Before I talk about how the idea arose, let’s talk about the second part of your question: what influenced my ways of living?
My grandparents are Polish Jews who were around 11-14 years old when World War 2 started. I went to a Jewish elementary school in Belgium and every year, someone’s grandparent would come and tell us how they survived the war. Every story was more unbelievable than the other. I remember an old man dressed in a suit with grey hair who started crying as he told his story. He was explaining that they had to stand up for 3 days in a line in the camps and if someone tried to sit, they’d get shot by a Nazi guard immediately. They were peeing and shitting themselves standing up, hearing friends getting shot next to them. As a result of hearing these survival stories over and over again, three things became clear to me:
1. If nobody’s out there to kill you, you’re actually doing pretty dam good!
2. If you’ve got food to eat and a roof to lay under, you’re doing awesome and better than too many people in the world
3. Some people fought really hard for us to be free
The third insight gave me a sense of responsibility: people fought really hard for us to be free to live the lives we want. From a young age, I felt it was my responsibility and thank you to previous generations to live my life freely, and somewhat “dangerously”. As a result, I’ve taken big leaps of faith many times. I changed school 5 times in Belgium, I went to university in the UK and dropped out against everyone’s advice. I moved to Poland to start a company against everyone’s advice. When the 2008 financial crisis hit I went to London against everyone’s advice, and that story repeats since my childhood.
So starting HiR Fine Dining in many ways didn’t feel like a big deal. It was part of what I do: I get an idea, I give it a try, I see how long I can run with it before I get uninterested and then I try something else. To be honest, I had no idea it would become so big. I had problems doing my business coaching calls with clients because the internet was too slow. HiR Fine Dining was only supposed to be a few months thing to keep busy and get a bit of cash while looking for a solution for the internet. It was “just” another of my crazy projects. Nobody was surprised because they’re so used to hearing that I started yet another insane project. My mum told me once something along the line of “I don’t understand most of what you do. I don’t get how it’s possible to do what you do. I would never do things the way you do and to me the way you do things seem crazy and scary. And I see that over the years you’ve been achieved amazing things and find a way to make things work. I love you, and it both stresses me out to see how you do things and I’m happy to see that somehow you achieve incredible things.”
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That touched me a lot because it was both so loving and so honest. And I know this is the case for the majority of my friends, family and people I meet.
Now for the first part of your question: the idea arose because I bought a plot of land in Costa Rica to do business coaching retreats, only to discover the fast internet was nowhere near good enough to do even just audio calls… that meant I couldn’t do my work. When I was studying civil engineering at university, I was always cooking because I was in self-catered halls of residence. Very often people commented on my food and asked why I don’t work in a restaurant. I never liked the idea of working in a restaurant because you’re stuck in a room without windows, you work crazy hours, it’s a very rigid-hierarchical-brutal environment, you never get to see clients (unless they want to make a complaint), and the pay is really not that great. So cooking in a restaurant really never appealed to me, but these comment planted the seed for the dream that one day I would have enough money to open a restaurant. I would hire a chef and that way I could contribute to idea and let the chef do his / her work.
Having lived in Costa Rica for two years, I knew that there was a food crisis there… at least from the foreigners’ perspective. Costa Rican food is OK. It’s not bad, it’s also not amazing. It’s fine. It can even be really good. But it’s not exciting. There are a couple of dishes, mostly rice and beans with a protein and a salad, but there isn’t the culinary creativity that you find in countries all over the world. So I knew that there were a lot of foreigners who live in Costa Rica and are tired of eating the same thing all the time. I knew they’d be happy to eat something different. I figured that having cooked for myself 2-3 times a day in over 10 countries for over 10 years, I could cook 7 dishes that were good enough for people who have lived here for a while. I figured I’d do this once or twice a week for a few months while I get a better internet and go back to business coaching.
I had noooooooooooooooooo idea that I would get the reviews I got, the guests chefs I got, and the international recognition. I mean, that was just crazy. That felt like a movie.
When you created your first 8 person chef's table in Costa Rico - 30 minutes from the nearest town - how did people even find out your existed? What promotion did you put out to lure them to make the trip?
I did everything online. I built the website (something I did for the first time age 15 for a medical clinic in Belgium), a Facebook page and created a tiny social media campaign. I had maybe $30 Facebooks Ads budget, I got myself on TripAdvisor and I posted every day beautiful photos of my food. I invited people I owed favors to try my dinner and give me feedback. They were all in love and very happy to write a review on TripAdvisor about their 7 course dining experience. Within a few weeks, people started making reservations. To this day, clients often joke about how they’re in the shuttle and getting concerned that they’re getting kidnapped.
