By Ellen Zoe Golden Photos courtesy: Anne Katherine Hjelset
There’s a beautiful, elegant woman welcoming the guests of El Coconut Restaurant every night. Anne Kathrine Hjelset came to her grace growing up in Aalesund in Norway, as well as England, the United States, and Hong Kong. As an adult, before moving to Tamarindo, Hjelset spent some time working for L’Oréal in Paris.
As to food, she was fascinated by the way both her grandmothers cooked, and many of the dishes customers dine on at El Coconut even incorporate some of the family’s recipes. After sampling langostinos (crawfish) with garlic butter, THE Tamarindo News talked with Hjelset to learn her amazing story.
THE Tamarindo News: How did your passion for food come about?
Anne Kathrine Hjelset: When I was young I used to make mudcakes for my mother with great pride. I’d decorate the plate with flowers and pretend to eat them with her. I always believed that the way to people’s hearts is through the stomach. I loved cooking, not professionally, but with love and passion. Years ago, I sat down with my grandmas to discuss my heritage, I wanted their recipes. They were all handwritten. One of them said I couldn’t have them, she was still using them. She was 86. The other said they were all dirty. I believe that dirty recipe pages meant they were well used. I have both of their recipes now and they are my most precious possessions. I use a lot for ideas here, and many are incorporated in my restaurant.
TNN: Before you came to Tamarindo you were working in Paris.
AKH: I was in the marketing at L’Oréal. My education and society that surrounded me expected me to have a true job, get higher education, sit in an office with a business card, and make a career step by step. But I decided I wanted something else. My dream was to build boutique cabinas on the beach. I drove around Costa Rica and something fell into place when I got to Tamarindo. I felt connected. I thought I’d stay two or three years then go back to structured society. Now its 16 years later.
TNN: How did you end up with a restaurant when you were thinking of cabinas?
AKH: I was actually getting a massage on the beach and the masseur mentioned that El Coconut was looking for new administration. One thing lead to another and here I am.
TNN: What was your vision for the restaurant?
AKH: I wanted a place where people would be happy, have a good time. Where one feels welcome and where the client is the king. Return customers are my highest compliments. Also, I wanted to respect Costa Rica with prices in colones being important to me. And, a team member might speak beautiful English, but if they don’t speak Spanish than that would be disrespectful to my host country.
TNN: How many languages do you speak?
AKH: A few. I speak some languages and understand others.
TNN: Do you put your marketing experience to use at El Coconut?
AKH: Not as much as I should. I did just recently change all the colors of the restaurant to different beiges, and painted, new table clothes, uniforms, new flyers and altered the menus in those color. When you have a business, whether it’s a restaurant or any other, you do as much as you can and 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but it is not enough. But I truly do enjoy being hands on, so I’m here most days all day. I get pride, and it feels good on the inside.
TNN: Have you changed the menu?
AKH: Earlier this year we had visiting chefs, so many of their dishes were incorporated into our menu. Like Jumbo Shrimp Tamal with plantain banana, ginger, star anise as well as lamb chops in portobello red wine reduction and mashed potatoes. And our specialty is still seafood and lobster with a tropical personality Lobster is the king of the ocean. We have the same consistent service and attention as always.
TTN: How have you lasted in Tamarindo?
AKH: 15 years ago, this location was outside of town, which went from the roundabout to the Diria so this was not the best location in the beginning. Tamarindo had no gas station, 2 old police officers and a scooter that never had any gas. I always brought them a gallon of gas to get around. But, if you go into the restaurant business to make money, and not concentrate on service, you will go out of business, because people will know. People love your happiness, and even become repeat diners because they like the treatment here. We have no employees here, we are a team. Life is easier now and I’m happy never unhappy. It feels good to say that with an honest heart. I make sure I go for a walk on the beach, see a sunset, and enjoy the beauty here.