Fifth in a series on extraordinary women in Costa Rica.
When Camille Ratton opened her top-notch restaurant in March 2003, in San José s historic neighborhood of Barrio Amón, a long-cherished dream came true. Using the Basque word for peace, the 28-year-old Costa Rican-born chef called her enterprise Bakea. The restaurant became a fast and furious success, and is now a first choice for fine dining in the capital, designed to provide guests with a synthesis of the arts, appealing to all the senses.
Running a restaurant in the city is creating urban experiences for diners, consisting of food, art, music and personalized attention, says Ratton, a charming and articulate bundle of energy.
The restaurant is housed in a carefully restored, 73-year-old art deco mansion that belonged to Ratton s great-grandmother. An architectural jewel, the 400-square-meter building is bistro, café, lounge, terrace and art gallery, all in one.
Contemporary artwork adorns the restaurant inside and out. A female devil by renowned Costa Rican sculptor Leda Astorga peeks from the roof over the main entrance, and paintings hanging on the walls inside are provided from the private collection of TEOR/éTica, a contemporary art gallery right across the street.
My mother Virginia Peréz, who runs TEOR/éTica, first wanted to install a small coffee shop for the gallery s visitors, but this house has so much potential that I wanted to realize my dream of opening a restaurant, recalls Ratton, a new-generation Costa Rican chef who studied and trained in France.
Ratton was born into a cultured San José family in which great cooking is part of the family tradition.At age 3, she already showed a keen interest in food and its preparation. While her mother prepared dishes in the kitchen, little Camille entertained herself by browsing through gourmet magazines given to her by her mother.
The profession of her father, a Costa Rica-born French engineer, brought the family to France, where they lived in Strasbourg and Paris for several years.
Since the four of us like to eat, my sister Dominique and I were taken out to good restaurants around France, Ratton recalls.
When I was 8, I fell in love with frog legs after trying them during a Christmas dinner in the mountains.
After returning to Costa Rica, catering high school functions and cooking for family and friends became her great hobby.
Dreaming of becoming a chef, the teenager picked the name of the world-renowned cooking school Le Cordon Bleu from a cookbook given to her by her French grandmother, and decided to return to France to study.
When I had the idea to become a chef, schools for studying gourmet cooking and restaurant management were nonexistent in Costa Rica, the multilingual chef explains. I was one of the first Costa Ricans training for this profession, and because of my family history and the high standards in Europe, France was the place to go.
In 1998, Ratton began her training in Paris and earned the Grand Diplôme de Cuisine et de Pâtisserie Le Cordon Bleu after 18 months.
A successful interlude as cooking instructor, personalized chef and creator of fine pastries in Costa Rica awakened the desire for further academic and professional growth.
Ratton completed her culinary education attending Paul Bocuse s École de l Hôtellerie et des Arts Culinaires in the French city of Lyons.Her passion for pastry and her friendship with renowned pastry chef Pascal Molines landed her a recommendation to assist Aix-en-Provence-based Romaric Boilley during preparations for the 2002 Pastry World Cup.
The road to success was not always sprinkled with rose petals, Ratton recalls. She had to do internships in several fine culinary institutions in France, where working shifts were long and invading the traditionally male-dominated territory of haute cuisine had its price.
Being the only woman in the kitchen obliged me to work harder and longer than my male colleagues, Ratton says. With the idea of my own restaurant constantly in mind, I took it as an encouragement, but sometimes the verbal abuse was beyond bearing.
Now, running Bakea, Ratton is chef, purchaser, business manager and trainer of her excellent kitchen staff. The woman of all trades is present from top to bottom of her successful establishment.
Using French culinary techniques, Ratton creates everything a food connoisseur could wish for distinct flavors, eye-catching presentation with imagination, competence, spirit and the joy of experimentation. Her inspirations include influences from other cultures, family recipes and exchanges with professional colleagues.
Bakea s three menus feature the culinary cultures of France, Asia and the greater Mediterranean basin. They include sophisticated appetizers, light entrées, seasonal highlights, classical dishes and clients favorites.
The irresistible breads, pastries and desserts that evolve in Ratton s kitchen combine to make the establishment unique. The restaurant s wine list reads like a guidebook through the best wine areas on earth.
In April 2005, Ratton received the U.S. Department of Agriculture s Great American Quality Award through the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. The indefatigable chef is a member of the Costa Rican chapter of the international gastronomic society La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, dedicated to the cultivation and promotion of the culinary arts.
With Cookbook Cocina Creativa, another ambitious dream came true for Ratton.
Published last September, the practical, loose-leaf binder features 23 of Ratton s favorite recipes in English and Spanish, illustrated with beautiful photos and packaged in an attractive box with spice samples. This independent outlet of Ratton s creativity seeks to push Costa Rican cuisine beyond its traditional dishes, according to the chef.
Ratton s newest enterprise is a bakery and coffee shop slated for a November opening at the new Momentum shopping mall in Pozos de Santa Ana, southwest of San José, bringing Bakea s well-loved bread and pastry line to the west side.
In the midst of all this success, a severe accident in March 2006 laid the energetic chef low for four months. Confined to bed, the self-described control freak says she learned a valuable lesson.
Thanks to all my staff, especially sous chef Kenneth Lippa, who represented me in such an excellent way, Bakea functioned flawlessly, she says, adding that most of her clients didn t even notice her absence.
The recipe for not losing the energy, tenacity and passion for the job is to learn to delegate, little by little, she concludes.
Bakea restaurant is in Barrio Amón, three blocks north of MorazánPark, on Calle 7 and Avenida 11. For information, call 248-0303 or 221-1051, or visit www.restaurantebakea.com.