Then it started spiraling: every review that came in was more extraordinary than the previous one. People weren’t just saying “yeah the food was nice”, they were writing very long reviews and saying it was the best meal of their lives. I couldn’t believe it. I still struggle to believe what I cook is as good as people write. I know what I make is good, but is it possible that it’s REALLY… THAT… good?!?! I don’t know. As long as guests continue being this happy, it’s hard to imagine not continuing.
Yesterday I hosted a little party at home. One of my friends has a shuttle service and regularly he’ll be driving my clients back and forth. Yesterday he said something that touched me a lot. He explained that when he drives people to my place, they’re mostly quiet. They don’t really know where they’re going. They’re very unsure about everything and he can feel a tension. Then on the way back, they’re always extremely happy and talkative. He said he loves driving our clients because of the change from before / after, every single time. It made me very happy.
So I didn’t ever really do any discounts or free anything. I posted photos of beautiful online and got awesome reviews. 4-5 months after starting this mad project, I got picked by OpenTable for their “25 dishes to travel around the world for” (out of 40,000 restaurants!!!). That helped build my confidence and definitely brought me more clients.
You have run an HiR Fine Dining in both Costa Rica, Los Angeles and New York. How did the experience differ between the three? The menus? What was easiest and what was most challenging in each location?
It was very different for sure. Here in Costa Rica, we’re at home. People come to our home and we get to share with them not just the food but the magical environment we live in. Our home and kitchen is all designed for the dining experience so that we can talk to guests while they eat, and they get to see us cook. We also get access to ingredients that aren’t available anywhere else in the world. We get to tell guests which ingredients come from our garden and what comes from our neighbors. That brings an element of magic that was impossible to completely recreate.
In both LA and NY, what I lacked most was contact with the guests. In Costa Rica, people feel like friends who are hanging out with us. We’re chatting through the night and having a good time. We’re so used to talking to people while we’re cooking that it was very strange to be serving food to people who we didn’t interact with. That being said, we still had amazing contacts with guests in both LA and NY. I shared stories with every dish to bring them closer to our home in Costa Rica and we would chat briefly with guests in between dishes and after the dinners. That was really nice.
In terms of menus, due to having so many unknowns and everything being done very last minute, we picked the 7 favorite dishes. Of course we adapted them to local ingredients and what we could find. In NY we went with Chef Noah to all his favorite food suppliers and he helped us pick ingredients that were most local and in season. We then created new versions of the favorites from home.
The most difficult challenge was finding fish heads and fish scales. In both locations we went to specialized fish markets and people looked at us as if we were crazy because we asked for fish heads and fish scales. In LA, the guy blanked out and said “sorry, we don’t have scales”. I pointed behind him and said “there, that guy is scaling a fish. Can you give me the scales?”. Very confused, he went to collect the scales but couldn’t find a barcode to sell them to us. In NY, when we asked for fish scales, they said they didn’t have any. Then as Chef Noah stepped in, they started going to the back rooms and seeing if they could find scales. An old Colombian lady who works there eventually shows up with two huge bags of scales. All the employees were confused and asked “what the hell is she doing with all these scales?!?!?!”. She explained that she boils them which turns them into a thick juice that’s apparently good for joints, bones and digestion.
So I now want to make a dessert with fish scale gelatine because I think it would be very cool. That’s the best things for me about this trip: meeting new people, discovering new things, having new experiences, getting surprised.
The other huge challenge was doing EVERYTHING from scratch. In most restaurants, chefs buy things like chimichurri sauce, mayonnaise or teriyaki sauce. We push to the extreme everything we make ourselves. We even oven dried our own cherry tomatoes and ground cherries rather than buying sun dried tomatoes. So making everything from scratch when you’re cooking 7 dishes is a lot of f… work!! And it all had to be done from morning because we didn’t have access to the kitchen the previous day. We started at 7am and cooked non stop until guests arrived around 7pm. Basically 11h of cooking and 1h to snack and shower. It was absolutely exhausting. And also incredibly empowering and rewarding.
Cooking in NY with Chef Noah was amazing because he’s very passionate about food, knows all the local providers and local history, he helped us pick amazing ingredients we don’t have in Costa Rica and he taught us some tricks we didn’t know. It was also amazing to have a team of people washing everything for us… OMFG that was so nice!! Here in Costa Rica, we do everything ourselves. We clean everything throughout our cooking day and while people eat and we’re cooking the next dish. And he also had a few cool gadgets that made me jealous. It was also very inspiring to see that him and his wife started small like us and that 10 years later they’ve expanded a lot and they’ve food institution in their area. That gave us something to look forward to.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’m an educator / teacher at heart. At 7 years old, our judo teacher made us teach the 5 years old. At 9 we were teaching the 7 years old, and by the age of 15, I was teaching judo to adults. As a result I became a corporate trainer, a consultant and a business coach. That lead me to write three books about personal development / growing a business. I love sharing with others what I’ve learned because not doing it feels selfish.
