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When Jack Stewart graduated from culinary school in Toronto, he didn't anticipate living his dream life in the colonial city of León, Nicaragua. He left Canada in 2001 and started a restaurant in Costa Rica. "When I was in Costa Rica, tourism was dropping. But the Nicaraguan economy was growing and when residence laws changed making it easier to live here, I made the decision and fell in love with what I found here."
And why León? "León chose itself for me," Jack says. "I'd been fishing lobster in the Corn Islands after closing my restaurant in Costa Rica and came here. I met a girl, and you know how that goes."
When Jack settled in León he started another restaurant, Cafetin Don Jack's. "Right now it is just a little restaurant. I'm just taking it easy and cooking food for people who pass by. I just do dinner now -- there are a lot of restaurants in town that serve pretty cheap food, so I focus on more discerning tastes in the evenings."
And if you find yourself at one of Jack's four tables for dinner you'll learn exactly what Jack likes to eat... because that's exactly what he cooks. "It's like you're coming to my house and I'm cooking for you... African, Indian, South American. Normally what I make is what I want to eat."
Jack's restaurant fits in very nicely with the dining options in León... a city that is getting a growing amount of attention and a growing number of tourists. Home to around 180,000 people León was once the capital of the country, and it's rich in history. You're never more than a few blocks from a historic church or building or a tree-shaded colonial square. (Just as well in a part of the country where the temperature averages 85 F most of the year.)
But it's also a city with a young vibe thanks to its long history as Nicaragua's major university center, and entertainment and dining options are growing right along with the steady rise in Nicaraguan and international tourism. And being just 20 minutes from some of Nicaragua's best Pacific coast beaches doesn't hurt, either. Like many other places in Nicaragua, León is benefiting from a country-wide increase in infrastructure and services.
"We don't have the water outages and power outages we used to have seven years ago," says Jack. "In the dry season, the water and electricity would cut out... not anymore."
Getting back and forth to the capital, Managua, is easy and fast thanks to the improved highway. But Jack still spends most of his time in León because the lifestyle suits him. "If I'd wanted to make lots of money, I would have stayed in Canada," says Jack.
"As a restaurateur, I'm open until 11 p.m., then I go shoot pool with friends. In the morning I get up and go off to market -- Fridays and Mondays are the days to go for fresh produce. I go through, say hello, come back and make a dish for the night. Pretty easy."