In an industry where politics and gender identity are difficult subjects to navigate, gender-fluid chef Noam Kostucki aims to transcend the toxicity of modern discourse, and strive for a more inclusive, positive future.
In El Mundo de Noam (formerly HiR Fine Dining), a small restaurant on the outskirts of San Jose in Costa Rica, Kostucki is changing the world, one plate at a time. A dining room of only seven metres by five is where guests are welcomed with dishes that ignore the dogma of cooking techniques, and instead become the perfectly free expression of the chef's experiences and influences.
It is a dining experience that has led to rave reviews from the public. After only five months of opening, in 2017, the restaurant was heralded as serving one of 25 dishes to travel around the world for by OpenTable. And it held the number one spot on TripAdvisor for Costa Rica in 2019 and 2020.
Due to the coronavirus crisis, the old HIR Fine Dining in Guanacaste was forced to close, but when it reopened in San Jose as El Mundo De Noam, the location had changed, but everything else about the restaurant was the same.
“My food represents me completely,” says Kostucki. “I was interviewed on Costa Rican TV the other day and they were asking me to describe my food. I was wearing a blue dress and heels, legs unshaved… and I just said, ‘well my food is very much like me. It’s a very unconventional mix of ingredients, of styles that shouldn’t go together, but somehow it seems to work, people like it'.”
Red snapper tartare
A completely self-taught chef, having never attended culinary school or worked in kitchens, Kostucki can draw on a diverse upbringing in Brussels, where family meals consisted of Polish food one night, Jewish, Thai, French or Indian the next. Dining regularly in Michelin-star restaurants, and learning a range of subjects at university, from art to engineering, helped to shape an eclectic culinary ethos.
“Many of my friends in the LGBTQ community, or hippies who live in the jungle, live completely outside the system. I’ve lived a very mainstream existence up until now. I’ve studied classical art and science. When I do make-up, I don’t use make-up techniques, so when I cook, I don’t use classical techniques. I don’t know them, but I know what I’ve done in science, history, literature - all the subjects I’ve studied."
The free approach has allowed Kostucki to create a unique and surprising cuisine, one that flouts convention and culinary orthodoxy, but one that resonates with diners looking for something different, yet fully authentic.
“When the first people came, when I started, they would arrive at a little caseta. There was no sign, it was just a little picnic table outside facing uncut grass, and these were people who had come from the most luxurious hotel in the region. I remember they would get out of the car and they were bewildered, because, obviously when I posted photos it was of the food, not the restaurant.
“They had an idea of what a fine-dining restaurant looked like, with white table cloths, and here was this little shack in the middle of nowhere. Then I would arrive with my long hair, wearing my shorts and you could just see their faces, thinking ‘what the fuck? Oh my god, did I just get scammed? Where’s the restaurant?’ It’s a 25-minute drive through two rivers… Then I would bring them this beautiful plate and it’s in such contrast to what they see around them.
“Then I would tell them what it is they’re eating. For example one of my desserts is with fish scales, I fry them with cinnamon, cane sugar and butter and they get a beautiful crunchy texture, I use dried avocado seeds, people are surprised."
Shrimp carpaccio with caramel
The rich forest and fertile lands of Costa Rica are among the most unspoilt and bountiful terroirs in the world. There is a world of choice in terms of ingredients, yet this chef is happy to search the fringes for the little known or unexpected ingredients.
“I cook with cheap ingredients,” says Kostucki. “When people see me shopping at the market they ask ‘how are you doing fine-dining with this? You’re just buying trash’. When they cut the leaves or beetroot, or carrots or radish, I go around and collect it. I collect all the trash and turn it into fine dining. I realised, when I did serve lobster and scallops to clients one year for Christmas, nobody wrote anything about that. The write about the pickled watermelon skin, the fish scales, all those unexpected things.
“I also mix flavours in a way that people don’t expect. I have one dish that I call ‘Grandma’s Octopus’. When I was little, I used to go my Grandma’s. She would always make coffee and she would make hot chocolate for us. So I cook octopus in Costa Rican coffee, fresh cacao and turmeric, and I cook it for eight to ten hours until it’s soft like butter. It becomes black and I serve it on a bed of mashed pumpkin with smoked Costa Rican cheese with nutmeg and on top. I drizzle Teriyaki sauce, which I make with a Flor De Cana Rum, a Nicaraguan rum.