Over the last 2 years, I have learned soooooooooo much about cooking it blows my mind. I look at what we serve clients, and I hear myself describe the complexity of each dish and I’m like “wow, I can’t make I make this”. Friends who visited me months before I started the restaurant often comment “I ate food at your place and it was really nice… but it was nothing like that. What happened? How did you go from good to restaurant fine dining in just a few months?”
I wanted to write a book while I still remember “not being a chef”. I still remember being a home cook and how life was when I was cooking for myself two years ago. I still remember how it was to not know everything that has now become second nature. Within a few years, it’ll only be distant memory. I feel that now is the time I could write a book that is both about fine dining and about being a home cook. I guess that in a way, it’s a book for myself three years ago. There’s a lot of things I didn’t know I didn’t know. I didn’t realize that a lot of restaurants “secrets” are actually very accessible, and that if only someone had told me / showed me, my home cooking would have improved a lot more. I figured that someone is where I was and would be happy to learn these things. I hope that it helps readers think about cooking in a different way and makes their dining experience at home more memorable.
In looking through the book I was intrigued, but also overwhelmed. I wasn't exposed me to a wide variety of food growing up nor had money to travel very far. It feels like these 2 things heavily influenced your food journey. For those like me without that wealth of exposure, what are the simplest baby steps we can take to begin?
I was very privileged to have the upbringing I had and I know that the way I was brought up is not the norm. Through my experiences, I have also learned that the best food is very often not the most expensive. That’s actually something I repeat over and over in the book because it is core to my belief and the way we cook. The reason I started to cook is because I got to university in the UK and on a student budget, I couldn’t eat out like I was used to with my parents.
My shopping mainly happened at the reduced sections: the food that was discounted because it had to be used with 24h, the food discounted because the packaging was damaged and the food discounted because it was sold in bulk / special offers. I would find the best deals and make sure I had proteins, vegetables, and carbs. I would go back home and google “recipes with brussel sprouts” or “recipes with chicken liver”. I would scroll through a bunch of recipes and try to mix and match. I made a lot of mistakes and I made some awful dishes. But a lot was actually fine. And the more mistakes I made, the faster my cooking improved.
My answer to the last friend who asked “how did you go from cooking nice food to cooking fine dining restaurant quality food” was “Masterchef” and “Chef’s Table”.
And that’s the truth. I watched every day episodes of both series, and I made myself do the stuff I saw on screen. I would search on Google for ways of doing things I saw on screen and gave it a try. So for someone who doesn’t have much money nor exposure, I would recommend:
Watch “Masterchef”, “Chef’s Table”, “Julie & Julia”, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “42 Grams” because they’ll give you inspiration and open your mind to completely different ways of thinking. Watching these series and documentaries will give you new ideas of what is possible and what can be done with very little.
My motto in the kitchen is “elevating waste into gold”. Put a post-it on your kitchen wall or fridge that says “turning waste into gold” so that you remember that magic is NOT buying expensive ingredients. Magic in the kitchen is taking cheap stuff and making them into something extraordinary. Don’t be afraid to buy the discounted stuff at the store: I love a great deal, and I often think about what I can cook based on ingredients on offer. You would be crazy not to! Get out of your head that amazing food has to cost a lot of money.
Google recipes and give it a try. Things often seem more complicated than they really are. Give yourself an afternoon or evening to try a recipe. Best is to do this with a friend or partner and make it a fun time together. When you make cooking fun, it becomes something you want to do more of.
Finally, this is what hoping to help with through the book “Accessible Fine Dining”. The most important part of the book for me are the challenges I suggest. Every chapter has a few challenges that for reader to try something different with their cooking.
I enjoyed the handwritten opening and at dotted throughout your book. Why did you choose to include handwritten pieces in certain places?
