Meet chef Jose Gonzalez, a farmer shining a spotlight on Costa Rica's rich produce

Talkative San José chef José González closed a much-loved restaurant to run an urban farm where he hosts tours for food enthusiasts, shining a light on the country’s rich produce and underserved culinary traditions.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 13 Apr 2022, 06:10 BST
Chef José González photographed at home on the Al Mercat estate.

Chef José González photographed at home on the Al Mercat estate.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Part chef, part farmer, wholly dedicated food-lover, José González makes an interviewer’s life pretty easy. Meeting at his urban farm on the outskirts of San José, I have a list of prepared questions, but the 38-year-old is so enthusiastic, so intensely loquacious, that I barely get through three before an hour has passed. The former head chef and owner of the celebrated Al Mercat restaurant machine-guns words at a dizzying rate — more a tsunami than a stream of consciousness.

“I call Costa Rica an edible country. Here, try this, bro,” he says, picking up a piece of cas — Costa Rican guava — from the ground. “You don’t mind? That’s how we do it here. We’re a green and beautiful country and there’s all kinds of stuff that we can take advantage of. Obviously, we have a greenhouse, too, but there’s so much just growing around the place. I grew up taking things from trees, enjoying nature and that’s what I’ve wanted to do with my cooking for the past nine years.”

José used the pandemic to take a step back from the frontline of the restaurant business, closing Al Mercat in the Costa Rican capital and retreating to his farm. Now, as the tourism industry begins to rebound, he’s offering culinary tours of his land along with opinions on anything food-related. He doesn’t lack confidence. He knows first-hand what the standard of produce is like in the average San José restaurant and assesses that much of it is “mediocre, average at best”. He aims for much higher standards.

“My restaurant had a lot of success because I was going directly to farmers’ markets and choosing the best,” he says. “Going there, and using my family farm and other trusted farms around the country, was how I did my homework.”

José presents some cacao beans grown on his farm.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

The farm sits on the edge of the city, on a hillside that was once a coffee plantation. José uses the space to make money and conduct his tours, but there’s also an element of experimentation, too. He seems to value quirk as much as quality. I follow the chef around his property, occasionally stopping to have fruit and vegetables shoved into my hands or mouth. With Costa Rica’s optimal growing conditions, something is sprouting all year round. As we walk, I’m handed cacao, turmeric, impossibly purple corn, citruses I’ve never heard of, flowers, kaleidoscopic chillies, herbs — José champions them all. He just doesn’t understand why more of his countrymen don’t take the same approach.

“Nobody showcases this. Too many people just want to go to the volcanoes and the beaches — and they’re amazing, obviously — but nobody wants to show off the cuisine,” says José, seemingly without breathing. “Honestly, most of the time tourists just end up eating eat a lot rice and beans. You can’t just represent this country with that stuff. We have 200 types of fruit! I want to say: ‘Dude, you should be eating this stuff.’”

Surely only boring pragmatists would disagree with José’s gleefully nationalistic approach to Costa Rica’s larder, and though I spend most of my time nodding along with him, I find it a little hard to believe his claim that he doesn’t miss the restaurant business. It seems obvious that a man with this much energy would be best employed in command of a kitchen. “Maybe there will be an offer that interests me in a few years, but right now, bro, I’m happy here.” 

I want to ask something else, but he’s off again, now onto the subject of Costa Rica’s reputation for food. Instead of interrupting, I chew on a bit of cacao and just listen to my host. “We’re not like Peru — people don’t come here to eat,” he says. “And they should. Like I said, this is an edible country.”

A plate at fine dining restaurant Silvestre — headed up by Santiago Fernández Benedetto, one of this country’s most-recognised chefs.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

José’s top three San José restaurants

1. Sikwa
“Pablo Bonilla is a good friend of mine and is the chef at this Indigenous food restaurant. Like me, he goes straight to the source for his produce, such as the Indigenous farmers in the Talamanca region. He treats the people and produce with real respect and comes back with all sorts of cool stuff, like purple corn.” 

2. Cedrela 
“I work with this restaurant, which is just over an hour away from here, so you know it’s good food. It’s based on an avocado and coffee farm in a really amazing setting. Over there they have trout and apples and apricots — and lots of things we can’t grow so easily here because we don’t have the altitude. The food is really simple, honest and tasty. It all comes from up there so you can’t go wrong.” 

3. Silvestre
“Santiago Fernández Benedetto is one of this country’s most-recognised chefs. He’s doing a kind of fine dining take on Costa Rican cuisine. At the beginning I wasn’t convinced because I’m not really super into that style of dining, but they’ve done it in a really cool way. They’ve got a good budget and what they’re doing is really interesting. Santiago is a really talented chef.” 

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 17-18 July 2021 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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