Tomas Chavarria, The Study chef, brings modern flair to Mesoamerican food

Tomas Chavarria, The Study chef, brings modern flair to Mesoamerican food
Photo/Scott Suchman Tomas Chavarria is the new executive chef at King & Rye and The Study at Morrison House.

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Tomas Chavarria is bringing Alexandria a modern twist on the Mesoamerican flavors he grew up with in Costa Rica. Chavarria is the newly appointed executive chef for both King & Rye in The Alexandrian, located at 480 King St., and The Study, a recently reopened cocktail bar inside boutique hotel Morrison House.

According to Chavarria, he grew up watching his grandmother and mother working in the kitchen. At age 6, his grandmother, who he called “a superfreak with seafood,” taught him to make tortillas and filet a fish, and he hasn’t stopped since.

“I remember turning to grandma [when I was 11] and saying, ‘Hey, I wanna be a chef.’ Coming from a family where all my brothers, sisters and mom, they are in the pharmaceutical industry, so it’s a 9 to 5 schedule and I wanted to be a chef,” Chavarria said. “My grandma was the one always supporting me to go into that career.”

His first professional restaurant experience came when he was 16 and he was working on the weekends with an Argentinian restaurant owner who was a family friend. Chavarria recalled learning the ins and outs of Argentinian barbeque, the difference between various kinds of meat and traditional grilling techniques.

“I’m always super familiarized with working in open wood spit fires, those ancestral techniques that come from Mesoamerica, like smoking and cooking everything on the charcoals,” Chavarria said.

His first job proved to his mother that a culinary career was a legitimate possibility, and after graduating from high school, he attended the culinary arts program at Universidad Politécnica Internacional in Costa Rica’s Heredia province. During the day, Chavarria sharpened his mind in class, while at night he sharpened his knife at the university’s French fine dining restaurant.

Chavarria went on to learn from Michelin Star chefs like Charlie Palmer while working in New York City.

“To be honest, they show you to be passionate about what you’re doing. When I was working in New York, I was doing 16 to 18 hour shifts a day, sleeping three to four hours, but I think, as a chef, we’re freaks with perfection,” Chavarria said.

At age 25, Chavarria became the youngest executive chef in Costa Rica while working at two hotels. He went on to work for Marriott International, overseeing restaurant openings and operations for hotels in Cancun, Mexico City, Havana and Dubai.

Most recently, Chavarria served three years as head chef for a restaurant at the Crimson Resort and Spa Boracay in the Philippines, a huge dream for an Asian food lover like Chavarria. In that time, his restaurant earned accolades as one of the 20 best restaurants in the Philippines and one of the 50 best in all of Asia.

Now, Chavarria has come to Alexandria, although in many ways he is returning home. He is bringing some Latin American flavors to King & Rye, but his work at The Study finds him calling upon the skills he learned as a 16-year-old in Costa Rica.

According to Chavarria, Mesoamerican food is “the food of trade” and comes primarily from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Panama. During the 16th century, the Mesoamerican region became the fastest and easiest region for traders to send Asian, European and Middle Eastern goods to North and South America.

“One of the cool things that I always tell to people is food, besides being the language of love or charity, is also the language of trading, of tradition, of history,” Chavarria said.

Even though the ingredients are deceptively simple, the flavor profile of Mesoamerican food is “a boiler room of all these traditions, all of this culture and all of this rehearsal of techniques behind it,” Chavarria said.

“That’s one of the basic points behind The Study, bringing that cultural mix between all of these cultures to modern American cuisine because at the end of the day modern American cuisine is playing with your ingredients, playing with your technique but showcasing [the product],” Chavarria said.

The Study, located at 116 S. Alfred St., is itself a melting pot of culinary traditions, techniques and memories for Chavarria, who said the menu is made up of recipes from his grandmother and dishes that he grew up eating almost every day, like steak and onions.

“I remember my grandpa having a piece of steak, throwing it in a cast iron pan, throwing some onions on top and cooking it and serving it to us,” Chavarria said. “That was his favorite meal. He was eating it five, six times a week, and it really was the most honest piece of meat with just onions and butter. I always wanted to think, ‘How can I elevate this into fine dining cuisine?’”

At The Study, Chavarria has answered that question with a 60-day dry aged cut of steak sourced from Seven Hills in Lynchburg, Virginia, served with an onion puree, onion ashes and lizano jus, the Costa Rican equivalent of Worcestershire sauce that comes with a kick. The menu also features his grandmother’s tres leches and corn cake recipes.

One of Chavarria’s favorite dishes at The Study is the Caribbean rundown stew, a creamy mix of octopus, clams, Atlantic cod, red snapper, potatoes and fresh coconut milk.

The saying goes that “you can’t go home again,” as memory, reality and the gradual change that comes with time will always collide to make a true homecoming impossible. For Chavarria, it seems the saying is integral to his approach at The Study, where he takes childhood inspirations and spins them into new tales.

“For me, it’s always about the storytelling. I think every chef needs to be telling a story behind their plates,” Chavarria said.