“I don’t know the rules. I had to teach myself, people would tell me. ‘You can’t do it, it can’t be done that way.”
When asked to define the cuisine, Kostucki says it is about ‘co-creation’. Indeed, the idea of co-creation is a concept that resonates in all aspects of the chef's life.
“People come to my kitchen, they eat with me. They’re two metres away from me, I see everything. When I had someone work for me, I couldn’t stand it, because I couldn’t see what they finished or what they left on the plate. Because I’m there with them, I ask them to tell me everything about their experience, because that’s the only way I can learn. So people always give me their feedback at the end of every dinner and the dishes evolve according to what people like or don’t like. Night after night, we are constantly changing and tweaking. These are dishes that we create together over the course of two or three weeks.
“Most chefs have a more classical idea of the artist. The guest comes to appreciate the chef’s art and it’s a very valid form of art, but I have a more modern approach, like social media, where it is co-creation. I’m not eating the food, I try the separate parts, I cook and present, it looks beautiful but you don’t know how it all is to them [customers]. In the end I’m not cooking for me, I’m cooking for them.”
Couscous with maracujá on arugula with jalapeño and grilled pepper mayonnaise with deep-fried Mayan tree spinach
Kostucki's life is a process of co-creation, of assimilating influences, of being open to new experiences and expression. “My process through the creation of my gender identity is the same for the food. It’s a co-creation. I tried so many different ways of dressing - from hippie to corporate, to hipster - but it wasn’t until I started wearing women’s clothes that people reacted and started to really see me, in a positive way.
“So as an artist, and when people ask me why I do this, I can’t deny it, one of the reasons is that people like it. They react, we have amazing conversations. In a way it’s a lot more coherent with what I do.”
A gender-fluid identity is relatively new to Kostucki, coming after a long period of searching to fit in, of working within the system and without, and eventually discovering a more authentic form of self-expression.
“I was always in conflict about how things worked. I dressed like a hippie, but that didn’t really work out, I studied, but I dropped out. I started doing workshops while at university and ended up getting invited to Yale. I tried to get help to defer my exams, but they weren’t interested. I was 19 years old. Civil Engineering is a rigid discipline. When I dropped out, my parents weren’t interested in helping me unless I took the academic route."
Scallop carpaccio on-cabbage vinaigrette
Did Kostucki always struggle with gender identity?
“I didn’t even know it was a concept. I remember being a kid and having mental images of myself as a woman as an adult, but having never heard about anyone being transgender or anything like that – you were either straight or gay and I was clearly attracted to women. There was no homophobia in the world I grew up in. I was living, doing the things that gay men do, but having this idea that I was a woman, I kind of put the whole thing to the side and stopped thinking about it."
Then a chance visit to a Pride festival in San Jose opened a door. The idea was to connect with the LGBTQ community, but feeling the need to participate in the spirit of the event, Kostucki decided to dress in make-up and heels.
“When I was leaving the house, I thought ‘I look like a clown, I can’t believe I’m leaving the house like this’, but when I got there, people started taking photos of me, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t want these photos going up on Facebook, I’m doing business coaching, working with Fortune 500 companies, I don’t need that. That day I had more than 200 people queuing up to take to photos with me and it made me think, ‘people really like this’.
“One day, it was 4pm in San Jose, Costa Rica, I saw a pair of heels in a shop and I bought them and I just thought, well why don’t I wear them now? I thought maybe I would be harassed, but I thought ‘I’ll be fine’. It wasn’t fine. It was the most amazing day of my life. Six or seven people stopped me and said ‘you look amazing’. I’ve never been treated so well as when I wear women’s clothes. It was completely mind-blowing. I had so much struggle when I was wearing men’s clothes. It’s so ironic.”
Costa Rica is a Catholic society with traditional values and gender roles. One might think it's a difficult place to be outwardly gender fluid, but that’s not the case, according to Kostucki. There has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction. People are curious and even sometimes shocked, but Noam’s complete openness and willingness to connect allows them to transcend misconceptions and learn from each other.
“If I’m sitting at a bus stop and an old lady is looking at my dress and heels, I’ll just turn to her and say ‘it looks weird, right?’. We laugh and that starts the conversation,” says Kostucki.