Of Sharks and Sailing Ships

December 18th, 2013


Sunday, January 5. 2007

Florida, Fort Lauderdale, Los Olas Boulevard, The Floridian Diner

I have been in Florida since Thursday night. Friday morning, actually, as I wasn’t able to pick up bags until after midnight. The plane was early, the baggage late…explainable by quantum physics, but not by the overworked airline employee left to explain the situation to a surly crowd of tired travelers. My ride appeared curbside at nearly 1am. A quick hug of recognition, toss the bags in the rear of the car and off to my new home for the next three months – a 38’ Irwin sloop named Chondros.

This morning I ran away from “home” for some brief privacy and to stretch my legs in a needed walk. The weather- typically Florida – was humid and warm with a nice breeze rustling the palm trees. The word soughing is more appropriate to the sound, but I believe it only applies to hardwood forests in nineteenth century English novels. You never heard Edward James Almos using the word soughing in Miami Vice, actually you didn’t hear him say too much at all…but definitely not soughing.

The breeze along my route – east along Broward Avenue -tosses up your typical big city Sunday morning litter – empty pizza boxes, beer bottles rolling in the gutter, a syringe, Saturday newspapers and flyers for all night massage parlors and a rave off of Revolution.  A few homeless men were stirring in the only green space I saw – a patch of grass and a few trees memorializing some fine citizen long forgotten and one who, most likely, never had to call a hard cement bench ‘home’.

Passing the ‘garden’, I tossed my emptied Dunkin Donuts coffee cup into a trash can overflowing with organic detritus that did not bear closer inspection with any of my senses. The coffee had been strong and extremely hot, keeping its heat for several blocks…and the overly large, sibilant Bahamian woman who served it would be staying in my memory for a long while, filed under Great Characters for The Movie I’m Going To Make One Day.

Now I am ensconced at an avenue-side table at the Floridian, the kind of twenty-four hour diner that defies political correctness and nutritional progress and thus thrives when other restaurants across the city are dying by the truckload. Frank, my overly friendly gay waiter has already given me his latest slice of life story along with lemoned water and coffee. He was late for work today and has gotten stuck with the street tables – lower tips because this is the destination of coffee-guzzling, cigarette smoking, non-eating people watchers…myself included (sans the smoking of course.)

January 31

So you might have noticed that a few days have elapsed since my first (and only) entry. If anyone tells you that time cannot be stopped, they have not sat on a sail boat in Florida ‘waiting’ for a weather window in which to safely cross the Gulf Stream. Time has stopped, albeit pleasantly. My days have been spent sleeping, reading, listening to Air America talk radio, long walks and, most importantly, provisioning the boat for the off chance that we might actually pull away from the dock within my life time.

With each Northern storm front that comes through, the odds of slipping into the outer Bahamas – the original plan – to dive with and study sharks becomes less and less real. My host, and skipper Dr. Mark Marks is considered one of the foremost authorities on white sharks and that is what has brought me here.

Marks is an interesting dichotomy.  Once a US Army Pathfinder, Marks’ blood runs red, white and blue with pride and loyalty for his fellow veterans, and yet, he is one of the most staunchly anti-war voices I have ever heard. Well read in US History –both military and political; with real life experience in one of America’s lesser known third world counter-insurgencies, Marks can opine intelligently on our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he doesn’t suffer fools easily. No slacker myself on politics, our conversations have been stimulating, occasionally loud and very opinionated – on both sides. But when current events have been exhausted, talk turns to his first love, one that few people share or can even comprehend – Great White Sharks.

Unlike our landlocked great predators the grizzly, wolf and mountain lion, the Great White Shark’s fan club is quite small. No one is clamoring to place carcharidon carcarius on the Endangered Species List. No marketing maven has distributed posters of cuddly baby whites. No pin-striped lobbyists are plying the US Congress for monies to buy ‘roadless oceanic wilderness’ in which the sharks can roam unmolested. And although they exist, the non-profits dedicated to shark preservation are few and relatively lackluster in positive achievements.

But this lack of public awareness doesn’t deter Marks. His twenty-five year behavioral study of ‘his whites’ has uncovered – in his eyes at least –  a predator no less ‘loveable’ than the warm and furry earth-based relations that the rest of the world either loves or reviles. And like the biologists and researchers that roam our Rocky Mountains studying the great furred predators, Marks roams the oceans following and observing his chosen muse –without the benefit of a shark cage. And as Frost wrote ‘this has made all the difference.”

