Jan 17 • 1HR 12M

Episode #55: José Gonzales

Chef of the restaurant Al Mercat Dota in the highlands of Costa Rica.

 
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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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José Gonzales is the chef and owner of the restaurant Al Mercat Dota in the mountains of Costa Rica, which is attached to a small ecolodge. It’s a big change for Jose. He is one of the most talented chefs in Latin America and spent years cooking in France, but for many years Al Mercat was in San Jose. He is someone that could have very easily focused on 50 Best rankings and media attention, but he has consistently chosen his happiness and making a life for himself that was sustainable. He grew up on farms and he speaks often of Costa Rica being a País Comestible, an edible country, which he grew up living but couldn’t really express in San José. He's happier now. You’ll hear it in his voice in the interview. You hear his excitement about cooking and living surrounded by nature and picking avocados from a tree.

We talk a lot about dysfunction in restaurants. Noma announced it was closing in a couple of years, well sort of. There’s still going to be a Noma. And I feel like we already knew all of this but whatever. But anyway, there’s all of this talk about how restaurants cannot work, but there is rarely talk about how they can. I think the choices José has made and keeps making is one of those ways. He is figuring out how it can work for him. You’re probably not going to get a fruit leather beetle made by a stagier at Al Mercat Dota, but you’ll get his heart and soul with whatever you are served.

There is always going to be fine dining. I think Noma could even charge double and they would still be full every day. Would that change the restaurant? Maybe instead of the same international foodies that go there every season it would just be those people that go there once in their lifetime. A very special occasion. A front row seat to a Rolling Stones concert would still cost more. Or maybe we just don’t need fruit leather beetles? Maybe we just need more José’s cooking their hearts out everywhere.

-Nicholas Gill

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Partial Episode Transcript

On moving Al Mercat to the mountains of Dota:

José: “It's the highlands of Costa Rica. It's like the central part of our country. Like one hour and 30 minutes from San José, so pretty close. You go to the Interamericana road, which goes to the south of the country, but we're in the middle of that part of Costa Rica. And it's the high part of our country where the mountains go up to 2000 meters above sea level, until 3000 meters. We have a specific habitat called El páramo, which means in English…”

Nick: “High altitude wetland.”

José: “Yeah, basically. That's it. That's where I live. And it stops here in in Costa Rica. From Nicaragua on, we don't have páramo. It ends here in Costa Rica. So, you have it in Colombia, you have it in Peru and you have it in different areas until Costa Rica. And yeah, man, it's a different area. It's a cold area where a lot of stuff is growing, wild stuff. And it's really an agrarian country. So maybe, I don't know, maybe 40% of the produce that has been sent all over the country comes from Cartago. And Dota, this specific region, has rich soil, again, an agrarian culture, and above all, is a coffee land. Okay, coffee and avocado land. So, the main businesses in the area are coffee and avocado, which makes it a great region, and all around those crops there are beautiful habitats and there is different produce growing. So, it makes it really interesting. And for me, it became the most interesting region in Costa Rica to cook and it became part of my life a couple of years ago. I decided to come here, but it's an amazing space. Touristically talking, it's not that developed, so it has been nice to come here and to start working, and just start showcasing what we are as a beautiful region here in Costa Rica. And not like the typical region of beaches or mountains or Monteverde. Here it's an undiscovered part of our country, which for me makes it even cooler.”

Nick: “It's super cool. You keep saying that it's an agrarian territory, but is it small farms like coffee farms and avocado and that kind of thing? Or is it more plantation style?”

José: “No. No. It's small farms. Just farmers all around. This is a culture that came from family to family. There are small farms all over, especially coffee and avocado farms. But you have blackberries, you have apples growing, you have different sorts of produce growing all around. But it's not like one huge crop growing like banana plantations, or this kind of stuff. It's more farmers owning little farms again, which makes it really interesting. And one of the best coffees in the world comes from here in this area, the Dota region. It's amazing coffee. And again, the interesting part is that in these coffee plantations, you can find so many other things that we have already. Since we were little kids we were eating with this habitat that I called the habitat of a coffee plantation or habitat cafetal where you can get chayote, you can get more than five types of citrus. So all around these coffee plantations, there are all sorts of stuff growing.”

Nick: “Like companion crops.”

José: “Yeah, to give shade to the crops. Basically they just grow in those habitats. So, it's really amazing to be able to cook like we grew up. I always said that I wanted to start cooking like I grew up in this rural area, in the countryside. So having the opportunity to, in real way being in these farms and in these environments, makes it so rich and so amazing, to cook here. I've always been cooking like this, but when I was in San José, it was not quite the same even though we have the finca. Here we are in a rural area, which gives us the opportunity to putting our dishes of this edible country that I've been talking about for years now. And I'm living it in the whole way. I'm here and I go outside and I go to a small river or creek and I find watercress. But in a real way we're doing this foraging stuff in a real way. In San José, we were doing it to obviously, but I wanted to connect in a more real way and try to do it and focus on this stuff that is growing all around. And again, trying to cook as we grew up. As I grew up on the Caribbean side of our country. As I grew up, in other areas of Latin America. So having the chance to operate like this. It's wow. For me, it's a gift. It's a gift man.”

