From the moment you meet him, you notice two things about Lucas Withington: He loves to host people, and he can barely sit still. When The Tico Times visited Withington at his beautiful hilltop home in Palmares to discuss his grilling career, Withington immediately started arranging chairs on his back patio. A minute later, he set down a cutting board full of sliced cheese and bread. Then he popped open a bottle of wine.
“Costa Rica is totally different from what I’m used to,” said Withington, as he eagerly crumpled newsprint and stuffed the paper balls into a robust outdoor grill. “But I love it. Everyone thinks Costa Rican food is just rice and beans, but in reality that’s not it.”
A professional chef and founder of Asados CR, Withington grew up in Argentina, where ranching is ubiquitous and barbequing is a proud national pastime. His original plan was to become a food engineer, but it didn’t pan out. “I wasn’t patient enough to study,” Withington confessed. When he first visited Costa Rica eight years ago, he liked the country and wanted to stay, but first he had a gig cooking on cruise ships. (“It’s hard work, but you learn a lot.”)
Withington talked in fits and spurts as he went about lighting the grill, using layers of paper, charcoal, and wood scraps. He never uses lighter fluid, and he finds fuel at local woodshops, where a bag of kindling can be had for the equivalent of one dollar.
Grilling has become Withington’s passion. In May 2013, a friend asked him to make a grill. The final product was so successful that Withington started receiving requests, and his reputation as a custom grill-maker rapidly spread. The result: Withington has crafted nearly 40 grills, each one specific to his client’s needs. He set up a workshop in Cartago, where he creates grills with Miguel Coto. This process is highly involved: They start with steel sheets, then cut, shape, and solder the metal into shiny new cooking appliances.
Withington, who lives with his girlfriend and young daughter, is a busy man. After three years as head chef of Restaurante La Dama Juana in San José, he found himself too frantic to continue. However, he remains the co-proprietor of the Casa Yoses hostel in San José as well as a devoted rugby player, and he throws himself into his grill-making. It is common for him to spend 70 hours on a single piece. While he scours carpentry shops for wood, he has also turned to more unusual sources of material – for example, he repurposed a disc from a farm plough as a kind of wok. His energy is palpable, and his creativity seems boundless.
To watch Withington cook meat and vegetables on his own grill is to watch an artist at work. In one section of the grill, he burned the wood and prepared a dense layer of coals, which he then shoveled into a broader part of the grill, where the cooking actually took place. He laid down chicken breasts, eggplant slices, and a hunk of rare steak the size of a cinderblock. He sliced open red chili peppers and stuffed them with eggs, which bubbled enticingly inside. The final touch was a glaze of chimichurri – an Argentine specialty – that Wittington made himself and stored in a basement for a month to enhance its flavor. He spread the concoction with a sprig of rosemary.
His style is to cook meat to a “medium” color. In Argentina, meat is cooked until it is tough and dry, while Gringos prefer juicier fillets. Withington has found a happy medium that pleases just about everybody.
“I laugh when I barbeque,” chortled Withington as he speared the meat and sliced it into pieces with enormous knives whose handles were fashioned from cow bones. “The point is to bring family together in the house. Family and friends.” He added: “What you need for this is patience. If you don’t have patience, you will never like this type of cooking.”
For more information about custom grills, visit the Asados CR website at asadoscr.com.