Marks received his PhD as a cognitive behavioral zoologist from the University of South Africa in Cape Town. The first degree of its kind to focus on what most believe to be a non-senescent, solitary ‘eating machine’, Marks’ hours in the water with Whitey has proven – to himself and a few others- that great whites are as communicative, communal, and aware of social status and boundaries as the more studied terrestrial – canine lobo [sic]or the timber wolf.

Hundreds of hours under water in what could be considered the most controlled uncontrolled natural environment possible – the rich waters of Dyer Island off Cape Horn – has allowed Marks the rare opportunity to study the same group of whites for several years. Such dedicated focus has resulted in the ‘discovery’ that sharks travel in loose aggregate groups; communicate with each other in a body language both overt and beautifully subtle; show self awareness; and, are in fact quite intelligent, not the stupid robots that mistake humans for seals  – a portrayal all too common in our media.

Whether or not the weather ever cooperates, this trip with Dr. Marks in his floating classroom has changed the way I view my world – a world made all the richer with the presence of sharks and sailing ships.








Spring Snow, the Blues and Passionate Men

December 18th, 2013

February 09

I’m back home in Montana now, the warm breezes of the Caribbean a memory growing ever distant under the continued onslaught of spring snow. I’m not one generally susceptible to depression, but for the last few days I’ve been wallowing in a tepid vat of tapioca-textured self-pity. It clings to me, palpable, heavy, sticky. Perhaps it’s the lack of sunshine. Or the constant chill. I hope the cause is as simple as a meteorological condition; otherwise, I might have to look internally and a little introspection can be dangerous. A good, honest internal evaluation might just show that something is missing…something absolutely critical to a well-lived-in life. Something like passion.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about passion since I’ve returned home. Not the sexual, “Oh my god, you’re so hot!” sort, but the kind that propels you from bed in the morning, your brain shouting “Here I am world!”. The kind of passion that is only attainable from a personal commitment to doing something meaningful. Something vital. Something that uniquely defines your existence.

And I think I’ve lost mine. No, that is not accurate…I’m questioning whether I ever really had it. And that is a bit depressing, and even more than a bit frightening. So why the self doubt now?   What is the catalyst that has flung me into this ‘woe is me’ funk? The answer is simple. In the past 16 months my travels have placed me in the company of three people whose individual passions are nearly blinding in their intensity.

I’ve always considered myself a passionate person, more interested in spending my life making a life, than making a living. And yet, when I came into the circle of these three men, my personal passions seemed to fade into shadowy afterthought.

The first man you’ve already met in Sharks and Sailing Ships – Dr. Mark Marks. Here is a man who lives simply, yet most richly in experience. His entire adult life has been in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of a much maligned creature – the Great White Shark, a pursuit that leaves him traveling the world solo, with little material wealth.  And yet, when you meet him, you know something is different, out of the ordinary…from the handshake, to the smile, to the sparkle in the eyes when he discusses his life’s work.

The second man in this trio of light is Mike Austin. I ran into Mike on Saba on my most recent adventure. We actually knew each other over 20 years ago when I worked for a non-profit association of which Mike was a member. At that time he was out of the military and in his early forties teaching scuba diving on Little Cayman. Here he was, 24 years later, still teaching and dive mastering in his sixties, still so passionate about ‘his ocean’ and still refreshingly politically incorrect.

What was a mature, intelligent, physically fit, world-aware man doing on an obscure island, eking out a subsistence living in a work environment populated with transient twenty-something thrill seekers? Step aboard the dive boat MV Mystery with Mike as your personal guide and the query is answered…after 40 plus years of exploring the greatest waters in the world, Mike still has his passion, if anything it is stronger than ever. Underwater, this sun and sea-carved man becomes a wide-eyed child willing to share his life’s adventure with anyone willing to slow down and truly experience his uncommon world.

Rounding out these Musketeers of Passion is Daniel Joseph Gabriel Fitzgerald or Dan Dan the Fireman to his friends – of which he has many. Close your eyes and imagine the stereotypical fireman of Hollywood imagery and you’ve got Dan – a colossal, beer-drinking, Irish Catholic from New York. A big man to start with, Dan grows into a luminous giant when he begins to speak of his life and first love – firefighting.

When I asked Dan why he chose to become a firefighter, he gave me a big smile and said, “All of the superhero jobs were filled and this was the next best thing.” For over twenty years Dan has been doing ‘the next best thing” by saving lives, as well as mentoring others – sounds like a super hero to me.

