THE WELL Editors
Executive Chef at Hacienda AltaGracia shares how she prioritizes wellness in and out of the kitchen (and eating nutritious, local ingredients is just the start).
As the Executive Chef at Hacienda AltaGracia, Liezl Odendaal stands at the helm of the property’s two kitchens, sourcing primarily local ingredients and crafting nutrient-dense dishes.
But her passion for food and cooking sustainably started long before she arrived in Costa Rica in her grandfather’s produce-packed garden. Growing up surrounded by peach trees, passionfruit vines, raspberry hedges and various veggies, the chef learned to respect ingredients, their roots and their ability to nourish early on.
Odendaal ultimately went on to graduate from the Institute of Culinary Arts in Stellenbosch, South Africa before building an impressive resume of food-centric experiences both in and out of the kitchen.
After COVID-19 hit, though, the chef felt like she needed a change. So, she — along with her culinary expertise and 18 years in hospitality — jumped at the opportunity to move to Central America, where she's able to consciously curate menus that are unique to her location in the Talamanca mountains and healthful.
What brought you to wellness?
While I’ve always prepared and eaten food in a healthy way and primarily consumed a plant-based diet since a young age, moving to Costa Rica really offered a new perspective on wellness. With such a plethora of produce and nutritious ingredients right outside my door, it’s become even clearer to me that cooking healthfully isn’t all that difficult — you just need to take the time to be informed and make the decision to prioritize wellness in the kitchen.
What does wellness mean to you?
Balance of what I consume physically (i.e. food and drinks) and mentally (i.e. thoughts, feelings, vibes).
Name three non-negotiables in your life.
An outside space where I can cook on a fire, an extremely comfortable feather pillow and time in nature, be it by the beach or in the mountains, since I always find watching the sunrise and sunset to be inspiring.
RELATED: How Nature Heals Us
The book you own that is the most dog-eared?
Currently, it’s The Latin American Cookbook by Virgilio Martínez Véliz, a Peruvian chef and restaurateur. It comprises many traditional recipes from Central and South America with a brief history of each dish and really documents the lost and sometimes forgotten recipes from various tribes from these lands.
What’s one way you take care of your mind every day?
When COVID-19 hit South Africa, my husband and I started cooking meals for homeless people in Cape Town and continued to do so throughout the city’s lockdown (about three months). It was an intense, humbling experience that showed me first-hand what people don’t have and, as a result, taught me the importance of continuously being thankful for my surroundings and loved ones.
In addition to practicing gratitude daily, I also take care of mental health by volunteering, which keeps me grounded and continuously reminds me of what’s important in life.
“For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life, pay attention to what you pay attention to.” – Amy Krouse Rosenthal
The key to a good night's sleep?
To be content with the day that’s passed. And if that’s not possible or I struggle to sleep for another reason, I practice left-nostril breathing as instructed by Valerie Oula, Director of Vibrational Energy Healing at THE WELL New York, and burn palo santo, which can have a cleansing effect on the mind.
RELATED: Use Your Senses to Sleep Better
When you feel a cold coming on you…
Whip up a cocoa and spicy chili tea. Organic cocoa contains theobromine, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and the same is true about the capsaicin in chili peppers. Research also suggests that capsaicin may relieve symptoms such as congestion. Here’s how to make the immune-boosting beverage:
+ 300 ml (~1 1/4 cups) water, boiled
+ 1 dried chipotle chili (or any dried variety available)
+ 50 grams cocoa nibs
+ 2 cinnamon stalks
+ 1 tsp fresh ginger, chopped
+ 1 cardamom pod, crushed
+ 2 tbsp honey
+ 1 lemon slice
+ Place water in a tea kettle on the stove.
+ As the water boils, chop up chilis, cocoa nibs and ginger and crush the cardamom pod. Add to a large pitcher with the cinnamon sticks.
+ When the kettle sounds, pour the hot water over the ingredients and let sit for 5-8 minutes to infuse before straining. (You can keep some cocoa nibs for a bit of a crunch, if interested.)
+ Pour into a mug, add honey and lemon and enjoy.
RELATED: Drink This, Stay Well
In a word: provenance. If you know where your ingredients come from, you will automatically respect them more, waste less and eat healthier. So, start with what’s grown nearby and in season — and avoid processed foods.
Instant mood lifter?
Conversations with family and friends, picking fresh flowers or making cheese.
When you really need to chill out, you…
Listen to Nina Simone, The National or Foo Fighters or read a book by Haruki Murakamai, a Japanese author whose writing is captivating.
Instagram account(s) you can’t stop double-tapping?
How do you bring wellness into your kitchen? And your cooking?
By making sure everyone in the team is having fun and knows the value they bring to the team. Wellness at work, at least to me, means that we enjoy what we do, that we are equally as eager to teach as we are to listen, that we respect one another and that we work hard together.
As for bringing wellness into my cooking? I do this by prioritizing sustainability: knowing where my ingredients come from, understanding the sourcing footprint left behind when taking them from the environment and utilizing them with respect to bring out the best qualities possible (think: flavor, complexity, nutrition).
Preferred mode of movement?
Pilates and hiking.
Podcast you’re super into right now?
New Worlder, which explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond.
What’s one dish you make that instantly makes you feel better both mentally and physically?
This is a difficult one, as I'm married to a chef. Any food he prepares for me is guaranteed to make me feel better mentally and physically thanks to the combination of care and love that he puts into preparing a meal for me. But it also doesn’t hurt that it’s undoubtedly delicious (he is a chef after all), and I don’t have to help make it. (Oh and he’s also very good at washing dishes.)
What are three ingredients you always turn to?
Citrus juice for balance of flavors, fermented chili sauce and fresh herbs.
Coffee, tea or other?
Coffee and tea.
At the moment, I’m really digging natural process coffee beans from Costa Rica. Unlike the majority of specialty coffee out there, the natural process variety involves fermenting and drying the whole coffee bean (including the outside shell), which ultimately gives the beverage a robust flavor and taste profile. It’s so amazing no milk of any kind or sugar is needed, trust.
As for tea, I’m a long-time fan of rooibos tea, which is not only high in antioxidants but it’s also made from a plant that’s native to South Africa. So, it is especially comforting and gives me a sense of home. Pro tip: Add some chamomile flowers to the drink in the evening to relax.
Snack you pack when you’re on the go?
Fresh fruit and homemade honey- and cocoa-coated almonds.
Wellness travel essentials?
It’s simply: Drink lots of water, every hour, every day (I work in hot kitchens). I’m able to do this by keeping a large bottle of sparkling H2O by my side at all times. I also eat lots of watermelon and cucumber, which are loaded with water.
Last time you laughed — and at what?
We have a phenomenal kitchen team at Hacienda AltaGracia with a great sense of humor. We laugh every day about many things; everyone does a bit of stand up every now and again.
Culinary staple(s) you can’t live without?
A sharp, all-purpose knife, such as the Ikon 6” Chef Knife from Wusthof. After that, I'd say a large, stainless steel whisk, which is great for making vinaigrettes, whisking eggs or whipping up desserts by hand, followed by the Artisan Series Extra Coarse Cheese Grater from Microplane. When you grate medium-to-hard cheese with this paddle-shaped tool, it falls very softly over a dish and covers it beautifully. It’s a delight to use.