A traditional Argentine Sunday lunch is a two-course affair.
The first course consists of white bread, sausages, chimichurri, black pudding, grilled cheese, chitterlings, sweetbreads, ribs, various steak cuts, potato salad and, if anyone has room for it, some dressed lettuce.
The second course is fruit salad.
Unless you’re a vegetarian or recovering from bariatric surgery, this is one of the world’s great meals. Its virtues are identical to its defects; it is heavy, calorific, risk free, and unapologetically counter-innovative. An asador (the guy—and it always is a guy—in charge of the barbecue) would no more think of meddling with this formula than FIFA would think of attaching wings to soccer balls to make them go farther.
But ambitious young chefs like to meddle. Their heroes—the Ferran Adriàs and Grant Achatzes of this world—meddle like there’s no tomorrow. Great cooks come in all varieties, but the ones who make a name for themselves tend to be innovators and risk takers.
Chefs answering to that description have always existed in Buenos Aires but not in any great numbers at any given time. Their status has tended to be that of cherished anomalies whose restaurants attracted the cognoscenti but were largely invisible to the wider public.
This is slowly but perceptibly changing. In the vanguard of what some people are calling nueva cocina argentina, or New Argentine Cuisine, is a posse of well-travelled generation Y’ers who learnt their trade in the kitchens of some of the world’s best and boldest chefs. Back in Buenos Aires, they’re hitting their mid-thirties, opening their own restaurants, forming collectives with other generation Y’ers, getting their own cable TV shows and wowing diners with menus that are six times as long and one sixth as predictable as our aforementioned Sunday lunch.
To get a sense of where new Argentine cuisine has come from, and where it is going, I spoke to three chefs connected either directly or obliquely with the movement: Gonzalo Aramburu of Aramburu, Soledad Nardelli of Chila, and Santiago Macías of I Latina.
Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Joël Robuchon… the list of chefs for whom Gonzalo Aramburu has worked reads like a who’s who of the restaurant world. Now aged 36, Aramburu has struck out on his own and in some style: the 12-course tasting menu at his San Telmo restaurant may include dishes like salmon served with Andean caviar (quinoa cooked in squid ink) and prawns wrapped in Kataifi pastry served on a hot lava stone.
“None of them and all of them,” Aramburu replies when I ask him to name his favourite Argentine ingredients. “What we offer is a seasonal menu which takes our clients and friends on a culinary excursion through whatever season it happens to be. We believe that each dish we create is born from the inspiration that each new season brings with it.”
Aramburu has no doubt that new Argentine cuisine is a bona fide movement and not just something cooked up (as it were) by the local media. Equally, he has no illusions about the amount of work that still lies ahead of him and like-minded chefs. “We need to improve the quality of our raw ingredients and the logistics of the food supply chain, “ he says. “It requires a collective effort for products to arrive to the market and to our kitchens in optimal condition.”
Gonzalo Aramburu; photo courtesy of Aramburu Restaurante.
The High Flyer
Aramburu’s holistic philosophy is shared by many Argentine chefs of his generation who see it as part of their mission to promote the work of small-scale farmers and producers.
They also like to network with other chefs. In 2011, twelve of them formed Gajo, a culinary collective (think supergroup, but with carbon steel knives instead of guitars) that holds regular dinners and whose broad aim is to raise awareness about new Argentine cuisine. As well as Aramburu, members include Hernán Gipponi of HG Restaurante, Yago Márquez and Fernando Hara of Unik, and Matías Kryriasis of Paraje Arévalo.
Soledad Nardelli; photo courtesy of Chila.
The one woman on the crew is Soledad Nardelli, though that’s far from the only reason she stands out. The 33-year-old, who originally trained as a lawyer, won a Chef of the Future award from the International Academy of Gastronomy in 2010 and is a regular presenter on the Canal Gourmet cable channel. Critics regard her restaurant, Chila, as one of the best in Buenos Aires.
Like Aramburu, Nardelli is forceful in her advocacy of new Argentine cuisine. “There is a new generation of young chefs that is building on the legacy of previous generations,” she tells me. “We are concerned above all with what is happening in our own country. What resources do we have? What products are out there and how can we use them?