These three men –disparate in personality, political views, careers and faith – all have that one seemingly rare quality that we should all strive for – passion. Whether our lives are simple or complicated; our jobs menial or grand; our health good or poor; wouldn’t it be wonderful to know how it feels to care passionately about something? To care so passionately that our lives take on greater definition and purpose?

Here’s to all the people I know –and who I’ve yet to meet – who have passion…thank you. When I think of you I can’t possibly be blue…even if it is still snowing!




Paraphrasing Potter Stewart

May 27th, 2013

I found myself praying for someone to yell “Fire!” (unfounded of course); for a really, really small earthquake; for the pregnant woman in the tenth row to go into labor. Please go into labor…Now.

The reason for my prayers? Bad art…truly bad, bad art; compounded by the inability to escape the crowded theater.

I – a lover of all things artistic and an artist myself –  found myself sitting in the jewel box Teatro Municipal Santiago this last December for a world premier production that I’m certain had Arnold Schoenberg’s bones restless in their grave.


Advertised as a concert, COTH, was more performance art…the kind of performance art that results from two or three really talented – disparately talented –artists sitting around a chipped Formica table  in a sweltering 6th floor walkup smoking too much dope and consuming too much KFC. Unemployed artists trying too hard to come up with a unique idea that will utilize and showcase each of their talents…think Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate.

I imagine their smoke-induced conversation…

Artist 1 “I’ve got these four Lipizzaner-type horses that are really talented- they can dance and play dead and they don’t mind if I dress up as a giant mordant butterfly and ride them around and around and around and around and around in circles in really dim lighting.”

Artist 2 “I’ve got this really great yogic body that with a very small, tight thong (and a can of silver spray paint)will really show off my ass…oh, and I can move very, very, very slowly.”

Artist 3 “I love Alan Berg and I’ve got a box of crickets.”

And yes, I paid money for this –along with several hundred others.  I don’t know if the robust applause at the conclusion was just for that – the conclusion, or perhaps they actually saw the Emperor’s new clothes.

There have been a few times in my ‘cultural arts attendance’  past when I’ve wished for Scotty to energize me away from the scene of the crime, and I must be truthful in admitting they all share a theme – atonal noise, umm, excuse me, music.

My first “is this art?” experience came at the hands of Peter Sellars, the then newly appointed artistic director for the Los Angeles Opera. Known for his cutting edge, out of the box view of the world – this is the man who cast Amanda Plummer as Juliet at the LaJolla Playhouse– Sellars decided to take a bite of the Alan Berg oeuvre and Wozzeck came to the LA stage. Known for its harsh subject matter, ugly language, and interminable, unapproachable atonal score, Wozzeck – at the hands of Sellars, became even uglier as it was set in a third world Latin American guerilla camp with the cast tromping around in fatigues and army boots, against a backdrop of camo netting, and, I swear, the buzz of mosquitoes.  Although I was appalled by what was being presented on the stage, I was even more so by the audience.  In a textbook case of mass hallucination, Wozzeck and Sellars were embraced and adored. The opera wasn’t ‘bad’, it was ‘challenging’ and Sellars was seen as a genius.

The second experience came in the historic La Scala Opera House in Milan just two years ago. I’ve tried numerous times during my travels to Europe to attend a performance at La Scala, to no avail. Opera tickets are reserved out nearly two years, and my schedule doesn’t allow for such advanced planning. However, when I arrived in Milan with a friend,  I immediately checked the La Scala box office, and  quell surprise, there were tickets available to a non-opera performance that very night.  Disappointed that it wasn’t an opera, but joyous at the opportunity to participate in a live performance, I purchased the tickets. The house was packed, mostly tourists like us just wanting a chance to see the inside of this glorious building where Toscanini premiered the beautiful and haunting works of Puccini.

As the lights dimmed, the opening act – an a cappella quartet – walked to center stage and presented a beautiful selection of classic secular and religious songs in Latin and Italian. Their voices filled the house, rich and nuanced. So far, so good.

And then the main act. The lights came up on five men sitting in a semi-circle – a violin, a guitar, a cello, an upright bass and a viola. Ahh, chamber music…lovely. The crowd clapped their acceptance, and around us, hundreds of young people – students apparently – opened up what appeared to be music scores. Wow, a world premier, this is going to be memorable! And so it was.