Nick: “You grew up living on farms, basically, kind of communal farms. And your parents were agronomists?”

José: “My father was an agronomist. I actually grew up in banana plantations all around Latin America, but again, banana plantations have this rich environment around and all the all the places where banana plantations are located, they're really productive areas. Obviously, we were surrounded by bananas, and all the banana industry where my dad developed as a professional, but we had all this stuff growing around. So, from zero to 13 years old, I was in Ecuador, we were in Guatemala, and we grew up in Costa Rica. In these three countries. And just having a blast, enjoying, as I say, all these fruits around us, and enjoying the richness that we have, that we have surrounding us. So basically, from when I was a little boy, I was exposed to this kind of stuff. And from my mother's family, we had this agriculture vibe all the time. So basically, we were exposed to this kind of stuff all the time. This in the region of Atenas, which is in the central part of Costa Rica, a really beautiful part too. So we've been living like this. And again, I wanted to try to cook like this. Being in San José was nice. And for our project was really interesting. Obviously, San José is the main place where everyone goes, but we thought that the brand we already developed and with our concept, we knew people were going to come here and visit us and they were going to understand the changes that we did. And basically I just did it for me.

On moving away from fine dining and towards an edible country:

José: “I have to be honest, I started my restaurant because I came back from France where I worked for five years and had a little depression. I gotta be honest, but I came in to contact with myself, to understanding myself and because of this situation, I kind of opened like that, which was a great turn of events for me because I opened. What I needed was to start working at that time. So, I did that. I've been a really hard-working dude, I think I had to put my mind in something. So that restaurant started like that. It didn't start with my whole heart and mind just focusing on that. It started in a little bumpy way, which was a little bit of a bumpy time in my life, but it was so good. I started Al Mercat and we started as fine dining kind of establishment, which was my school back in France and it was like the vibe at that time. And it was good for us. But as you say, at the same time, people started noticing us and people started coming to the restaurant. And it was a little bit uptight. I remember having dudes with a tie. And I don't know. It was a different vibe from what I am, and what is now a restaurant.

And even from that I started evolving and changing. After that, we changed into a more casual kind of thing. Just serving tortillas and always working with a lot of veggies. And it just changed a little bit. Just the vibe of the restaurant, because of two reasons. Because I wanted to do things for me and I wanted to change the food. I wanted to be more family style kind of Costa Rican kind of vibe. And it wasn't profitable to have a fine dining establishment at that time. So, I kind of changed a little bit, and my heart started telling me to change. It was a great experience for me. But as I say, I didn't have my whole mind and heart when I started this project. And I truly believe that you have to be, even when you start a new project, your mind and your heart have to be invested in what you're going to do. They were great years. It was a great learning process for me. But the pandemic was a signal for me to just do it. Close and do something for you. Peace. You deserve quality of life, maybe for one year. Maybe two years. I kind of stopped for maybe one and a half years, from professional cooking. I just took some time for me to analyze things, what I wanted to do in life, and what was my next step.

And yeah, I just gave me little bit of time for thinking, for traveling a little bit, and just exploring what I wanted. I've always thought of my life in cycles. And I always have cycles of seven, eight years. My cooking had already accumulated a couple of those cycles. I had 15 years already in the business since I started to study in France. And since I had my business and everything, and I said why not change? Give yourself a little bit of time for quality of life. For going back to things that I really loved, that I really enjoy. Like, eating properly at my place and my house, understanding my body doing some sports, things that are basic for us humans. And that may be because of my old lifestyle I couldn't achieve all I wanted in my life. So, I stopped for a bit. Even in my cooking style, I said, dude, you get to stop a little bit. Just analyze things. I was a little burned out, I gotta be honest, and just did that. Pause.

It was a pause. I was analyzing things, there was some personal things going on too. But it just gave me a little space to reevaluate everything and just to give a fresh start to my cuisine and to my projects. And it was amazing. I gotta be honest, man, I gotta be honest, the last couple of years since I closed in the pandemics and everything. I don't know, my life changed. It has been a couple of beautiful years for me evolving as a human being, evolving as a chef even though I wasn't cooking. So that gave me to this place where I am right now and gave me a lot of this perspective in life. To just start thinking about important things like having a life. Being in the restaurant business, how can I balance a cool lifestyle and eating properly, things that you might think there are basic for us humans, but in the restaurant, sometimes we don't even have time to eat and all that stuff. And that's super important to me, because I think of myself as an athlete, and a healthy person that wants to live a real nice and stable life. So those changes just changed my life. And that pause gave me a little bit of time to breathe and to think and to reevaluate everything.

And I've been coming to this region for about six years. I had some friends here. But for the pandemic, I stopped. I called a couple of friends, and I asked if they have a cabin where I could stay for a couple of days, and I ended up staying for maybe four or five months. Just analyzing and just going outside and understanding the region and everything. And I understood we had a treasure in our hands, an undiscovered treasure in the region of Dota. Cause it's an undiscovered treasure. Because as I told you before, this is an agrarian country. Coffee farms and avocado farms. People make a good life here in Dota being farmers.