“We are rediscovering ingredients that have always been part of our regional cuisines. Argentina is a country influenced by the Incas in the northwest, by the Guaraní in the northeast, and by many other immigrant groups all over the country.”
Nardelli’s enthusiasm for ingredients and products sourced from the farthest-flung corners of the republic is as contagious as it is transparent. “I love using carob!” she says. “It’s a common ingredient in Santiago del Estero and a good, healthful substitute for cacao. Then there’s amaranth from the northwest. Like quinoa, it’s wonderfully versatile and nutritious. Oh, and mangoes from Misiones!”
You don’t need to be from Chicago to play Chicago blues, and you don’t need to be Argentine to ride the wave of new Argentine cuisine.
In fact, you don’t even need to have a “normal” restaurant. Together with his brother Camilo, Colombian Santiago Macías has created I Latina, a puerta cerrada or “closed door” supper club. Thursday through Saturday night this airy and beautifully converted former dwelling in Villa Crespo fills with porteños eager to try dishes like carimañola stuffed with rabbit confit and pistachios, and a layered soup of asparagus, roast tomatoes and peanuts that is tangy in one spoonful, and creamy the next.
Macías defines new Argentine cuisine as a process of reinvigoration rather than reinvention. “It’s less about new discoveries and more about properly exploiting the full range of ingredients that are already available. For example, I love to use quinoa, which has long been cultivated in the northwestern provinces of Jujuy, Salta and Tucumán. It can be incorporated into both sweet and savoury dishes.”
Santiago Macías; photo courtesy of I Latina.
Learning from Lima
Gastronomically speaking, Argentina is one of the most advanced countries in the region (Macías lauds its “range of options, diversity of products and high levels of professionalism and training”). But only those who don’t know their Andes from their Urals will be surprised to learn that there’s one South American country it still lags behind.
“Peru is the model,” says Macías. “I think all countries in the region should learn from the way it has successfully defined the uniqueness and quality of its cuisine.”
Don’t believe him? Google it. At time of writing, 44 of the first 50 results returned for the search phrase “gastronomic boom” relate to Peru or its capital Lima. As well as celebrity chefs like Gastón Acurio, the heroes of this renaissance include government bureaucrats working to upgrade the country’s food supply chain, NGOs opening cooking schools in the middle of slums, and the half million hungry punters who show up for La Mistura, Lima’s annual international food fair. Could Peru’s success be replicated farther south?
Maybe it could. “Anything could happen here” is a popular phrase among Argentines. One group with a positive outlook is ACELGA, another chef’s collective. They’re behind Masticar, a food festival whose inaugural edition will be held from the 16th to 18th of November. It won’t be La Mistura – yet. But with the participation of not only the culinary young turks profiled in this piece but also of older trailblazers like Francis Mallmann and Dolli Irigoyen, it promises to be Argentina’s biggest and best food event to date.
ACELGA Masticar Food Festival; photo courtesy of Mass Grupo PR.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
We’ll wrap this up with a thought experiment.
I put the following scenario to Aramburu and Nardelli, two of the best Argentine chefs of their generation. Out of the blue, Nelson Mandela calls to make reservations at their restaurants. He asks that each of them prepare him a dish that is both Argentine and innovative. What do they serve this global icon whom no one in their right mind wants to disappoint?
“I’d prepare him my version of Mollejas a la Provenzal,” Aramburu says, “sweetbreads cooked two ways (vacuum sealed and fried) and served with a roast garlic mash and extract of distilled parsley.”
If Nardelli has her way, Mandela won’t be leaving hungry. “I’d give him a well-aged cut of beef – perhaps a rib-eye steak or a strip of sirloin – served with seasonal vegetables such as broad beans or asparagus that have been sauteed with quinoa.”
Perhaps what struck me most about these choices is what struck you too? It’s that the core ingredients chosen by both chefs – mollejas and bifes de chorizos – are precisely those you might find sizzling away on the garden grill of any home asador at around noon on any given Sunday. Sure, our home asador thinks quinoa is the Bolivian goalkeeper and he’s sniggering at Aramburu for forgetting to take his other sweet bread out of the wrapper before cooking it. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Mandela’s utterly contemporary dishes are utterly rooted in Argentine food tradition.
Argentine cuisine is changing alright. But it’s a renewal, not a metamorphosis.
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