad of arugula, beet leafs, raddish and chive.

GRANDMA’S OCTOPUS – Butter soft octopus cooked in organic Costa Rican coffee, cacao and turmeric on a mash of pumpkin with Costa Rica smoked cheese. The dish is finished with a drizzle of Teriyaki sauce I make with Flor de Cana Rhum.

TUNA TATAKI WITH KIMCHI – Tuna marinated in sesame oil and two types of roasted sesame seeds on a bed of bok choy cooked in ginger juice, served with a side of radish and beetroot kimchi.

LOBSTER TAIL & KING PRAWNS – Lobster tail and king prawns in a tahini sauce I make with flat leaf and Italian parsley topped with avocado seeds. Served with a salad of radish and beet leafs, arugula, bok choy and tomatillo, with two beetroot chips.

See original post posted by Noam Kostucki

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