There's not the necessity for tourism to come here as in other regions in Costa Rica like Monteverde, for example. They don't have a big agrarian culture in Monteverde. So, tourism is not the main income source here in Dota. No, it's the farms, it's the coffee. So, people have maintained this way. So tourism hasn't come here in aggressive ways, like in the beaches of Costa Rica. It's a touristy culture, but sometimes a little bit aggressive, and sometimes a little bit mainstream, not so cool. But here in Dota, it's a culture where you can come and see a specific kind of tourism. You come for birds, you come for the biology, you come for the forest, you come for the food, and you come for the produce all around. So basically, coming here, I discovered this region, well, it's already been discovered. But for me, as a, a point of culture, and a point of amazing food all around, where I can put my concept of an edible country in practice, like in a real true way, in a way that represented me. And in a way, again, as I told you before, that I could cook in a manner as I grew up as a kid. That that was something that I was really eager to do. Like, that's life, for me just going to a tree, picking up something, eat it, or going to cook it as simple as it sounds. I don't know, as cliche as it sounds, whatever. This is my life. And I can do it in Costa Rica, I'm so privileged to have been able to do this kind of stuff.

So, I started thinking about just moving here. But I didn't have it so clear if I wanted to move here and if I want to open a restaurant, but I found great business partners. I found great, amazing people here in this region, just lovely people. Almost family now. People that I can work with. People that I feel like we have a great team to work with. So maybe for a year I had it in my mind, but I didn't know if I wanted it to become a reality. But six months ago, I went for a big trip to Mont Blanc in Switzerland and everything and I just had a revelation that I want to settle down and I understood that I love cooking, but I wanted to do it in my terms. I just want to cook on my terms. I want to cook as language. I don't want to be in the kind of mainstream eye of the hurricane in San José. I just want a quiet kind of lifestyle which I have right now. And again, I'm super grateful for this. And that's when I realized that I wanted to open here in Dota and I had all this beautiful stuff and have this edible country just a few steps out from my house and from the restaurant. So, we entered this process and we're full throttle now with the restaurant.”

Nick: “So this concept of a país comestible, an edible country, you have been talking about since I met you. I remember walking around sidewalks of San José and you just pointing out like you can eat that, you can eat that. Just wild things popping out of the sidewalks. I have obviously taken notice of that driving around the country and just everywhere you look… I remember just pulling over to take a photo once of something and just like looking down in a ditch and there were all these like vegetables growing, some strange, spiky thing. So, this is basically how you grew up just knowing there are edible things everywhere in Costa Rica. I think healthy idea of food. Of things growing. It's very driven by fruits and vegetables and herbs and things. And it's what Costa Rica at its best represents to me.”

José: “That's. That's it. That's it. And this is how we operate here. And as you say, I've been talking about this my whole life, because I grew up like this. And it's funny how I don't know how the universe put this kind of stuff in you, because I've been growing like this, then I lost this for some years. Even though I kept in touch living in San José, which is a big valley, a big coffee valley, where you can find all sorts of stuff.

For me, this is just like the tip of the iceberg of a whole tourism strategy for our country. And I'm not saying that the Tourism Board should get on board with this, for me and for my concept. It's just what makes me happy, and again, what's more rational to do in our country. If you go outside, you take your stuff, and then you cook. It’s a kind of intuition. Like not everybody's got this chip in their mind. Hopefully a lot of chefs could do this and understand this because a lot of chefs grew up in in rural situations, and doing the same things that I did here in Costa Rica, we say apear, like to bring fruit from a tree. We grew up handling fruits. For me, it's just kind of intuition. I think it’s a kind of chip you have in you if your grandma or your great grandma did this with you. I have memories doing this with my mom. I remember so much stuff from where I was a little kid with my mom. And this, this kind of event that I have vividly in my mind, just picking stuff with my mom, and just getting them right there. That's a huge thing for me. And that's the main reason where we connected the dots and understood that edible country or país comestible. Again, it's even a strategic kind of touristy way to engage people of other countries with our beautiful country. As you say it's Costa Rica at its best. It's just being honest and showing you what we have. I'm not trying to show you caviar. I'm not trying to show you expensive cheeses. I'm trying to show you the herbs, the flowers that we can eat here, what we are trying to take advantage of, and what the earth is giving us. Again, super cliche in a way. But for me, I have the opportunity to live this. Maybe a lot of people see this on Instagram and all this kind of stuff, but I'm living it man. And I live in it. And I'm really developing, I think, great food just based on this reality that we have around us.”

Nick: “What I find fascinating, and I think what makes it even more powerful is that over the last 20 years in Costa Rica, no one has been thinking about having a país comestible. The entire strategy of the country has been development. It has been plantations. It has been these massive hotels all over the coasts, and attracting foreign investment and all of these things. And this kind of this idea of the country, probably the most beautiful idea in this country, has been kind of forgotten. It should be the tourism strategy. I think.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.