When Food Connects Mind, Body and Soul
I wasn't planning to write about my vacation. The idea was to completely unplug all work-related circuitry and disallow story ideas from creeping into that overactive brain of mine and just chill.
To that end, I left the laptop behind, turned off the cell phone and headed to Costa Rica with a few books and a camera. It was to be a solo retreat, an opportunity to catch up with 18 months of accumulated thoughts and inhale cleaner air. There would be yoga, lots of nature and maybe a good massage or two. Anything else would be gravy.
I had heard good things about the vegetarian-centric food at Pura Vida Spa, which offers an all-inclusive package with three meals a day, but in my exhausted state, food was closer to the bottom of the list --- provided that I had a strong cup of coffee in the morning and a daily dose of Costa Rican pineapple.
Much to my surprise (and delight), the food was way better than good and it would play a central role in my restorative experience. Timing is everything; just a few weeks before my arrival, Pura Vida (owned by Conyers, Ga.-based R&R Resorts) hired Luis Carlos Protti as the new chef. Protti, a recent graduate of the Cordon Bleu program in Costa Rica, is just 22 years old, yet he's cooking like an old pro.
I suppose with the Costa Rican bounty of avocados, guavas, mangoes, passion fruit, melons and strawberries -- plus those famous bananas and pineapples -- that it would be easy to prepare beautiful, fresh food. But after a while, as many PV staffers expressed to me, the food, although tasty and nutritious, got boring, the same dishes being served day after day.
Protti, who's recently become a vegan "because that's what my body wants right now," is all fired up to play with local ingredients and is already expressing his creativity. He's going beyond the obvious tree fruits and sourcing local tofu and flour. When we sat down to chat last week, he showed me a jar of locally produced honey made from fermented rice, which he hopes to incorporate into his line of desserts. Instead of white sugar, he's using azucar dulce, the natural byproduct of milled sugarcane from local fields.
Protti's food isn't just delicious and interesting; it's got mind-body altering qualities. Over the course of five days, I noticed how satisfied and nourished I felt, without a hankering for inbetween-meal snacks. This was spa food in the purest sense, without calorie counts, ingredient lists or label warnings. There was something for everyone on his buffet table -- locally raised tilapia and chicken for omnivores, gluten-free options for celiacs and the most un-vegan-tasting vegan food that has ever passed my lips.
I couldn't get enough of his black bean salad with mango, radish, celery, scallions, peppers and herbs. Or his cold tofu combo with chopped spinach and a tangy tomato-y (or was it tomatillo?) vinaigrette. The black bean-filled arepas for breakfast, that I dipped into local hot sauce made with carrots and habaneros. The strawberry juice at lunch. The strawberry-spinach salad with a soy-sesame vinaigrette that I've asked him to translate (details to come, hopefully later today) because it is too delicious to keep a secret.
As I mentioned earlier, I really wasn't planning to write about my vacation. But Protti, like the yoga teachers and the holistic treatment practitioners at Pura Vida, has brought food into the forefront of this wellness equation, and it's too good to go unmentioned. In the few hours between meals, I eagerly anticipated the next buffet -- not because I was hungry and underfed but because I felt nurtured, and his food was like medicine for this burnt-out mind, body and spirit.
Humpty's back up on the urban wall, and her pieces are together again, at long last.
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