Gaucho grill: Argentine cuisine glows with wood-fire cooking

 
 
Posted1/2/2018 7:00 AM
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  • In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, a hamburger sits for display before a wood-fueled fire at Kon Kon restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentine cuisine has long been known worldwide for its barbecued beef, but chefs there are now taking the country's passion for grilling with wood to a new level and earning international recognition by experimenting with new dishes in open-fire ovens, including fast food.

    In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, a hamburger sits for display before a wood-fueled fire at Kon Kon restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentine cuisine has long been known worldwide for its barbecued beef, but chefs there are now taking the country's passion for grilling with wood to a new level and earning international recognition by experimenting with new dishes in open-fire ovens, including fast food. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, smoke rises above a cook preparing plates of food using a wood-burning oven at Buenos Aires's food fair Masticar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Food critic and journalist Nico Visne says Argentine cooking is going through a very important moment. "It's based in our gaucho (cowboy), indigenous and immigrant cooking, and there's this return to the real flavors and the fire."

    In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, smoke rises above a cook preparing plates of food using a wood-burning oven at Buenos Aires's food fair Masticar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Food critic and journalist Nico Visne says Argentine cooking is going through a very important moment. "It's based in our gaucho (cowboy), indigenous and immigrant cooking, and there's this return to the real flavors and the fire." Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, flame-cooked corn on the cob sits on a plate at Bestia restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Its co-owner, chef Nacho Trotta, traveled for weeks through Alabama, New Orleans and Texas to incorporate smoking and barbecue methods of southern cuisine.

    In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, flame-cooked corn on the cob sits on a plate at Bestia restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Its co-owner, chef Nacho Trotta, traveled for weeks through Alabama, New Orleans and Texas to incorporate smoking and barbecue methods of southern cuisine. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 13, 2017 photo, calamari cooks inside a wood-burning oven at Proper restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The restaurant, located in a refurbished auto-repair shop in Argentina's capital, was recently named in the Latin American edition of the prestigious San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

    In this Nov. 13, 2017 photo, calamari cooks inside a wood-burning oven at Proper restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The restaurant, located in a refurbished auto-repair shop in Argentina's capital, was recently named in the Latin American edition of the prestigious San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, a barbecued rib sits on a plate at the Bestia restaurant that specializes in using fire and wood-burning ovens in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Food critic Peter Kaminsky says Argentina's most famous chef, Francis Mallmann, who began his career cooking French food, resonated with Argentine chefs when he said it was acceptable for Argentine chefs to cook the way that Argentines do, not just the way that the French do or the Italians do.

    In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, a barbecued rib sits on a plate at the Bestia restaurant that specializes in using fire and wood-burning ovens in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Food critic Peter Kaminsky says Argentina's most famous chef, Francis Mallmann, who began his career cooking French food, resonated with Argentine chefs when he said it was acceptable for Argentine chefs to cook the way that Argentines do, not just the way that the French do or the Italians do. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, bread cooked with a wood-burning oven sits at Proper restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Fire is a very strong part of Argentina's identity," said Augusto Mayer, who launched Proper last year with fellow chef Leo Lanussol. "We have a bunch of ways of cooking with wood and we're harnessing the potential of that type of cooking."

    In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, bread cooked with a wood-burning oven sits at Proper restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Fire is a very strong part of Argentina's identity," said Augusto Mayer, who launched Proper last year with fellow chef Leo Lanussol. "We have a bunch of ways of cooking with wood and we're harnessing the potential of that type of cooking." Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 14, 2017 photo, chef Nacho Trotta prepares plates at the restaurant he co-owns, Bestia, which uses fire and wood-burning ovens in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trotta incorporates smoking and barbecue methods from U.S. southern cuisine into tender ribs and others dishes that he slowly cooks for more than 10 hours.

    In this Nov. 14, 2017 photo, chef Nacho Trotta prepares plates at the restaurant he co-owns, Bestia, which uses fire and wood-burning ovens in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trotta incorporates smoking and barbecue methods from U.S. southern cuisine into tender ribs and others dishes that he slowly cooks for more than 10 hours. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, chef Nacho Trotta shows the wood he uses to cook with at the restaurant he co-owns, Bestia, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Firewood is the engine of this restaurant," he said. "You can't get this type flavor from a gas grill or a frying pan."

