Chefs are constantly presented with challenges. Be it creating a new concept, wowing a potential client with a spectacular dish, or in this particular case, pulling off a full scale Argentinian BBQ.
Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired (CCVI) has hosted several food competitions over the years as part of their culinary fundraising events where all proceeds go toward critical programming at the Center. This year they wanted to do something no one else in the city had done before. Something that was sure to keep people talking all year long.
After months of preparation, venders, purveyors, and chefs were all geared up and ready to cook. We arrived on site, a small youth outreach farm, at 10:00 am on the day of the event. A chord of hickory had been delivered the previous night along with a 12 foot high “bird cage” that would be used to suspend, support, and hold all of the meat, fruits, vegetables, fish, and poultry for the evenings dinner. We needed to get to work.
The chefs divided into teams and set to prepare. One team started to build a large fire in the main fire pit followed by another in the custom built smoke box, and finally one inside the bird cage. The rest of us set to work on the proteins. Eight whole bone-in ribeyes, two spring lambs and 24 whole chickens were prepped and sent to the fires by noon. One lamb was secured to an iron cross purpose built for the whole animal, while the other was quartered and strung up above the fire in the bird cage. The ribeyes were heavily seasoned with salt, hooked on either side, and hung around the outside of the fire. The chickens were previously brined, skewered on custom built swords, trussed, and then arranged around the cage with pineapples on either end to support the birds.
As the day wore on the fires got bigger and hotter, more meats, vegetables, and were added. White onions were laid around the outside of the fire in the smoldering coals, potatoes were buried deep under the ash in the big fire pit, cabbages were stuffed into the fire box for the smoker, turnips were placed in a pan under a dripping breast of lamb slowly roasting over the open coals, and pineapples were pushed right into the smoldering embers. 50 pounds of coiled Brazilian linguica sausage and chorizo made their way to the smoke house followed by twelve filets of rum and brown sugar cured salmon. Two whole mortadellas were skewered and surrounded by pineapple then hung over the flames. Meat was cooking, fires were raging, and the aromas were hypnotic.
Next I started working on the guacamole by grilling two cases of avocados then slow smoking them for an hour, followed by adding in a mixture of chopped red peppers, salsa verde, and salt. The guacamole was arranged on the buffet with an assortment of lemons, limes, and oranges, and house made hot sauces. The hors d’oeuvre buffet was completed with a grilled tomato gazpacho and sliced sausages.
After the appetizers it was time to build the buffet. Right before we started cooking 30 pounds of black cod was grilled over wooden planks set in the middle of the fire. It was topped with a bonito and black pepper aioli as the final touch to the protein offerings. The meats were sliced and arranged on a large butcher block counter top with bowls of salsa verde, romesco, and tzatziki sauce. The vegetables were pulled from the fire, char stripped from their outsides, then sliced and mixed with a powerful oil concoction. The oil was equal parts garlic, anchovies, and sun dried tomatoes, mixed with double the amount of oil and slow simmered for five hours before being pureed. It was heavenly over the smoky cabbage and supple potatoes. The turnips, which had been soaking the delicious lamb juices, were topped with chunks of tellegio and browned with blowtorches.
The meal was set, people were devouring the food, and we carved and sliced as fast as possible to keep up with the demand. The aroma of smoke, meat, and herbs enveloped the cooking area. But as we were winding down our set up, the pastry chefs swung into action. With roaring fires under 36-inch paella pans they sautéed blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries with sugar, mint, and vanilla. They smoked peaches and nectarines, sliced them, and with a quick sauté a beautiful combination was born. All of this was just a topping for an amazing stone fruit focaccia bread, gently warmed over the dying coals of the fire.
At the end of the day the event was a success, 12 hours after beginning the process we all sat back for a few well-earned beers.
Challenges are what keep all of us on our toes; they keep us innovating and moving forward. Challenges, and being pushed to do something you have never done before, are the lifeblood of our world. So when someone asks you if you can pull off a concept you have never done before, ask around, do some research, and then happily reply, “Of course!”