On a cruise from L.A. to Colombia, Top Chef Duels winner CJ Jacobsen ate lionfish ceviche, learned what curuba tastes like, and created the recipe for our October cover.
"I'm, like, Mr. Top Chef," says Chris "CJ" Jacobson. After appearing on every possible iteration of the show, from holiday specials to online series, he ultimately won Top Chef Duels last fall. His prize was a 13-day trip to Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia on Crystal Cruises, where he and his travel companion—his dad—had the chance to study local flavors up close. Jacobson cooks hyper-seasonal New American food at Girasol in Los Angeles, so many of the exotic ingredients he encountered on the trip were novel to him, he says. He rattles off a list of his favorites: "Mangosteen, tomate de árbol, maracuyá, curuba, pitaya, guanabana, cherimoya, feijoa—they were just amazing."
A few experiences stood out during his adventures on shore: exploring mezcal at Mezcal La Reliquia in Huatulco, a city in the Mexican region of Oaxaca ("The cricket and worm salts reminded me of powdered dashi, something I love to season meats with"); peacock bass fishing near Panama City ("We were in the middle of a rain forest with mud-colored water and mud-colored baby crocodiles everywhere. There were monkeys all around us. It was crazy"). Sometimes inspiration struck from above. At El Mangroove resort in Costa Rica, Jacobson reports, "I was walking across the property and something hit me on the head—it was a tamarind pod falling from a tree. Rarely when foraging do ingredients come to you."
As a guy who loves cooking so much that he envied the omelet maker at the ship's breakfast buffet—"I just wanted to grab the pan from him so bad"—Jacobson was excited to turn his cruise experiences into recipes. Here, he shares some of his favorite discoveries and the dishes he created in tribute:
CJ's Port-of-Call Discoveries
Bogotá: It's a beautiful city. There are two Four Seasons opening soon, and the people there helped me out with an awesome guide who took me to markets with so many fruits and vegetables I'd never seen before. I also went to Criterión, a restaurant where chef Jorge Rausch is using lionfish for ceviche. It was the first time I had ceviche with raw shaved coconut in it. So delicious and, texturally, just fun to chew. hermanosrausch.com.
2. Costa Rica
Golfo de Papagayo: A supernice boat showed up and these well-dressed guys were like, "Are you Mr. Jacobson?" They took us to El Mangroove, the most beautiful resort in the universe. A little dinghy brought us to shore; I wore khakis just so I could roll them up and get them a little wet as I walked onto the beach. We had lunch with the chef, Sebastian La Rocca. His food—charred octopus, sea bass ceviche, a rice dish accented by annatto—had the touch of a Michelin-starred chef and the simplicity of the region. elmangroove.net.
Panama City: K.C. Hardin from the American Trade Hotel took me fishing. I was ugly in high school, so my friend Mike and I would escape by going bass fishing. I always wanted to go peacock bass fishing because they're weird and monstrous, and they're legendary fighters, so I couldn't believe it when K.C. asked me. We put minnows on hooks, and in minutes I caught, like, 14 fish.
Cabo San Lucas: At Las Guacamayas, there was a lady—she was probably about 4'8"—making tortillas à la minute. I had a killer huitlacoche quesadilla.