MONTEVERDE, Puntarenas – Amid the clouds and mist that hover above this mountain town in north-central Costa Rica, one thing is crystal clear: Costa Rican cuisine is being taken to a new level.
Rice and beans, two staples of the Costa Rican diet, were spread on fancy flatware and piled into cylinders by chefs in paper hats participating in the 2011 Monteverde Chef and Bartending Competition on Oct. 29 at Monteverde’s El Establo hotel.
The competition was first held in 2009 as a way to call attention to Costa Rican ingredients and the chefs who delight visitors to the mountains and beaches of the region. This year’s competition focused on transforming traditional foods into cuisine and welcomed bartenders into the mix.
“We want to revolutionize the product, not the flavor. The flavors are good just the way they are,” said Asdrúbal Tenorio, a chef for the National Training Institute (INA) and an organizer of the event.
Bartenders and chefs were allowed to use only ingredients from Costa Rica. Luis López and his fruit-and-sugarcane-liquor drink agua de sapo took first place in the bartending competition.
Each of the five participating chefs was given one hour to prepare four servings of two dishes, an appetizer and an entrée. While some dishes were whisked away to the secluded judges’ room, the remaining dishes were displayed for hotel guests, visitors and other chefs.
As Tenorio explained that traditional ingredients need new perspectives to gain the attention they deserve, a crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of something radical.
Third-prize winner Roberto Cruz had just prepared a traditional Costa Rican casado (rice and beans with salad, ripe plantains and meat, chicken or fish) – and presented it in the form of sushi. Cruz, a chef at Sabor Extremo in Liberia, capital of the northwestern Guanacaste province, had skillfully created rolls out of pork and plantains, served with rice and beans topped with bright orange papaya and presented on a banana leaf that gave the illusion of seaweed.
Sushi rolling was one of several culinary techniques demonstrated at the competition. The creation of soup, ceviche and sauces of every color was observed by two judges making notes on technique and use of kitchen equipment. These judges then explained the techniques to the three judges tasked with critiquing presentation and flavor.
Second-prize winner and El Establo chef Jorge Cordero wowed judges with dishes that required not only several ingredients but also the execution of a range of techniques.
“It’s important to see how a chef prepares himself, the equipment and the ingredients before beginning to cook,” said Jorge Cubillo, a technical judge and professor of culinary arts for INA. “A chef’s mise en place can tell you a lot about what the chef is trying to do and how well he will be able to do it.”
Cordero’s entrée was a steak dish that came with a deconstructed salad of avocado, beets and black beans as well as shredded green papaya.
“This dish is prepared after the style of my grandmother,” Cordero said. “It has all the traditional ingredients.”
Back at the judges’ table, Heiner Corrales sat down to discuss with the panel his dishes and unconventional methods.
Judges were curious about Corrales’ preparation of his corvina entrée. Corrales, who is the chef at Restaurante El Olivo in Monteverde, wrapped each fish fillet in a banana leaf before placing it in a small molded clay box. It was then oven-baked to infuse it with fruity notes from the banana leaf.
“Food like this is making people from all over start to recognize that Costa Rica has something special of its own,” said Ana Cristina Villalobos, another of the event’s organizers.
Corrales, who went on to win first prize, impressed the competition’s only foreign judge with his appetizer, a traditional hot milk soup served with tortilla and beans.
“I’m from Guatemala and I’ve never had anything like that,” judge Andrés Monzón, of Delika gourmet food company in San José, said to Corrales. “I absolutely love what you have done with something so traditional.”