When you ask Ticos where is the best street food in their country, all roads lead to Heredia. A small town 10 kilometres north west of the capital, San Jose, is a home to a Costa Rican TV celebrity chef Alfonso Washington and his black-hole-concentrated den of tastes called Bentana. Made by the best ingredients Costa Rica has to offer, the burgers in Bentana are the best accompaniment to other palatal culinary topics.
How did you decide to become a chef?
It all started with my mom. (Laughs) I was actually thinking to study something else but one day she said, “You could be a chef”. I liked the idea because she had a catering service and was already helping her a lot, so I had some insight into the cooking world. After my formal education, I worked with many famous Costa Rican chefs, such as Pablo Castillo and Edwin Chavarria. Then I took a break from cooking and decided I need to open something of my own.
And this is how Bentana was born?
Well, it was always my dream to have a restaurant of my own, and after being in the business for 10 years it seemed like a logical next step. At first, I had a different idea, I wanted to open a high-end restaurant. But this was too expensive, and I had no idea where to start. Then my wife told me exactly the same thing my father told me 5 years ago – start with a small fast food and see where it will take you.
Even this was really hard to start, especially for me, because I never thought I would be doing hamburgers. My cooking style was something else, more challenging, more elaborate. But my mindset changed and I thought – if I’m going to make hamburgers, they have to be one of the best hamburgers that you can eat in the street. And I wanted to give it a CR flavour, use local ingredients to make something else than what we’re used to making all the time.
How would you define your philosophy in the kitchen today?
I love making dishes with the best ingredients from CR. I get my ingredients from a lot of local farmers, and that can sometimes be really hard. We had problems because the local farmers were not used to bringing the produce to us, we had to go to them. And sometimes they didn’t have the things that we ordered and the quality was inconsistent, but in the end we somehow made it work. We put a lot of effort into bringing the best local produce to this place.
That’s also one of the reasons why we named it Bentana. The regular noun is ventana, with a V, but this is how the indigenous people in CR write it, with a B. Bentana. It means “window”, because we wanted people to describe us with only one word.
Which cuts of meat do you use in Bentana burgers?
I use churrasco, it’s similar to New York, just without the fat. We have 70% of churrasco and then I mix it with the best part of pork belly and the fat of the rib-eye. For burgers I also use some spices like curcuma, garlic, onion, paprika, rosemary, thyme and oregano.
For the bun I use pan casero, homemade. You can find this kind of bread in the houses of our grandmothers; it’s a little bit sweet. And i like to use this bread because I really like it. I don’t have anything in the menu that I don’t like. That is one of the principal ideas that I have in my mind, you can’t have on the menu something that you don’t like, you have to like it all.
So what is your favourite burger on the menu?
It would be La Carreta – it’s a burger with BBQ sauce, lettuce, tomato, turrialba cheese and caramelized onions. It’s really simple but I really like Carreta because you can show that a simple hamburger can be good. Caretta is a cart that our ancestors used all the time, one of the national symbols from CR. So the names of the burgers are allusions to a lot of typical local things. For instance, if you party the whole weekend, the people would say “oh you are in the cart”, that means you’ve been drinking nonstop. And also I make La Yunta. La yunta are the bulls that pull the cart.
What else do you make besides the burgers?
On Wednesday we have a CR favourite – gallo pinto. We have to come here at 8 in the morning, because we make the coconut milk here. The people want it all the time but it’s really hard. We also have specials like chifrijo which is a typical dish from the bars, the cantinas is CR. It’s very famous in CR, the people make it at home for birthdays and different kind of parties. We even have a festival of chifrijo in Bentana. There is typically only one kind of chifrijo, but here in Bentana we make for different kinds.
We make a regular one, that is with red beans, rice, pork chicharrón (made from fried pork skin and belly), pico de gallo and totopos, fried tortillas. We also have one with chorizo. The third kind we call chifrijoron, because in Puntarenas you have the vigoron, with just the skin of the pork. This one goes with yucca, green cabbage, pico de gallo and cilantro. And the last one is a shrimp chifrijo. But we put garlic, butter, parsley, the shrimps and a lot of beer.
Why do you insist on using local ingredients in your kitchen?