The five musicians began to beat up on their instruments. Strings were struck, tongues were clucked, the floor was stomped, and chairs were picked up and dropped. Sharps and flats were flung at each other and the beatings of the poor instruments continued for an hour. A brutal, ugly hour in which the students followed along in the score, quietly oohing and awing at the brilliant daring of the composer while Puccini, Verdi and Rossini wailed in the darkness. The saving grace for this evening was that both of us were able to find humor, albeit quietly, in the pretentious performance and the even more pretentious audience.  As we left La Scala, I looked at my friend (and to paraphrase past Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart) said, “I can’t define what is ‘bad art’, but I recognize it when I hear it.”




A Damp Beginning…but Adventure Awaits in Patagonia and Santiago

December 26th, 2012

Day 22 – Patagonia

I’ve been here for twenty two days, Here being Patagonia– the Chilean side. I’ve come for the fishing and my fly rod has been wet for twenty one days (it sits on the porch) – twenty one days of buffeting wind and monsoon rains that have blown out the Yelcho River and turned the towering Andes into a sci-fi fairy land of a thousand waterfalls criss-crossed with vivid rain bows.

Although I’ve not actually gotten on the water, I have had several hours of dry land (ok, really wet land) casting practice with sinking line; and am learning  to tie my own flies.

Despite the rains, the clients who have come to Puma Fishing Lodge in these weeks have all departed most pleased with their experience. Traveling via the comfortable PUMAII across Lago Yelcho to Rio Futalafu, our last group of six caught on average 100 fish a day. Massive browns and feisty rainbows, most in the 6 -10# range, were the standard each day and everyone was successful.

A new group arrives today and I am doing last minute prep on the menus and packing food for the transfer from the lodge to the PUMAII for a five day cruise. Although my main responsibility is chef, our American guests have invited me to fish with them and our Montana guides have assured me that there is a big brown with lots of attitude just waiting for one of my newly tied flies.

Day 31 – Patagonia

Rain. Rain. And Rain. Oh, did I mention ‘rain’?

I have seen the sun all of two days and not complete days at that.

Gentle rain, wispy rain, curtains of rain, solid walls of rain. Cold rain.
Warm  rain. Vertical  rain. Horizontal rain. And when the wind gusts, rain that appears to travel right back up to the sky.  And I won’t begin to describe the winds…we’ll save that for another day.

I think I am over rain, but it is not quite over me yet, so I am running away for Christmas. Running north to Santiago. Beautiful, hot, dry Santiago. For a few days I will have the opportunity to complain about the heat and use my lip balm to counteract the arid mountain air.

Day 35-38 – Santiago

SUNSHINE! I feel like Snoopy doing a Happy Dance, chasing my tail in glee. The Ice Breaker wool, polypro and rain jacket are stashed away and the trekking skirt and cotton blouse are on-as well as the sunscreen.

Santiago is vibrant as Christmas approaches. Not quite the shopping insanity of Estatos Unidos, but the pressure is obviously building.

I have embraced the Latin dining schedule (which is a bit tough as I am very much a morning person), spending my days walking and exploring finally sitting down at 10pm for a leisurely dinner. Christmas Eve I treated myself to dinner at one of Santiago’s finer establishments – Baco – an evening of indulgence beginning with a sinful foie gras accompanied with a delightful DryFarmed Old Bush Vine Carignan 2010 (Maule, Chile). (Since California has now outlawed foie gras -and other states will most likely follow- I seem to have acquired a taste for it…and yes, I’ve also acquired the necessary guilt to enjoy it completely.) An unidentified baked local chevre came next atop some beautiful, seemingly just picked lechuga. The cheese was aromatic and  pungent with just enough rind chew to embrace the silky core. A classic cassoulet followed brimming with duck and sausage. My two hour dinner (now approaching 11:30pm) was topped off with a fresh berry zabaglione and restretto.  Strolling out into the balmy evening air amongst hundreds of others enjoying the coolness, I almost missed the rain…not!

Christmas Day will find me on a tour to Valparaiso and Vina del Mar on the coast…more sunshine and more suncreen! Merry Christmas.

Kate Heads South….Way South!

October 9th, 2012

Winter plans are afoot for Chef Kate and the Horse. For the Horse, the late fall plans include several upgrades to the overnight rooms; preparing the gardens for their winter sleep; laying up fire wood; and giving the lodge some TLC in the form of fresh paint and newly oiled decks (normally a spring project but record rainfall this year put painting projects on hold).

