Katrina Blows Creole Chef to Costa Rica
AT first glance, Thomas Robey looks just like any other professional chef. Standing in a stainless-steel kitchen in checkered cotton pants and a white button- up chef’s shirt, still subtly marked with the remnants of old sauce stains, he enthusiastically describes his most recent creations.“This is a whole theme I like to do called ‘sweet and meat,’” he says, moving briskly from burner to burner, checking sauces, pouring vegetables, dunking jumbo shrimp into egg batter and breadcrumbs. “I use sugar in almost everything because it really helps to round out the palate.” But Robey, 37, is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill chef. He graduated from the famed culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. He has cooked for Donald Trump. Preceded by the legendary Paul Prudhomme and Food Network star Emeril Lagasse, he is the next generation of a renowned Creole cooking line at one of New Orleans’ most famous restaurants, Commander’s Palace.And he can now add La Luz restaurant in Hotel Alta to his resume. Robey is currently serving as a temporary sous chef alongside Costa Rican executive chef Edwin Benitez at the upscale hotel restaurant in Santa Ana, southwest of San José. THE move to Costa Rica wasn’t made overnight.After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans a little more than two months ago, Commander’s Palace was forced to close temporarily, leaving Robey with an unforeseen, mandatory leave of absence.“We definitely took on damage, but we’re uptown (so) we didn’t take on a lot of damage,” says Robey, who, along with many other New Orleans citizens, evacuated the city before the hurricane hit. “We were very fortunate not to have been cleaned out.”Robey remembers watching the damage unfurl in front of his eyes as he regularly checked the Internet and news for updates on the status of the city, his restaurant and his house. He distinctly recalls watching a fire on the news and being able to see the top of the chimney of his house in the background of the shot.“First I survived the hurricane, then the flood, then the fire four blocks from my house – I wondered when frogs were going to start falling,” he recalls with a laugh.Upon returning to New Orleans two weeks after the hurricane, he found that Commander’s Palace was still in pretty good shape, despite the pounds of rotting food. However, there were no clients left in the city to serve.“We require a lot of customers,” Robey says. “We have good insurance, but for us to open up and have 100 customers all day, it’s really not worth our time.” BUT he couldn’t just sit around New Orleans and wait for the restaurant to reopen.“To just sit on a couch for 12, 13, 14 weeks, I just couldn’t handle it,” he says.After searching the Internet for a temporary job, Robey noticed a post announcing a job opening as a chef with La Luz, and contacted Hotel Alta manager Michael Caggiano. As soon as he got a passport, Robey was on his way here.“I’ve been interested in Costa Rica for a long time,” he says. “I’ve been talking with a friend for a while about coming down here and opening a restaurant and bar when we retire.”Although this was Robey’s first time out of the United States, the adjustment – at least, from the standpoint of a Creole chef – was made with little difficulty, he says.The exact definition of Creole historically has been very difficult to pinpoint. It is often described as a mixture of French, Spanish, African and even Native American culinary forms, traditionally served with a wide assortment of spices and sauces. Famous traditional Creole dishes include crawfish étouffée, red beans and rice and, of course, New Orleans gumbo.“There are so many cultures in New Orleans; who’s to say what is Creole and what isn’t?” he said.ROBEY says his Costa Rican experience has added another cultural influence to his cooking at La Luz.“It’s the local products,” he says. “I play around with guanábana (a local tropical fruit), I use Imperial beer to cook with, and we have been fooling around with papaya.”“There are fruits down here I haven’t ever seen,” he adds. “We get together every day and try to do two new plates.” Benitez, 25, says he is more than thrilled to be working alongside a chef with such a strong culinary background.“I’m pretty young, and he is from one of the greatest restaurants in the world,” he says, an excited smile on his face.“The first thing we made was barbecue shrimp,” says Benitez, who had very little experience with Creole cooking before Robey’s arrival. “Costa Rica isn’t known for this kind of cooking. These influences…give us a great chance to start creating new things.”Caggiano, who says he hasn’t seen authentic Creole cooking in Costa Rica since coming to the country more than five years ago, hopes Benitez and the restaurant will make the most of Robey’s visit.“I want (Robey) to leave a legacy here,” Caggiano says. “So when he leaves, we can do these specials again and again.” ROBEY and Benitez regularly storm the walk-in refrigerators of La Luz to see what they can use to put together traditional Creole specialties: their New Orleans barbecue shrimp is sautéed in Imperial beer; Creole corn-fried oysters have been changed to corn-fried calamari, as fresh oysters are a rarity here; and after not being able to find the famous traditional Crystal Hot Sauce of New Orleans, they simply brewed up some of their own.One look at the large smile on Robey’s face as he works alongside Benitez, swirling sauces, stirring gumbos and blackening fish, says it all.“This has been a great chapter in my life,” Robey says. “After seeing so many dead trees and garbage in New Orleans… to fly into a country that is just so green and vibrant and alive, it’s just been great.”Restaurante La Luz at Hotel Alta is in the Alto de las Palomas neighborhood, on the old road from Escazú to Santa Ana.Grammy-winning Costa Rican band Editus performs live at the hotel every Wednesday night.Reservations can be made by calling 282-4160, and are highly recommended.Robey will be a resident chef at La Luz until at least the end of the month.
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