The trend in CR right now is using many imported products, which is burdening the already weakened economy. Even the coffee that we drink is not the premium coffee that we export.
That’s why I insist on using ingredients from CR. For example, turrialba cheese, which is made very close to the eponymous active volcano. We also use palmito cheese that is made in Zarcero district. It’s very different cheese because the cows there are really fat, it’s different. The cows in Turrialba are unlike cows in other parts of CR. That’s why we don’t have mozarella, cheddar or anything like that. We use the cheese from Turrialba.
What are some other most typical ingredients used in Tico cuisine?
Since our country is rich in water and warm weather, we have a lot of ingredients all around the year. So, for example, you can find onions, garlic, parsley, lettuce, several kinds of tomatoes… We also have a lot of potatoes (yellow and white). We have a lot of fruits, tropical fruits all year, pineapple, watermelon, melon, mangos… And since CR is really small, if you go to the market, you can easily find seafood that was taken out of the ocean that morning. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
So the ingredients are not the issue. We have a lot of ingredients but the people are not used to eating them. We were raised like that, eating rice and beans and nothing else. You can also notice many people in CR are overweight, because we eat the way our grandfathers used to eat. But we forget they were working in the fields.
How would you describe Costa Rican culinary scene right now?
Well, I think it lacks variety and fresh ideas. The main reason why I retired from cooking almost 3 years ago was because I was tired of going to the hotels and always cooking the same stuff. In CR you can go to a restaurant and always find the same vegetables and potatoes, or mashed potatoes. This was very difficult for me. Because you invest a lot of time in learning how to make different dishes just to end up in a generic restaurant and make the same stuff over and over again.
But 2 years ago, I said no more, if I can make a change, I know that a lot of chefs are going to follow. So since I got back into the kitchen I met many Tico chefs that are doing a lot of things like I’m doing here. So I feel happy for the things that are happening right now with food in CR. For example, the millennials, they are aware that they need to know more about their culture, their food and their tradition. We also know that there are people in the world that know more than us, so we need to learn.
Next to learning, what else do you think is crucial for success?
You have to be constant. That’s one of the hardest things for me. You have to wake up every day and find the motivation. Cause if you work as an employee in a company, you will get compliments from your boss. But when you have your own business, you need to find motivation yourself, which is not always easy.
I am sure having people over enjoying your food is a great motivation.
Ah yes, that’s the best! Actually, the day that we opened was one of the scariest days of my life. Because I wasn’t sure whether people will like my food and this style of cooking. I mean, I managed a lot of restaurants in these 10 years and I know that people like my food. But this was different, something new, the way that I see the ingredients, the way I see cooking…It was really hard for me that first day. I was shaking.
Do you work here just by yourself?
At the moment, yes. But my wife comes every night and helps me, and we have a nanny to take care of the kids. We used to have another employee but we had problems with him so we had to say goodbye. But I know soon I will need more help.
Having such a small menu demands some determination. How do you feel about making compromises?
I have issues with this. Sometimes a group of people would come and one of them would want rice and beans, and if I didn’t have it they would all go to another place. But I don’t worry about it now, because I am focused on different things. On the people that want to come to our place for the food that we make our way.
I always get a little bit stressed when older people come here because we need to find a way how to explain to them our concept. Some of them come here and try to order a cheeseburger, but we don’t have a cheeseburger. We don’t have mayo and ketchup, we make our own sauces. We have mayos but with cilantro, basil, we have chile morron, which is a red pepper, grilled red pepper mayo, also we have our chilli, which is called pico diabla. It has all of the ingredients of the pico de gallo, but grilled, and we season it with Panamenian pepper and guineo vinegar.
One day, when you earn enough money from burgers, will you open a different restaurant?
Actually, I am thinking about opening a new restaurant very soon. I just rented a house that’s a 100 years old, made from wood. It’s really big, so we want to do a small restaurant and a coffee shop. But not with French press. I want to make coffee the way our grandparents used to do it. We will also bake our own bread, we will make brunch on Saturdays, but again – everything with Tico ingredients. I hope that in the next 3 months we can do it. And we want to open a new Bentana in San Jose.