By the time the first snow flies, the Horse will be securely tucked in for a long chilly sleep and Chef Kate will be off to her winter adventure – this year she heads to Patagonia

and some world-class dry fly fishing on the waters of Lago Yelcho  with the crew of Puma Fishing.  One of the most sought after fly fishing lodges in Chile, Puma Fishing has invited Kate to bring her culinary skills to their all ready well-respected kitchen for an exchange of ideas and dishes. And with only eight guests at the lodge at any given time, Puma Fishing owner, Steve Selway, has promised Kate plenty of time to perfect her roll cast on some monster rainbows and browns.

“It has been frustrating this year”, says Horse owner Kathleen Moon (aka Chef Kate). ” We’ve had a spectacular summer with guests from around the world – many coming here to fish our incredible waters in Swan Valley. So all summer long, I’m ‘talking’ fishing, but the Horse is a tough mistress and actually finding time to fish myself was near impossible. I’m going to make up for lost water time in Chile this winter, plus have a chance to learn a new cultural menu.”

It was a fishing guest visiting from France this summer that suggested Patagonia and Puma Fishing to Kathleen; a suggestion she quickly followed up on.

Guests planning on a NW Montana adventure next season are urged to include a day of guided fishing on one of the many trout-laden waterways near the Horse, including Swan River and the Blackfoot. The Horse recommends the guide services of Tom at Swan Mountain Outfitters and Jason at Bigfork Anglers and strongly suggests that a day on the river be reserved at the same time your stay at the Horse is booked.

As for Kate, she’s looking forward to that spine-tingling ‘zing’ when she hooks her first 20+ pounder on a dry dragon fly…don’t scoff! It could happen!


The Horse – “Seasonal Sensation” Featured in Montana Magazine

September 20th, 2012

The April issue of Montana Magazine featured The Horse in an article written by Sydne George. Titled “Seasonal Sensation”, George captured the true nature of the lodge and owner Kathleen Moon in words and photos that reflected the warmth and hospitality that for thirteen years has been the hallmark of this small Swan Lake lodge and bistro.

From the initial welcome by Nikki and Cooper, the two resident golden retrievers, to the morning ‘hello’ from Sampson the African Grey parrot, guests quickly understand that this is not a ‘motel as usual’ stay.

Currently celebrating a luxurious fall, the Horse is offering up a two night all-inclusive package featuring great wines and Chef Kate’s signature dishes from the kitchen. To discover this ‘seasonal sensation‘ before the late October closing, visit www.laughinghorselodge.com to learn more about the Fall Package and to make your reservations.


The Reason Why I Live Here…

August 25th, 2012

I was catering a political fundraiser on Swan River this past summer where many of the invited guests were long-time customers of the Horse resulting in a rather blurred line between being a hired service and just another attendee.

For some guests – those not my customers – the line was not blurred at all. They would not address me nor make eye contact; I was to them, just the hired help – invisible unless needed.  To be gracious, most of these folks were fairly new to the community, coming from metropolitan areas where class lines are more apparent and, I suspect, being held onto with renewed vigor as the ongoing recession brings those ‘with’ a little closer to those getting by ‘without’.

As the event matured and the provided banquet was rendered down to a few remaining (and wilting in the late afternoon heat) crudités, my catering attire was removed, the hair came down, and I became just another professionally dressed guest interested in the politics of the day.  Moving from one conversation cluster to another around the deck, I was now being introduced by friends to those very people who an hour before moved about me as if I were a cipher.

The handshakes; the eye contact; the ‘pleased to meet yous’ were all genuine, as were the brief but unmistakable contractions of the pupils and the slight furrowing of the brows that occur when one’s perspective of reality shifts.

This shift of perspective looms large among the reasons why I stay in such a small community when I obviously enjoy the activities and opportunities of big city life and exploring the lesser known areas of the world through my winter travels.  Although it wasn’t always so.

When I came here 13 years ago –  ‘dragged here kicking and screaming’ by my then partner who ‘just had to be in Montana!”- I justified the move with those trite and true plaudits of “clean air, clean water, open space, blah, blah, blah…”.  It has taken years and much growth to realize that although those might have been a few of the reasons for coming here, the reasons for staying are much more complicated because they revolve around the people more so than the place.

