On the beautiful Caribbean cost, tucked into the southern reaches of Costa Rica, the tropical town of Puerto Viejo sits between a wild jungle and breathtaking beaches. The town is a mash-up of cultures, creating a unique community not found anywhere else in the country. A mix of natives, day-trippers and expats creates a town that’s an eclectic mix of Afro-Caribbean, Costa Rican, and a spiritual community.
It was this spiritual community that drew me to this town, in a serendipitous way. A blogger I followed decided to host a yoga retreat in her adopted home of Puerto Viejo, and before I knew it I had thrown down the deposit. This retreat was a great experience, and I got to meet some wonderful people, experience some amazing adventures, and learned a whole lot. I loved my trip so much, less than a year later I was back again, in a trip that provided a whole new experience.
However, this the “tasty” traveler, so although the experiences I had in Costa Rica could fill up an entire book, that’s not the focus of this post. This is about the amazing chief I had the pleasure of meeting during both of my visits.
The day I arrived in Puerto Viejo, the first person I met was a slender, blond, fair-skinned Canadian working hard in the kitchen of our temporary island home. She was busy slicing up fruits and vegetables, preparing for our first meal in the town. I did not realize it then, but this girl would drastically change my relationship with healthy food.
By the time dinner was ready, myself and the other girls on the retreat were ready to chow down. The chef presented the meal, explain the ingredients she used, and how everything was organic, gluten free, dairy free, vegan, and locally sourced. I had to prevent myself from rolling my eyes- my unfortunate gut reaction to anything ‘vegan’- but after the first few amazing bites I was completely hooked. I could not believe the flavors that came out of such a simple dish, and the satisfied, full feeling of good, clean food. From that moment on a major highlight of the retreat were the meals that she prepared. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were laboriously and lovingly created every day, and this die-hard carnivore ate like a vegan for a full week.
Her name is Claudine, and I was completely fascinated by the food she made. I asked her a lot of questions throughout the retreat, and decided I would write her a full food review when I returned to the states. However, when I returned to Oklahoma (where I was living at the time), I felt unable to even start describing the food I had enjoyed in Puerto Viejo. The writing never happened.
When the opportunity arose to return to Puerto Viejo, I looked forward to enjoying more of Claudine’s meals- and promised myself that this time, I would write about the experience. How does a Canadian end up in this tiny Caribbean town? How does she mange to make vegan food feel just as filling, if not more so, than your standard meat-based meal? How did she make me, an all-around omnivore, happily indulge in all things vegan? These questions and more I will be asking the talented Claudine Vonsolkema.
During my second stay in Puerto Viejo, I wanted to eat more of Claudine’s cooking and learn more about her food. She was gracious enough to let me interview her while preparing some of our meals.
KT: How did you originally get started with cooking?
Claudine: I became a vegetarian at eight years old. I got tired of eating cereal for dinner, since my parents were not going to cook multiple meals a day, so I got creative.
KT: Why did you become a vegetarian? Was it from a desire to eat healthy, or did you not care for meat?
Claudine: No, it was more about my relationship with animals. When I was young, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings or harm them. Later in life, it developed into a health thing, and then into a spiritual issue.
KT: Have you been a vegetarian ever since?
Claudine: I’ve introduced and taken out poultry and fish in my diet a couple times. I may have had two meat patties when I was pregnant…
KT: Fair enough.
Claudine: But from eight to twenty-nine, that’s it.
KT: When did you decide to leave Canada for Costa Rica?
Claudine: Maybe when I was 17; I traveled here to do a long volunteer stint for two and a half months. As I volunteered and traveled, I fell in love with the country, and promised myself I would come back. At 20 I returned, met my now ex-husband, and decided I loved the place and was going to make it work. So, from 20 to 23 I spent six to eight months a year here, then would go back to Canada to work. Then after becoming pregnant I made more concrete planes. I had the baby in Canada and spent three years there before returning to Costa Rica.
KT: How did you start the business side of your cooking?
Claudine: I would say the business part is the last thing I thought off. I just love to cook, I love to provide good food, I think it’s really important to educated people where their food comes from and how it’s made. The business aspect just kind of happened on its own, just kind of fell into my lap, and I’m very grateful for that. I think now I’m just running with it, but it was not a plan. I didn’t think two years ago “I’m going to start a catering business!” It just kind of happened.
KT: How is being a vegan chef challenging in Puerto Viejo?
