Bananas, pineapples, sugar, rice, peppercorns, peanuts… When it comes to flavour-packed, freshly picked produce, Costa Rica comes up trumps. Thanks to its fertile volcanic soils, world-beating biodiversity and a unique topography — with a range of cooler, higher elevations in the rainforested peaks, and sea-breeze-tickled stretches by the sun-baked coast — this Central American country grows a vast range of produce. But what’s good produce without a great chef to make the most of it?
Thankfully, there are many to choose from in Costa Rica, with plenty putting hyper-local or indigenous produce at the heart of their menus. Regional food champions include chef Jose González, who operates his own farm outside his San José restaurant, Al Mercat — or the city’s Marco Leiva, who cooks local beef at his steakhouse restaurant, Furca. But you can’t talk about farm-to-fork eating without mentioning Randy Siles. Chef at the Shambala restaurant at wellness-focused Hotel Trópico Latino, in beachy Santa Teresa, he’s dedicated to using Costa Rican-grown produce wherever possible. Putting under-used or obscure ingredients to use is his forte. “I love to use products that may have been forgotten, due to trends or the influence of other food cultures,” says Siles. He adopts what he calls a ‘zero kilometre philosophy’ — working with a wide array of artisans, including beekeepers, fishermen and farmers to put together his menus. “Food must be sustainable, seasonal, and local,” continues Silas. “So every day, I head out to collect the food for our kitchen. I fish with the fishermen. I visit our farmers. We talk to them; we grow, and harvest our produce together.”
The results of Siles’ efforts are, of course, delicious: think gallo de picadillo, the local variant of tacos; or super-fresh chucheca de Lepanto (a mollusc) with zippy passion fruit foam. Or, best of all, the freshest, silkiest ceviche — from March to September, most likely made with mahi-mahi, a personal favourite of Siles, found in the local waters. Munch through any of these crafted dishes over a candlelit dinner on the restaurant’s romantic terrace, and they’ll taste even better.
If you really want to get your head around Costa Rican farm-to-fork eating, however, you’ve got to try produce at its source. The Al Mercat restaurant runs regular half-hour tours of its veg-packed farm; many coffee plantations welcome visitors for tastings; and decadent chocolate bean-to-bar processes are on show at Sibu Chocolate, in San Isidro de Heredia. Or, make a beeline for Pata Pala organic farm, overlooking Arenal Volcano, for a four-hour tour — you’ll not only see and taste juicy fruits and veg, but also plant seedlings for the greenhouse and spot sloths lounging in the trees. Join one of their on-site cookery classes, and you’ll leave with an even deeper appreciation of the local food scene.
For Siles, the success of farm-to-fork demands more than just using homegrown produce — it also means developing homegrown talent. That’s why his Shambala restaurant at Hotel Trópico Latino doubles as a social enterprise, helping to train disenfranchised young people in the trade, giving them essential skills they can use to build a better future. To date, more than 90 students — from cooks to servers, caterers to bartenders — have passed through the programme, creating the foundation of the next farm-to-fork generation. Only time will tell, but the future of the Costa Rican food scene is looking deliciously local.