Thirteen years isn’t a very long time…a blink really, but for me it is a quarter of my life spent in one place. An unthinkable reality 14 years ago when a three year stint in an apartment or a job was considered long –term.  But as the years have moved inexorably onward I find myself caught up in the warp and weave of this tapestry that is the community of Bigfork extending defacto to Swan Lake.

The event on the river last summer offered up in a definitive moment what keeps me here – and in a word it is leveling.  This place has a strange power to level out society’s ‘haves’ and ‘have littles’ -or more accurately the ‘have differents”.

Like water seeking its own level, these folks that would not share anything in the big city, find themselves perhaps at first in some kind of commerce; whether it be firewood, water, grounds-keeping, boat maintenance, etc. But then both parties find themselves invited guests at a fete on the river; or dining next to each other at the Horse; or sharing elbow space and a beer at the Garden Bar.

I love introducing the retired multi-millionaire Republican building a 10,000 sq ft home on the lake to the Don’t Tread On Me man cutting firewood and living in a 600 sq ft cabin off the grid. Watching the interaction – first the commerce, perhaps of buying firewood, followed by the curiosity – of both parties. It is in this display of curiosity that the leveling begins as each begins to learn something of the other and to find respect for choices made, if not full agreement in the choices themselves. By making introductions and watching similar interactions over the years, I’ve learned that those that show no curiosity in the other generally don’t make it here, regardless of what side of the economic scale they are on.

Watching the transition of both sides – the leveling as it were – I can’t but marvel at how quickly we humans can adapt to shifting environments. And much like Darwin’s conclusions, those that won’t adapt simply disappear, or in the case of Bigfork, either put their property on the market and go back into the striated life from whence they came or truly disappear into the wilderness as self-sufficient as their explorer forbearers.

For those of us who stay, however, the rewards are incalculable.

Annual Beer Tasting at the Horse…what else can we do on a rainy Tuesday evening? Drink Beer!

June 14th, 2011

Our annual World Tour of Beer at the Horse is just around the corner, and like last year, the Horse will be the perfect place to cozy up with your friends as the rain continues to pour. 

The pros from Rocky Mountain Wine Distributors will be on hand with some exquisite and unique beer finds from Europe, the US, and  South America – 12 new beers and a table laden with the efforts of ‘yours truly’ and my new staff. 

We’ll be serving up Baked Figs wrapped in Bacon, fresh Ahi sashimi with wasabi sauce, smoked salmon sushi, over-the-top buffalo wings, and, my favorite, pork carnitas mini tacos with Gloria’s fresh salsa. And of course, we’ll be pulling out the stops on dessert…nothing like a fresh rhubarb and strawberry tart with a Belgian berry beer!

The Horse will add a few of your favorites to our Beer Menu for the summer  along with our draft offering for the season are three local beers – Great Northern Brewery’s Wheatfish and Kettlehouse’s Cold Smoke and Double Haul IPA.

The Tour begins at 6pm on Tuesday, June 21, at the Horse located at Milepost 71.5 on Hwy 83. $25 per person (beer tasters and eaters) and only $10 for designated drivers (non-drinkers). Reservations required. 406-886-2080.


Where’s Waldo? Or in this case, Where’s Chef Kate?

March 16th, 2011

Winter is quickly loosening its grasp on Swan Lake, although the shadowed snow drifts will probably remain until well into May. But with the temperatures nearing 50, thoughts turn to spring and the inevitable crush of a fun-filled, visitor-packed summer.

While the Horse still slumbers under several feet of snow, and Chef Kate still lingers somewhere near the equator, plans are underway for an exceptional year of good food, music and even better Montana hospitality at Laughing Horse Lodge.

So where exactly is our intrepid hostess? We caught up with Kathleen at a remote 5 star eco-resort on the west coast of Panama where for the past few months she has been guest chef, teacher, student and explorer…a typical winter for this 12 year Montana resident.“I originally came to Panama to build up my Spanish so that I could bring in a South American guest chef for the summer and have a way of communicating in the kitchen,” says Kathleen. But not satisfied to have just one ball in the air, the study trip turned into a temporary gig at one of Panama’s newest luxury resorts, Boutique Hotel Cala Mia located on an isolated Pacific island in the Archipelago Chiriqui.

“This has been an experience in self-sufficiency and creativity,” laughs Moon as she recounts the first trip to Isla Boca Brava…a two hour journey by bus, cab and boat from the nearest town. “ I arrived all jazzed only to discover that there wasn’t a single piece of chocolate on the island and it would be two more weeks before anyone was going shopping back on the mainland.”