Claudine: Oh my god, food supplies… are you kidding me? So in vegan cooking… we use a lot of nutritional yeast. It’s a byproduct of beats and molasses boiled down, it creates this flaky substance that imitates cheese really well. So that, for example, is impossible to find in Puerto. You can only find it in San Jose, and it’s like a gazillion dollars. Cashews are also a staple in vegan cooking, and that’s super expensive here. Basically, just finding the products that I want and need. The rest is just kind of fun. I look at like a challenge: how can I make this dish vegan? Not because I’m vegan, just because I think it’s fun to try to eliminate animal products from your meals.
KT: Yeah, that is pretty interesting. Because technically, you’re a vegetarian, but most of the meals you make a vegan.
Claudine: Yeah, I’m like a pescatarian if you really want to get literal, since I eat fish and sea food sometimes, but I don’t like labels. I think we should just eat what makes us feel better and what is responsible, so I’m not a big propionate of dietary labels.
KT: What inspires you the most to create dishes in a vegan friendly style?
Claudine: My own health, the animals, the well-being of the planet, my greater consciousness, my passion… if you get down to it it’s like a spiritual path. For everything I do, I would like it to be in line with my spiritual beliefs. And like, karmically speaking, that involves not doing harm, or doing as little harm as possible. When it comes to your food, you wanna avoid animal products to cause the least amount of harm. Because we all know that factory farming is real, and animals have feelings. So that’s really my biggest motivation. It’s also sometimes fun, like a challenge to motivate me- like how can I make this dish taste good enough to fool a meat eater?
KT: Well you’re certainly good at that.
KT: Are you surprised by the reaction to your food you’ve had from people who normally don’t eat vegan?
Claudine: Yes, in a sense. I’m surprised when I hear a carnivore say something like “I hate vegetables, but I’m obsessed with this zucchini!” For me that’s surprising, because I eat so many vegetables that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I think the way people eat and their reactions to their food styles is what surprises me, because I’m not used to people eating like North Americans do, since I’m not surrounded by that.
KT: You motioned earlier that you want your food to align with your spiritual beliefs. Do you find food inherently spiritual?
Claudine: In a sense, yes. Food is where you get a lot of your life force. The way I like to phrase it is: when you eat something, you take in part of its prana, you take in its energy. So, you want to choose foods that are highest in prana, there highest in life force, and that’s live, raw healthy whole foods.
KT: So basically like eating good energy?
Claudine: I don’t think its inherently spiritual, but I do think it’s part of our overall spiritual well-being.
KT: Is there a food that you have a weakness for that does not meet your preferred diet?
Claudine: Butter. But hey, I don’t like to stick to labels, so everything in moderation. So, you know, if you’re going to eat animal products, keep it in moderation. A little bit of butter, some cheese with your foods cool. But my weak spots are defiantly cheese, butter, and bread. Bread is a big one. I don’t buy bread, it’s not in my house, so if I go out to Bread and Chocolate (a local bakery) I’ll get a bagel. My daughter considers bread a treat.
KT: What does the future hold for your cooking?
Claudine: I see more food coming from my land, I see more vegan food. I would just like to grow more food. I would like to continue working on my land, put in some fruit trees and some greens and stuff.
KT: So you’re investing in a little personal farm?
Claudine: Well, I purchased about an acre of land, so I wanna build sort of like a homestead. Gardening and farming is one of my passions. I bought the land so I could build a house, but I want to integrate a food garden and a forest garden.
KT: When you say forest garden, what does that mean?
Claudine: Lots of trees, layered like the rain forest. Like a piece of jungle with papayas and mangos, pineapples, bananas and coconuts.
KT: What type of business do you want to pursue in the future with your cooking?
Claudine: I would like to start a blog and work on a web based cook book. I’ve been playing with the idea of food retreats. Something centered around where your food comes from, and making things from scratch- from the basics. I liked to continue catering for other retreats, but maybe more focused.
I’ve always been passionate about yoga and gardening. Once I have my land developed, I would like to build a rental to create some passive income so I can focus on the things I love to do: gardening, yoga and being a mom, without having to think about the finances. Not have to put so much finical thought into my passion, because I think sometimes when you have to put finical thoughts into what you love it can take away from the passion. I just love gardening, its where I’m happiest.
As I left Costa Rica for the second time, I said goodbye to Claudine and her amazing food I had the privilege of eating. Thank you very much for talking with me and everything you did for me and the other women you cooked for.