With Black Restaurant Week being followed up with another week of events closing the summer, food enthusiasts out and about likely saw a familiar cart and face around Madison as Chef Thony “The Mango Man” Clarke brought his Latin-Caribbean flavors around town with Cafe Costa Rica.
Cafe Costa Rica has been an established name in Madison for almost two decades. Starting first as a food cart a few years after Clarke immigrated to the US in 1998, Cafe Costa Rica soon developed into a restaurant. When it came to selling food, Clarke already had experience from his time in his home country, and knew what he was in the business for.
“In Costa Rica, if I wanted to do music, I needed to be independent,” Clarke told Madison365. “To be independent, I needed to do something that I could let go anytime to be able to do music. I put the business together with my mom. Selling the Jamaican patties and breads and stuff like that. I did that day in and day out walking all over the city and suburbs. I did that for a lot of years, and because of that I was able to buy my mom a house.”
Being the seventh of 11 children gave Clarke a lasting perspective on how to maintain and survive through struggle. Although there were times when resources and opportunity were very scarce, the value of both hard work and love for food were passed on from his mother.
Clarke grew the business into a brick-and-mortar restaurant because it was the logical next step, but it didn’t quite feel right. For Clarke, food and food service has always been more about providing and creating joy than expanding exponentially.
“I found at a certain point in 2014 I looked at myself and I said, ‘What are you doing man? Are you happy? Are you having fun with this? Is this what you really wanted to do,’” questioned Clarke. “Together with my wife, we decided nope, this is not what I want to do. I like cooking, I like feeding people and making them happy, but there’s a lot more to the thing.”
Clarke eventually shut down the restaurants to return to the food cart and launched Mango Man Cooks, where he focuses on sauces and catering as well.
Wanting to both be successful while maintaining his ambition and intimacy with the process led to Clarke seeking success outside definitions of money and fame.
“When I shut down the restaurants, I was thinking, ‘Dude/, you went through all this stuff, and you have a history here. You’re supposed to share this stuff the real way,’” Clarke explained. “Not the way of being super famous, being able to relate to my people even though I’m in a different country. We are Black and we are everywhere. I want to be able to pass on real skills, and how things are done.”
As a Black restaurant owner and known community member in Madison, Clarke stressed the importance of leading by example. This is especially true for young people who Clarke says need older people and mentors in their life to teach them and enable them to manifest their goals and ambitions as individuals.
Serving as an inspiration was not always in Clarke’s plans, but the love the community has for him is evident, particularly in how many responded to a car accident that nearly took his life last year. Support from the Madison community and taking some time to adjust has been vital, and Clarke is still dealing with some lingering aches and pains from the incident. But waiting idly to recover is something outside of the imagination for the energetic Mango Man.
“I’m still doing my (physical therapy) sessions,” Clarke assured. “My lower back and my right shoulders are messed up, and my neck is freaking out, but that’s not gonna stop me from doing what I need to do. My lawyer told me, ‘You need to take it easy.’ I’m like, what is that? I got a job to do. It hurts, but I have to do it. I’m going to the (physical therapy) session, so you can prove that I’m doing what I need to do, but I still need to provide.”
Provide Clarke certainly has, with his active schedule getting out to events around the Madison area, and around the state. His goal to spread his flavors to anyone open to try has put his focus on expanding his Mango Man Sauces line which can be found at multiple locations around town.
The sauces, as well as his cooking, can all be traced back to Clarke’s mother, and those authentic Jamaican-Costa Rican roots are what he hopes shine the most through the tastes he provides.
“I base everything that I do on my mother. People ask me all the time, ‘How do you come up with this stuff?’ I didn’t, I’m honest,” he said. “That’s what she taught me. Her mother and her mother’s mother taught her, so I just happened to be the one in my family who paid attention. Paid attention not to the overall thing, but to the details. The details are where the flavors are. It’s about the little things. What I’m trying to give people is a little bit of my culture, a little bit of what I went through. Therefore, a little bit of my mom, which is pure love.”
To learn more about Chef Thony “Mango Man” Clarke and Cafe Costa Rica, as well as find where to purchase sauces and food, visit the Cafe Costa Rica website here.