A group of Texans stands at a table in a lodge on the slopes of Turrialba Volcano, 75 kilometers east of San José.
Culinary students, they wear white jackets as they peel the skins from roasted cacao beans. “We decided it’s the equivalent of shelling peas with Grandma,” says tour operator Donna Sullivan.
Over in the kitchen, one student mashes cooked yuca (cassava) into patties, others devein shrimp and another fries sweet plantain nuggets mixed with Turrialba cheese, made of milk from cows on yonder hillside.
“I’ve never seen this come out of a shrimp,” someone says.
“Well, I don’t care what you do, but don’t put it back in,” another replies.
Cooking instructor and hostess Rossana Lok walks to and fro, passing out instructions and supplies for this final class of the week, “Tico Nouvelle.”
Lok is the owner of Guayabo Lodge, which, upon receiving this group of 11 from The Art Institutes in the U.S. state of Texas, has expanded into a tropical cooking school.
Sullivan, former public relations director at the Art Institute of Houston, organized the recent culinary tour as the maiden voyage of her new business, Sullivan’s Custom Tours, in conjunction with Costa Rica Tours, Ltd.
The Art Institutes’ culinary schools take field trips to France, Italy, China, Thailand and, now, to Costa Rica.
Tico cuisine is very simple, but elegant, says chef-instructor Steve Pilat, who came along as a chaperone from the Art Institute of Dallas. The group was surprised Costa Rican food isn’t very spicy, Pilat says.
What’s it like to travel with a dozen chefs? “They just slurp everything up,” Sullivan says. “They want to try everything.”
“Someone said, ‘Aren’t you allergic to that?’ – ‘Yeah, but I got pills,’” relates Nathan Holmes, describing someone’s visit to a dairy operation and the subsequent tasting of fresh hot chocolate with raw milk.
Conversations always come to food, Sullivan says. The students, who took lessons in “highland” cuisine, Caribbean cooking and a gourmet version of Costa Rican favorites, plan to bring home many recipes.
“Those little plantain fritters we had last night were great – you put a little fried scallop on that…” Pilat says.
Other favorites were Christmas tamales, hibiscus tea, coconut rice and beans, pejibaye (peach palm) soup, Caribbean-style corvina and a wide range of fresh fruit. At the grocery, students stocked up on Salsa Lizano and unrefined brown sugar.
Tonight’s desserts are a chocolate almond torte and a “Cabécar Dream” chocolate cake – named after a Costa Rican indigenous group – both of which are made from cacao beans the students pulled from their pods, set to ferment throughout the week, roasted, peeled and ground.
The culinary students paid $2,495 for a week of lessons, cultural visits, food, lodging and round-trip transportation from Texas, Sullivan says. They make their own dinners and eat as a group.
Sullivan is thrilled with Costa Rica and is considering moving here in a few years, running her business all the while. She plans to do more cooking and other custom tours for students, families or other interested parties (www.sullivanscustomtours.com).
She found Guayabo Lodge and Lok through Sandra Feldman of Costa Rica Tours, Ltd. (www.costaricatoursltd.com).
Feldman’s company managed the group’s logistics in Costa Rica, while Sullivan coordinated the international arrangements.
Lok, originally from the Netherlands, opened the lodge five years ago, and hopes this tour will initiate the visits of many groups and families to her tropical cooking school (www.guayabolodge.com).