Chefs Bring Argentine Fires to American Kitchens
When chefs think of Argentina, they go to a fundamental element that drives much of the cooking, and in turn, the culture, of the country: fire. But in Argentina, fire is more than just a way of cooking: it’s a way of life. Gauchos in the rugged hinterlands historically favored slowly roasting meat over an open flame. Today, asado refers both to a technique of cooking meat this way and to the social occasion surrounding it, which is often an all-day (and night) affair. “When my family cooks, we spend all day outside,” says Daniel “Danny” del Prado, the chef/owner of Martina, a forthcoming Argentine restaurant in Minneapolis, who grew up in Buenos Aires. “We have the fire going all day, while we’re doing other things or just hanging out, and we use it for everything, even a casual meal.”
This up-close-and-personal relationship with fire makes for a cuisine that’s rooted in simplicity (most of the food itself is just lightly seasoned before it’s cooked, and served without much in the way of sauces or garnishes), but complex in execution, thanks to the ever-evolving nature of a live fire itself. “It’s a living, breathing thing that you must pay attention to,” says Chris Hastings, the chef/owner of OvenBird in Birmingham, Ala. “Not a knob on a gas stove that you just turn to 400 degrees.”
Despite the challenges associated with recreating what is fundamentally an outdoor cooking experience in a restaurant setting, a growing number of chefs are inspired by Argentina and committed to cooking with live fire. Perhaps no figure has done more to bring awareness to this style of cooking than Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, who talks about his deep connection to nature and fire with a reverence bordering on mystical. He espouses the concept of cooking with “seven fires”: a parilla (a cast-iron grate placed over hot coals), chapa (a flat piece of cast iron set over a fire, like a griddle), horno de barro (a wood-fired oven), asador (cooking whole butterflied animals on an iron cross above a fire), rescoldo (burying ingredients with hot embers and warm ashes, often used for vegetables), caldero (a large cast-iron kettle) and infiernillo (two fires with a cooking level in between them).
Depending on space and logistics, chefs are able to recreate some or all of these methods with their fires. Some take a more traditional approach, hewing closer to the beef-centric menus that have popularized many an Argentine-themed steakhouse, while others use the country and its cuisine as a jumping-off point, melding the open-fire cooking techniques with ingredients and flavors not traditionally considered Argentine. One thing holds them all together: a deep and abiding respect for the art of cooking with live fire.
The wood gives an absolutely different and amazing flavor to everything it touches—it’s smoky and roasty, and seals in the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, making it taste more intensely like itself.
Mario Catalan, Bar Vasquez, Baltimore
The Steakhouse Approach
Bar Vasquez in Baltimore bills itself as an Argentine restaurant, built around the holy trinity of the country’s cooking: meat, fire, and seasonal ingredients. Executive Chef Mario Catalan grew up in Guerrero, Mexico, where his family cooked beef and goat over an open flame in the mountains. Still, there was a learning curve when it came to mastering the restaurant’s signature mixed asado ($78, recipe), a sprawling platter cooked on the parilla, consisting of bone-in rib steak, sweetbreads, pork and blood sausages with vegetables and chimichurri that’s meant to mimic the large-format feasts in Argentina.
“The challenge is to keep the fire consistent during service,” says Catalan. “You need to keep moving wood around, while putting the ingredients in the right spot based on the temperature you need for them.” He adds that a steak might get quickly seared over the high-heat zone in the middle of the parilla, while vegetables are cooked at a lower temperature and quickly pulled to retain their crunch. The platter itself is a relatively straightforward composition, but Catalan says that’s the point: “The wood gives an absolutely different and amazing flavor to everything it touches—it’s smoky and roasty, and seals in the flavor of whatever you’re cooking, making it taste more intensely like itself.”
Alejandro “Alex” Morgan opened Lolinda, an Argentine-style steakhouse in San Francisco, with a four-by-three-foot grill that burns primarily oak wood, which Morgan likes for its smoky-yet-indistinct flavor (as opposed to the strong, specific flavors of fruitwoods, which chefs use to cook specific ingredients like seafood or game). It takes close to two hours to bring the grill to the correct temperature, which involves building a large flame and carefully reducing it to take advantage of the embers and different heat zones. “Cooking this way is definitely a process,” Morgan says.
Beef is the star of the menu at Lolinda, though it shares the spotlight with housemade sausages (which Morgan keeps on a rack above the grill to absorb extra smoky flavor) and whole roasted vegetables like artichokes, cauliflower and corn. But the breakout dish on Morgan’s grill is the chuleta, a 15-ounce hunk of pork from the shoulder ($24, recipe). Pork isn’t necessarily common in an Argentine asado, but “because the wood fire is so hot and smoky, it almost ends up tasting like a Christmas ham,” Morgan says. He brines the pork so the sugars caramelize in the flame, and slow-cooks the meat so it stays deeply juicy.
Many restaurants with a wood-fired grill also operate with a gas line to round out the kitchen, but in Birmingham, Hastings wanted to cook without what he calls the “safety net” of gas. “We begin our day by building a fire, and organize ourselves around the rhythm of that fire,” he says. “It’s simple, rustic and intense, and that’s what I love about it.”
Hastings’ custom setup includes a cast-iron oven on a winch that allows it to be lowered for service, after he spit-roasts, ash-cooks or otherwise indirectly heats ingredients below, often a multi-hour process that takes place in the afternoon. There’s also a plancha, a grill and a burn box, along with the wood-burning oven.