HiR stands for “him” and “her”. It represents the integration of opposites. In everything I do, I thrive to integrate opposites. When working with other artists and creators, I don’t tell them what to do, all I do is to give them a sense of what HiR means, then I let them create. I didn’t specifically ask the designer to write by hand. I explained to him what life was like here and how we integrate rustic and handmade stuff with the use of high tech stuff and luxury presentation. I explained to him that I wanted the book to integrate different styles and genres. I wanted the book to feel like it comes from the jungle, with a McGiver feel to it… and at the same time something that feels beautiful and elegant. I also explained to him how a lot of what we do tastes amazing because we simply take the time to do things other people are not willing to do (eg. simmer a tomato sauce for 8h until it becomes absolutely delicious). For the first prototype he wrote different things by hand and both Nadia and I felt in love with the idea right away. I’m very happy that David Tomaszewski brought his touch on integrating opposites and took the time to do what other won’t do.
You have eaten widely and cooked so many intriguing dishes. Is there one dish (or two) that stand out in your memory as top favourites?
I think that my two most memorable dishes are (1) the trilingual ceviche and (2) grandma’s octopus.
The trilingual ceviche is a pesto ceviche I first made 4 years ago. It happened “by accident” while I was cooking for myself. For the past few years of living in Costa Rica, it’s something I’ve served so many friends because everyone was in love with it, especially Costa Rican… which I have to be honest, made me feel very proud. I knew it was a very nice dish so I elevate a bit the presentation but essentially it is 95% the same as I did originally for myself. When the michelin star chef came to try my food during the first month of opening, every dish he complimented and suggested small improvements. That’s the one he stopped for and said “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to steal this”. And that same dish was selected by OpenTable for the “25 dishes to travel around the world for”. I removed that dish from the menu after about a year, then six months later did it again because I missed it and from the first night it was again the favorite. This is the only dish from my very first menu that we still serve almost 100% the way it was done the very first time. This dish is very humbling for me because it reminds me that sometimes the simplest things are the best.
Grandma’s octopus is my second most memorable because it’s the scariest dish I ever served. I don’t really like octopus because it’s chewy. So I wanted to cook it for a very, very, very long time until it became really, really, really soft. I had some organic Costa Rican coffee a friend left me and I don’t drink coffee. I don’t like coffee in anything. I don’t eat tiramisu because it has coffee. For some weird unexplainable reason, that day I decided to cook the octopus in coffee. I remember talking to myself and asking myself “why would I cook something I won’t like?” and answering to myself “People love coffee and it’s not all about you: the most important is that others like it”. So I cooked the octopus for 8h in coffee, cacao powder and turmeric. Why that combination? I have no idea. I have never heard of it before, and I had no idea what it would taste like. I decided that because it was called “grandma’s” octopus, it needed something rustic and grandmaish… which is how I came up with a rustic butternut squash mash with smoked Costa Rican cheese. I mixed the two together and I was surprised to like it. I remember being actually VERY surprised that it wasn’t disgusting. I didn’t think it was amazing, but I thought it was definitely interesting enough to serve. There was something that wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know what. When it was time to serve that dish, I was (forgive myself) shitting myself. Last minute, I drizzled a bit of teriyaki sauce I had made the previous with flor de cana rum and served it. While carrying the plates I thought to myself “WTF?!?! Why ruin something that was OK with something you haven’t even tried?!?! I can’t believe I’m so stupid! Dam it!!”. While they were eating, I was preparing myself to explain why the dish wasn’t that great. Going to pick up the plates felt like the walk of shame. I knew I had messed up and everyone said it was the best octopus they’ve ever had, and by far the best dish of the night. I ran back inside and tried it all together. I remember thinking it was nice, but I didn’t get why they were so excited. I served the same the next day and got the same response. I then served myself a full plate of it and fell in love. I couldn’t believe how tasty it was. Every since, it’s been one of the two favorites with the pesto ceviche. I still can’t believe I made that dish and I still can’t believe people love it as much as they do.
What are your plans and goals for the next few years? Will you continue to explore creating fine dining experiences, will there be more books or do you feel the siren call of a new direction?
Fine dining is definitely going to be a big part of the next few years. One of the new aspects is doing private dinners in the USA during the low season in Costa Rica. That will give us a nice opportunity to cook in different places, with different produce, different chefs, meet different people and travel.
Cooking like we do is extremely physically demanding and I can see how within a year or so, I’d love us to start getting more help in the kitchen and eventually find other chefs to take over the kitchen most of the time. I’d love to get more guest chefs. I’m not sure of the way things will work out, but I imagine something like having other chefs cook 5 days a week and I would cook 2 nights a week for example. That would feel less demanding, and also give me more space to do other things.
I want to go back to doing more business coaching, and invest my time in other projects. One of the newest projects that’s very close to my heart is called “HiR Transcenders”. It’s a business coaching program supported by a network of investors exclusively for transgender and non-binary entrepreneurs. You can read more about this here: www.hirtranscenders.com