Cooking With Fire in Uruguay
It took flying to the Southern Hemisphere, but I’d escaped a New York winter. It was summer in Uruguay, and even at twilight the air was hot. In the kitchen fire, potatoes crisped with paprika and tallow in a pan, and onions roasted in glowing coals. Outside, children lay half asleep on their mothers’ laps, and music married with the clink of glasses. A breeze floated up from the wide mouth of Montevideo Bay a few blocks away.
A year ago, I’d helped to open Mettā, a wood fire– and fermentation-centered restaurant on a quiet corner in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. In February, at the apex of South American summer, our chef, Norberto “Negro” Piattoni, invited his restaurant team to join him on another quiet corner—in another hemisphere—to celebrate Mettā’s first birthday and immerse ourselves in the culture of cooking with fire.
For Piattoni, who grew up in Federación, Argentina, and learned to cook on his grandfather’s farm, the asado is a long-established tradition, a ritual to honor time with friends and family. But for Piattoni, the asado also had become a vocation. He perfected his technique over four years as head chef at Restaurante Garzón, Argentine chef Francis Mallmann’s temple to grilling in the Uruguayan ghost town of Garzón. While there, Piattoni also met Agustina Gagliardi, now the chef-owner of Amorín Provisión, the Montevideo restaurant Piattoni took over for the reunion.
Friends, family, and former culinary cohorts poured in from the street, greeting Piattoni as he plated heirloom tomato salads with tart slices of plum and fresh shiso leaves. Guy Zarate, a brawny Argentine winemaker, showed up with a case of Rivus Malbec, a special delivery from his Patagonia vineyard. We settled down for supper at flower-strewn tables.
Piattoni stationed himself at Amorín’s parrillas and planchas, tending the blaze in the hearth. To bridge this meal with his work at Mettā, he weaved in fermented flavors, such as using fermented carrots to accompany whole-roasted white fish. Sweet potatoes, which would furnish a smoky dessert, smoldered in their skins. No South American meal is complete without meat, and this homecoming dinner was no different: We tucked into tri-tip steaks with singed spring onions and dollops of bright chimichurri, washed down with swallows of tannic Uruguayan Deicas Tannat.
Piattoni passed dishes from the kitchen to his family, some of whom were tasting his food for the first time since he’d left South America. Lu Arjol, a friend of Piattoni’s who’d cooked at Mettā, watched her tablemates react to their dinner. The fire flavors were familiar, but the fermented notes were strange and new, a nod to Piattoni’s time abroad. “It’s like a lovely little corner in Brooklyn that’s suddenly appeared in South America for just one magical night,” Arjol said, wistfully surveying the scene. She then turned back to her plate: “Please pass the chimichurri!”
Stoke the Flames
South American asado-style grilling is having a seven-year moment. Disciples of Argentine grillmaster Francis Mallmann like Norberto Piattoni, Ignacio Mattos, and Germán Martitegui are taking inspiration from the custom, which traditionally is done on a parrilla, an expansive, multilevel, wood-fired Argentine grill. But do you need a parrilla to host an asado? Not really. At their heart, asados are all about gathering, cooking, catching up, and eating together.
Use all aspects of your grill, and take your time: Remember that hot coals—rather than huge flames—offer the best heat for slow cooking. Frying pans can rest on embers. Roast squash and potatoes in ashes, as Piattoni does for his Charred Sweet Potatoes with Elecampane Cream and Honey Gastrique. Char lemon or orange halves on a plancha; their roasted juices make for a great finishing touch for grilled vegetables, meats, and salads. See “The Technique” for tips on grilling on a plancha.