OvenBird’s food is inspired by the live-fire cooking traditions of Argentina, Uruguay, Spain and Portugal, but also by Hastings’ love of the outdoors in the American South. The menu goes way beyond steak, featuring local game, Gulf fish and produce from nearby farms. His spit-roasted duck with ash-baked onion, pinkeye peas, sweet corn, okra and charred tomato vinaigrette ($13, recipe) nods to his passion for duck hunting, and the vegetables are a take on the Southern classic, succotash. It’s also a way to utilize multiple components of the fire, which Hastings relishes: “There’s so many different techniques you can explore using the different heats,” he says. “It’s not just a fire; it’s an ebb and a flow, and if you slow down and take advantage of that, it’s a pretty interesting way to cook every day.”
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Portland, Ore., fell in love with the simplicity of wood-fire cooking well before they opened Ox, which they describe as “Argentine-inspired Portland food.” “We always knew that regardless of what kind of restaurant we’d open, there would be a wood-burning grill in it,” Quiñónez Denton says. Their 38-inch Grillworks setup is separated in the middle, so that both sides raise and lower independently, and features slats in a V-shape, as opposed to a flat grill or grate, allowing the chefs to collect the juices and fats that render off, which they then use to baste the meats while they cook. “We call it black gold,” says Denton.
Their menu prominently features local produce and seafood, with several vegetarian options to defy the steakhouse stereotype, including a coal-roasted spaghetti squash with toasted garlic, lemon and aged goat cheese ($10, recipe) that was inspired by spaghetti aglio e olio. (“There’s a huge Italian influence on food in Argentina,” Quiñónez Denton notes.) But when it comes to meat, they intentionally showcase cuts that may be more typical in the Latin American kitchen, such as lamb heart, beef tongue, and flanken-style short ribs ($27, recipe), which benefit from a long, slow trip to the flame.
“There is a place for medium and medium-well meat with the right cut,” says Denton. “Something like the short ribs is a perfect example—the longer it cooks, the more tender it tastes.” “It’s one of the first things that goes on the grill before service,” adds Quiñónez Denton. “We let them go over low heat, get nice grill marks and get all caramelized, and then let them sit. That’s like what you’d see in Argentina—most of the meat there is cooked quite a bit and is just off to the side staying warm, until it’s flashed over a hot part of the grill to rewarm it before serving. We felt like there needed to be some of those things on the menu.”
It’s fitting that Argentine chef Norberto Piattoni, one of the more experimental live-fire chefs today, spent several years working with Mallmann before opening his own restaurant, Mettā, in Brooklyn. In between, Piattoni worked at Bar Tartine, where he picked up an avid interest in techniques of preservation, such as fermentation, curing and dehydration.
It’s a living, breathing thing that you must pay attention to, not a knob on a gas stove that you just turn to 400 degrees.
Chris Hastings, OvenBird, Birmingham, Ala.
“So basically what I’m trying to do now is combine old-world techniques—cooking with fire and preserving food—with local and seasonal produce, keeping everything sustainable,” he says. Piattoni’s kitchen features a 55-inch custom-designed grill with a fire pit, parilla, plancha and hanging fire baskets. It also has a gas grill, in an attempt to avoid undue environmental strain by burning all wood. His menu is vegetable-heavy, often using meat as an accent (if at all), with only a single steak in sight. Piattoni is interested in using lesser-known cuts, such as beef heart, which he chars in coals and serves as carpaccio with preserved cubanelle peppers and leeks; and crispy lamb neck served over sour puréed parsnip soup with sunflower seeds ($16, recipe).
“The sour soup was actually inspired by Polish pickle soup,” says Piattoni, who learned about Eastern European cuisine while working at Bar Tartine. “We purée any kind of vegetable we can preserve in-house, which could be parsnips or squash or cabbage or carrots,” he says, and combine that with lamb neck—a lean, underutilized cut—that’s first seared on the plancha before being braised in the oven overnight. Piattoni then picks the meat clean and roasts it next to the flame until it becomes crispy. “In Argentina we eat a lot of off-cuts,” he says. “It’s a really respectful way not to waste a single part of the animal.”
Daniel del Prado in Minneapolis acknowledges that he’s pushing the boundaries of what people consider to be Argentine food at his forthcoming restaurant, where nearly all of the fish will be cooked with live fire.
“The flavors in seafood are more subtle compared to red meat, so it doesn’t need to stay in the fire for too long and get overpowered by the smoky flavor,” he says. “Cooking seafood on open fire is one of the easiest things, and you can be very creative with it.” Some of his dishes, like the grilled octopus with bone marrow and charred tomato jam (recipe), utilize different parts of the grill to cook multiple ingredients simultaneously—for example, a hot zone for flash-grilling the braised octopus, and a medium-hot area for slow-roasting the bone marrow and tomatoes.
For del Prado, it all speaks to the simplicity of Argentine cooking, where the focus is on expressing ingredients in their almost-pure state. Fire is an essential part of this process, he says, noting that rather than loading up ingredients with excess seasoning or sauces, he sometimes seasons the fire itself with spices like coriander or eucalyptus. “I use fire as a flavoring agent,” he says, neatly summarizing the appeal of this ancient technique.
Jamie Feldmar is a New York City-based food writer.