Interview: Richard Neat, a British Master Chef Who Started Over in Costa Rica
British-born chef Richard Neat cooked in the UK and France with chefs including Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc, and Joel Robuchon; was hailed as one of the greatest chefs of his generation; and in 1996, at age 29, he earned two Michelin stars as head chef at London’s Park Cafe in San Jose, Costa Rica, where I recently dined. After the meal, which was (without hyperbole) the best I’ve ever eaten, I sat down with the cerebral and philosophical Neat to discuss cooking, living, and enjoying life out of the limelight.Pied à Terre. But that year he decided to pack up his knives and travel the world as a journeyman chef, working in kitchens in India, Cannes, Moscow, and Morocco before deciding to settle down and open
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking in the first place?
Chef Richard Neat: Even when young, I loved the whole ritual of mealtimes. You were expected to talk, show appreciation for your mother's efforts, have enough manners not to leave the table while people were still eating. It was very civilizing. This is probably more important today than ever, as the urgency and ubiquity of business and social media seem to be imposing unreasonable demands upon even so simple a notion as human interaction.
What has been your focus to bring you to such a place of excellence and uniqueness in the culinary realm? I suppose that there are many chefs who would have gotten to half the distance that you have travelled and have quit at that point and not have gone on to make the trip that you have made. What has driven you to the point of excellence that I tasted and saw?
Genuinely, I'm a fanatic. I believe in the perfectibility of the human condition and want all things in my life to be...perfect. I don't mind torturing myself-probably staff, girlfriends, friends, too - to pass a sublime moment.
What brought you to San Jose, Costa Rica? You have already had success in much more sophisticated venues so what keeps you here?
Love! Park Cafe is actually my girlfriend's antiques store. She is English, came to Costa Rica a quarter century ago as a journalist, fell in love with this wonderful country and stayed. We met in London eleven years ago when I had my Riad in Marrakech. One of us was going to have to move and happily I came here. In the twenty-five years since I opened my first restaurant in London, this is the most beautiful setting I have ever enjoyed. Any allusion to more "sophisticated venues" misses the point entirely, as it actually appears as though gastronomy is in danger of extinction in Europe/North America due to extraneous costs prohibiting large teams and necessary hours, despite what unctuous and efficacious public relations companies insist to the contrary.
I've always loved the Latin savoir-vivre to enjoy the fact that dinners at Park Cafe are a time for conversation, laughter, conviviality. Costa Rica affords me time that I would never have found in London to make great friendships, have a wonderful relationship with my girlfriend, gluttonously read books, write a couple of books myself, improve my chess and pursue a few new fields of interest. I love food and gastronomy, but returning to a more "developed" city to jump through hoops for a capricious press and cook for TripAdvisor bullies would be an act of gratuitous self-harm.
I noticed that your restaurant has no sign and that it exists in almost a vacuum as far as publicity goes. Why is this?
We do actually have a sign outside, though the feral bougainvillea has grown over it and I did not inherit my father's love-of-gardening gene, so nobody has trimmed it back. We work almost exclusively with locals, which is gratifying, having inherited a large proportion from her antique buyers, people who have been visiting the address for years. Louise and I aren't quite hippies, though still try to extricate ourselves from the whole "Rational-Utility-Maximization" stuff, and learn how to pronounce the word "Enough."
What kind of an atmosphere do you prefer in the kitchen?
Unashamedly authoritarian. I have a great respect and gratitude for my staff, as they prepare and execute my dishes, but am also conscious that we have certain responsibilities to myself, the professional futures of my staff as well as our beloved diners. That on any evening ninety-five percent of customers are returns/regulars is testament to the degree of trust they have in us, and this trust must never be violated. The reality is, that at this level, people (myself included) cannot have lapses of concentration, as disappointment is ruthlessly punished.
Are you 100% organic?
I buy the best produce that I can find in the country. I hope that it is ethically produced and harvested, though I suspect that daytime TV and the Kardashian industry are more harmful to people's well-being than some rogue fertilizers.
I notice that your restaurant is in a place where objects are sold and, I imagine, bought and traded. Why is this and how has it affected the atmosphere?
Park Cafe is actually an antiques store that my girlfriend built and opened twenty years ago. Much of the inventory are architectural pieces, such as doors, columns and arches from Indian palaces, whilst the other half of the stock is small artisanal pieces from Indonesia. We travel together to Asia each year to personally choose the items, though in reality I have only restaurant-booking responsibilities. Many of the nicest houses and hotels in the country have Louise's pieces. How has this affected the atmosphere of Park Cafe? I think it has made it the most magical dining room I have ever experienced.
Who are your culinary heroes?
Joel Robuchon. I had the privilege to work for Robuchon in Paris in the late eighties for a couple of years. This was my own Pauline experience. Being in that kitchen, in that city, was the best education a young English cook could receive. I think he missed one evening service in two years when he received the Gault Millau Chef of the Century Award. He never went into the restaurant fishing for compliments; his pals visited the kitchen instead. Never did interviews, never bought a high opinion of himself by way of advertising or PR, yet was booked six months in advance.
What are you plans for the future?
I was always terribly ambitious, though it was a vague idea to "have a good life." I simply do not possess the imagination to see a better life than a wonderful partner, great friends, a good book per week, my Park Cafe chess club, friendly, appreciative customers, long life for our puppies, and frequent weekends at Costa Rica's beautiful beaches.