Before leaving Calafate for Chalten, I struck a deal with a local asador, aka Argentinian grill master. The agreement was, he would take me under his wing for a week and I would stop pestering him to take me under his wing for a week. Cue the Chefs Table episode in Patagonia with Frances Mallmann – rural edition. Chefs Table – Patagonia
My local asador, aka meat maestro, goes by the name of Chacho and he embodies everything you expect a Chacho to be. I believe his real name is Matias, but it would be disrespectful to use this in public. He has been grilling all his life and is a true reflection of authentic Argentinian asado. For Argentinians, asado is an integral part of their culture. There is immense pride in the process of asado – it’s an art form as much as a food group. What’s more, the act of cooking the food, which can take anywhere from minutes to an entire day, is inherently fun. It’s social, exciting, physical and often accompanied by drinks.
As American’s I think we struggle to identify with a single food group and thus have adopted many other culture’s cuisines, melding and mending based on each chefs desires. Furthermore, for many of us, food becomes secondary to everything else we try to accomplish each day – work, work out, friends, Friends the show, etc. For many Argentinian’s, life is the same as American’s, with a heavy emphasis on work, in the work-life balance. But when the work slows, food takes over and can consume entire days.
When I first approached Chacho, I was mainly just interested in just learning more about asado. He came by every night to cook proper asado in a restaurant connected with the hostel. After treated myself to a real meal at the restaurant post Torres del Paine, I realized it was the real deal. Everyday around midday he would show up to prep for that evening. For a couple days, I would hang around him and shoot the shit. Aside from being a good cook, he was a cool dude. His English left something to be desired, but so did my Spanish. He is the kind of guy that people are drawn to.
Eventually I finally got up the nerve to ask if he would let me work for a week, and we make this official. At first I think he was reluctant. I was just some dude from California looking to do 3rd world work in his opinion. But the following day he pulled me aside and asked if I was serious. He made it clear he could not pay me, but he would teach me. I was pretty confident there would likely be some free food as well. That worked for just fine for me. More important than money, I was learning a new skill. With a limited budget during my time in South America, I know I will probably have to work a bit to keep the travels going. I don’t plan on taking any desk jobs, so getting my foot in the proverbial asado door is huge.
Was I nervous on the first day? No, until I actually stepped into the kitchen and realized I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. I think anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows – the worst thing you can be doing in a kitchen is not doing anything at all. The lack of any formal training and a strong language barrier made everything way more hectic. Fortunately my soon to be new amigo, Marco, was watching out for me. He pulled me outside, put a beer in my hand and told me “tranquilo” (relax). “Tonight you should just enjoy yourself and watch.” (In Spanish) Obviously watch meant, ask questions, help where I could, try some meats and keep drinking. There are certain things that’s I realized quickly about the culture around asado. If you have a beer in your hands, it’s not just yours, but everyone else’s that is working. They’re not much of germaphobes. No one in the restaurant spoke English, so half the experience was continuing to learn Spanish. In return I also taught a bit of English.
Obviously I didn’t just get to have fun each night. I think the second night was a bit of a backlash and right of passage, as I found myself washing dishes for 7 hours. Chacho you salty dog, I knew at some point you were going to crack the whip on this gringo and put me to work. Graciously at the end of the night, Chacho acknowledged that I had done real work and earned a nights salary. Of which he would later “borrow” half of it to go to the grocery store. Consider it my donation to the cause Chacho, you hairy beast.
Each night my clothes soaked up more smoke as a testament to the newfound meat knowledge absorbed in my brain. Unfortunately for my hostel mates, our room became a bit of a campfire. It felt nice to settle a bit in one place and be a part of a local business. The kitchen staff recognized my work and opened up to me as a part of their team. When you don’t understand the conversation and people start to laugh, you’re inclined to join in. So I’m pretty sure I spent a good portion of the night unknowingly laughing at myself – cheeky bastards. The kitchen squad of Chacho, Marco, Mancu and all the other mouth breathers were the real homies. It was the first time during traveling where I truly was able to become a part of the local culture.
I understand that I am just fortunate to be able to choose to have this experience. I understand my place as a traveler through their country with all the privileges associated with it. For them this is what they need to do to put food on a plate. For me, it was an experience and I could leave any time. Nonetheless my gratitude is genuine as hell.
The absolute highlight of the week was on Easter Sunday. The day before Chacho invited me to his home to join his family for lunch. Not really sure what to expect, but knowing it was going to be awesome, I eagerly accepted. He picked me up late morning from the hostel. After a stop by the grocery store we arrived at his house. One thing to note is, everyone has at least 2 dogs. They had 4. The dogs are allowed to roam the city wherever they want, but they are loved like family when they are home. People really like animals around here.
Chacho has a beautiful wife, daughter and another child on the way. They live in the hills outside of the center of town in a wonderful house with a large backyard. You don’t have the same city structures around here. It’s dirt roads and families claim plots of land that bleed into their neighbors. Everyone has much more space.
When we walked into the backyard, I realized I was in for a real meaty treat. One of the most famous Argentinian asados is the crucified lamb. The lamb is flayed out like the House of Bolton flag and slow cooked outside over a dull fire. At the parrilla we had smoked lamb (cordero) every night, but it was in a smoker. This shit was the real deal though. Unfortunately I am sworn to not reveal the secrets, but the process of cooking this bad boy is awesome. We prepped the lamb and fire and got cooking.
We were joined by two other young families with small children. The children played soccer, obviously, all day, while the adults did adult stuff by the slowly crucifying lamb. Me torn between being a kid and adult, went back and forth between the two squads. I was treated to a full blown Easter Sunday – being Jewish this was a new experience. I admitted this to them at some point. Everything was so much more than I expected and I couldn’t wipe the childish smile off my face all day.
After about 4 hours it was finally time to eat. We cut up the meat and assembled it on a table amongst some other local dishes and spirits. How was the meat? How do you think it was?? Unbelievable. Post lunch, which was more like dinner, was the traditional Easter egg hunt. Fortunately for the real kids, I was disqualified from entering as I was not under 5 years old. I was not disqualified from reaping the benefits of the chocolate eggs that were discovered.
Post egg hunt was a final late afternoon lawn sesh followed by an in house matinee showing of Monsters University in Spanish…. along with a little inadvertent siesta. It all came to an end with a little cafe con leche and some heart to heart with Chacho about how perfect the day was. Goodbyes were said and Chacho and I returned to the parrilla for that evenings crowd.
I can’t understate how amazing this day was. Amongst all the unreal nature and mountainous adventures I’ve had in Patagonia and New Zealand, this was the best day by far.
Before this week of asador training, I went back and forth about whether I should return to Calafate. I wondered if Chacho was actually serious, would I like it, my friends were asking me to head North with them, it was going to cost more money to head back South. Ultimately I knew I had to try. It was beyond worth it and I would return to Calafate in a heart beat. I learned a handful of different types of meats, cuts, cooking styles and techniques. I learned how to make empanadas, side dishes and sauces. I learned the culture and the lingo. I experienced a brief window into a passion people spend their lifetime’s perfecting. I don’t know why they decided to let this dirty gringo into their world of asado, but they did, and I am eternally grateful.
Meat, meat, meat and meat. 2.