    In this Nov. 17, 2017 photo, chef Nacho Trotta shows the wood he uses to cook with at the restaurant he co-owns, Bestia, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. "Firewood is the engine of this restaurant," he said. "You can't get this type flavor from a gas grill or a frying pan." Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, a mural of a lumberjack decorates Kon Kon restaurant, which serves food cooked over an open flame and wood-burning oven, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. People come here for shawarmas cooked with embers instead of the traditional rotisserie.

    In this Nov. 11, 2017 photo, a mural of a lumberjack decorates Kon Kon restaurant, which serves food cooked over an open flame and wood-burning oven, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. People come here for shawarmas cooked with embers instead of the traditional rotisserie. Associated Press

  • In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, vegetables sit on a wood-burning grill at Grand Gran Dabbang restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While cooking by fire may be the oldest, most primitive way of cooking food, a growing number of chefs around the world have elevated wood-fire cooking to new heights at some of the most acclaimed restaurants.

    In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, vegetables sit on a wood-burning grill at Grand Gran Dabbang restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina. While cooking by fire may be the oldest, most primitive way of cooking food, a growing number of chefs around the world have elevated wood-fire cooking to new heights at some of the most acclaimed restaurants. Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Flames glow, smoke billows and the aroma of slowly burning logs blends with the flavors of lightly charred calamari with broccoli and aioli cooked inside a handmade wood-fired oven.

Like other dishes at Proper restaurant, essential ingredients for this house favorite are timber and fire. Proper was recently named in the Latin American edition of the prestigious World's 50 Best Restaurants list, part of Argentina's growing international recognition for creative open-flame cooking.

The sacred Argentine "asado," or barbeque, brings together families and friends, regardless of social class, and is a source of national pride. While grilling in other countries involves gas or store-bought charcoal, the Argentine way is often more primal - just wood, flames and meat.

"Fire is a very strong part of Argentina's identity," said Augusto Mayer, who launched Proper last year in a refurbished auto-repair shop with fellow chef Leo Lanussol. "We have a bunch of ways of cooking with wood and we're harnessing the potential of that type of cooking."

Diners stand in long lines every night outside the restaurant in the trendy Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, attracted by the scent of the vegetable-centric dishes. From a haricot bean puree with almonds and pumpkin-seed mole to celery with kefir cream, green apples and pecans. The owners take pride in their sourdough bread served with homemade butter and anchovies from the coastal city of Mar del Plata.

"Argentine cooking is going through a very important moment," Nico Visne, a local food critic and journalist, said as he tried the calamari at a counter near the wood-burning oven. "It's based in our gaucho (cowboy), indigenous and immigrant cooking - and there's this return to the real flavors and the fire."

It seems odd to call it a trend since flames are the oldest way of cooking food. And yet a growing number of chefs around the world have elevated wood-fire cooking to new heights at some of the most acclaimed restaurants like Spain's Asador Etxebarri in the Basque countryside.

In Argentina, the precursor of this movement is Francis Mallmann. The country's most famous chef and owner of three restaurants began his career cooking French food. At some point, he returned to the elemental ways of cooking that he knew growing up in his native Patagonia region. Many Argentines grew up watching Mallmann's cooking shows on TV in the 1980s, long before he entranced audiences worldwide with his grilling methods in the Netflix docu-series "Chef's Table."

"He said it was all right for Argentine chefs to cook the way that Argentines do, not just the way that the French do or the Italians do, and I think that resonated with a couple of generations of Argentine chefs," said Peter Kaminsky, a food critic and co-author with Mallmann of "Seven Fires: Grilling The Argentine Way."

Logs pile to the ceiling in the courtyard of Bestia restaurant, which recently opened in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Its co-owner, chef Nacho Trotta, traveled for weeks through Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to incorporate smoking and grilling methods of U.S. Southern cuisine into tender ribs and others dishes that he slowly cooks for more than 10 hours.

"Firewood is the engine of this restaurant," he said. "You can't get this type flavor from a gas grill or a frying pan."

The wood-fueled fusion is also key at Fayer (fire in Yiddish), a restaurant that blends Argentine open-fire grilling with Jewish cuisine. Even fast food has been influenced by the logs. At Kon Kon, a huge mural of a bearded lumberjack greets people who come for shawarmas cooked with embers instead of the traditional rotisserie.

"I see so many North American young chefs going to Argentina to learn how to cook that way," Kaminsky said. "Argentina has become a magnet for people who want to learn how to cook with fire."

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