Surrounded by troops of howler monkeys, noisy parrots, and a 3’ iguana living in the thatched ceiling of her bungalow, Kathleen went to work (without chocolate) with the property’s Italian owner Vittoria Ghini, establishing a Spanish-language SafeServe-style  training program for the kitchen, setting up an on-line reservation system, and giving the island chef a break each week. “It’s been a real struggle in the kitchen being ‘forced’ to work with fresh fish and lobster brought to the dock each afternoon,” Moon quips, a smile in her voice.  “I’ve also learned a bit about making artisan cheese…and in Panama of all places.”

Ghini, and her Dutch husband Max, opened the resort 4 years ago and  support the dining room at Cala Mia with an extensive organic farm and dairy operation located a few kilometers east on the island. Fresh arugula, herbs,  aubergine, peppers, tomatoes and a dry-land rice are produced, as well as organic butter, cream and an outstanding Gouda.

Building and maintaining a luxury eco-resort and an accompanying organic farm with a small but state of the art dairy processing facility would be a challenge even in the US or Europe, but to do so on a remote second-world  island with a single car ferry (built by Max) and the feat becomes extraordinary.

“These people are impressive,” states our traveler, “my highest complement to Vittoria and Max would be that with their independence and entrepreneurial abilities remind me of many of the Montanans I’ve befriended over the years.”

Kathleen returns home just in time to participate in the annual Taste of Bigfork on May 1st.  She’ll be bringing with her new ideas and a renewed dedication to providing even more organic offerings on her already outstanding menu.

The dining room at Laughing Horse Lodge reopens May 20th with dinner served Wednesday – Sunday, from 5pm. Reservations are highly suggested.

Howlers in the trees.

Pesce in Acqua Pazza – From the sea to the plate in minutes

March 5th, 2011

Cuando los ingredientes son óptimas, la cocina puede ser simple.”

“When the ingredients are optimum, the cooking can be simple”.

No truer words have been written, especially when it comes to fresh –beautifully fresh – fish still redolent of brine, eyes bright, firm fleshed and loaded with culinary possibilities. Last evening four Americans showed up at the dock, a stringer of corvina (sea bass) in hand, and a request for dinner. The menu was already set for the Cala Mia dining room, and with only 30 minutes before the hotel’s guests would be arriving, an uncomplicated dish was required.

I remembered reading David Shalleck’s Mediterranean Summer, a biographical journal of his first year’s as Chef on a luxury sailing yacht in the Med, and how he was challenged to create new dishes every day using only the freshest of ingredients for his discerning and demanding owners. Cheffing at an isolated island resort is similar to cooking on a yacht…you just can’t make a quick run to the market when the whim hits you. So you get creative and simplify, simplify, simplify…and use what your location offers up…in this case fresh fish.

One of Shalleck’s ‘go to’ recipes was Pesce in Acqua Pazza (Fish in Crazy Water), a traditional Neapolitan dish that exemplifies simplicity.  With Cala Mia’s ‘go to’ guy, Beto, cleaning the sea bass, I began to assemble the dish. Thirty minutes later, as our four fishermen finished their first course of organic gazpacho with Feta and virgin olive oil, their pesce was served.  After the ‘oohs and aahhs’, silence reigned as they quite obviously enjoyed their dish. (Although I would like to take full credit for its success, the kudos go to the Neapolitans who for centuries have mastered the art of simple, yet elegant dishes; and of course, the tasty corvina.)

Pesce in Acqua Pazza (Cala Mia Style)


Fresh fish…the best is flaky fish like halibut, snapper, bass or grouper.


Firm, ripe tomatoes

Italian Parsley



Kalamata Olives (optional)


Virgin Olive Oil

Sea salt and white pepper

[Although this recipe is designed for cooking whole fish, I have adjusted it to individual-serving stoneware  oven-to-table dishes.]

Brush the ramekins with olive oil.

Cut fish into 1″ chunks and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Layer the ramekins with thinly sliced leeks, zucchini and a touch of minced garlic.

Place the fish chunks on top of the vegetables.

Place thinly sliced tomatoes over the fish.

Sprinkle with minced parsley, a bit of diced kalamata olives and capers (rinse both well to remove excess brine).

Drizzle with olive oil and cover for the oven.

Note: The dish will appear somewhat dry, however, after 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven, the fish will be simmering in a lovely bath of ‘crazy water’. Do not overcook!

Bon appetit! Chef Kate