NEW YORK Chef Cupertino Ortiz enjoys a challenge.
Earlier this year when he took over as executive chef at Mukul, the first luxury beach resort in Nicaragua, he found neither an identifiable cuisine nor a cohesive menu, and the nearest city to buy provisions was two hours away.
"You had to be very organized," said Ortiz, who began by forging relationships with nearby farms and fisheries and recruiting local kitchen help.
He also started applying Mediterranean techniques to traditional Nicaraguan flavors.
Born in Acapulco, Mexico, Ortiz honed his skills at restaurants and resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean, most recently as executive chef at Sugar Beach resort on the island of St. Lucia.
On a recent visit to New York City, Ortiz, 35, spoke to Reuters about training in kitchens rather than culinary school and reinventing Nicaraguan comfort food for a luxury resort.
Q: How did you decide to become a chef?
A: Since I was a child I wanted to be a chef. I was always interested in flavors and sauces and I loved my mother's cooking.
Q: What was your training?
A: I did not want to go to culinary school. I started in kitchens at French-Mexican restaurants in Acapulco. I worked as a line cook, garde manger (a cook who prepares cold food), then as a chef. My bosses sent me to train in San Francisco, Australia and Chicago.
Q: Describe your cooking.
A: My focus is Mediterranean cuisine. I love to cook with seafood and I've been lucky working in resorts near oceans. My cooking is simple, clean, and not too heavy. If it's fish you'll enjoy the fish.
Q: What were the challenges you encountered at Mukul?
A: When I got to Mukul, not very much of the food was fresh and nearby. So I began to work with local farms and fisheries and to train local people. Now the fish comes from the neighboring village of Gigante ... A couple of months ago I started a garden. We have zucchini, corn, tomatoes, rosemary, basil ... We created a farm to plant avocado, papaya, mangoes. One of the ideas was to grow all the vegetables, herbs and fruit.
Q: What is "Cocina Nikul"?
A: When we got to Mukul the cuisine wasn't clear. Mr. Pellas (Carlos Pellas, the owner) wanted some of his mother's Nicaraguan dishes brought into the cuisine. So I've done dishes that are Nicaraguan with a combination of Mediterranean flavors. That's what we call ‘Cocina Nikul'.
Q: What are some typical ingredients?
A: Chayote is a small squash that Nicaraguan and Mexican people use in nearly every dish. But they use it cooked. I use it raw and thinly sliced. Also yucca: in Nicaragua, people make it on the street. It's called vigaron and eaten like coleslaw. I use yucca differently. I'll slice it raw and use it crispy in ceviche or make a gnocchi with yucca.
Q: Any pleasant surprises?
A: I always used American beef and I was very happy to cook with it until I got to Nicaragua. The quality of grass-fed Nicaraguan beef is amazing. Americans might find it a little tough but it's more flavorful. Their pork and lamb are also organic and grass-raised. And Nicaraguan cheese, is very, very good cheese.
Q: Do you feel like a pioneer?
A: I love it. I am very happy working there. I like to help give people in the area jobs and to train them. I like being a part of that whole idea.
Cupertino Ortiz's Pineapple Gazpacho (Serves 2-4)
2 cups peeled and chopped fresh pineapple
2 tablespoons chopped yellow onions
2 tablespoons chopped yellow bell pepper
2 leaves of fresh basil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 slice of white bread that is soaked in milk 5 minutes
1 tablespoon plain yogurt
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a bowl, combine the pineapple, onion, bell pepper, basil and vinegar together and let sit to marinate for five minutes.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan and set heat to medium.
3. Place the marinated ingredients in heated pan and sauté/stir for two minutes. Let it cool.
4. Once cooled, place sautéed ingredients in a blender. Add the yogurt and bread. Blend everything together for about 1 minute till the mixture is smooth, but with few chunks.
5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Place mixture in a bowl and place in refrigerator for 2-3 to chill.
7. Serve cold. Can be made and chilled a day in advance.