A behind-the-scenes look at Buenos Aires-based Tegui's pop-up in Mendoza.
Most chefs don’t become famous by playing it safe. Argentine chef German Martitegui—whose Buenos Aires culinary temple, Tegui, was anointed to the latest list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants—is no exception.
In a bold and unprecedented move, Martitegui temporarily shuttered his award-winning restaurant late last month and moved it across the country to the Uco Valley in the foothills of Mendoza. Set in the vineyards of SuperUco, a biodynamic winery owned by the Michelini Brothers, Tegui Mendoza offers an unparalleled epicurean experience for 40 days during the grape harvest.
The idea was initially conceived two years ago over a wine-soaked dinner between the chef and winemaker Matias Michelini, but it became a concrete reality last July when Martitegui decided moving Tegui to Mendoza was a meaningful way to commemorate the restaurant’s tenth anniversary this year. It would be an opportunity to push himself and his tight-knit staff outside their comfort zones while marking a new era in the restaurant’s evolution.
The undertaking turned out to be an enormous logistical feat. The 44-seat pop-up was built from scratch over the course of 12 weeks. Martitegui sent scouts months in advance to explore the Cuyo region for local producers and ingredients. An artisan in Cordoba was commissioned to handcraft 500 chamotte clay dinner plates. On the night of the move, the chef and his 24-person team emptied Tegui of four refrigerators, a freezer, an oven, 25 tables, 60 chairs, 75 tablecloths, 100 napkins, 1,400 glasses, 1,000 pieces of flatware, interior decor and every piece of kitchen equipment needed to make a restaurant work. All of that was then wedged into two oversized trucks and driven nearly 700 miles to Mendoza. “It was like putting a puzzle together,” Martegui recounts, “and there were obstacles every step of the way.”
The hard work began to pay off, however, as his vision came to life. The open-air wood structure frames a sublime view of the sky-high Andes rising from a sea of emerald vines dotted with plump, glistening grapes. Each seat on the terraced platform faces the stately snow-capped peaks so every guest enjoys a magical panorama of the setting sun. “In my mind, I saw exactly how the breeze would blow the tablecloth, how each plate would arrive, and what music would be playing,” Martitegui says. The chef also clearly envisioned his pop-up at SuperUco. “I really identify with the Michelini Brothers. They have a passion for what they’re doing and it’s not driven by financial reward. They’re on their own taking risks. It’s the same as what I’m doing with food,” he explains.
While each of the four Michelini Brothers has his own personal wine company, SuperUco is their collective brainchild. The five-acre boutique bodega—dedicated to producing top-quality, terroir-driven wines—sits among good company in The Vines of Mendoza’s Winemakers Village, a collection of micro-wineries owned by some of Argentina’s most influential vintners. The Michelini's calling card is fresh, acidity-driven, lower-alcohol wines, as opposed to the rich, full-bodied wines with little acidity and lots of structure typically produced in Argentina today. A growing number of chefs are turning to the family's “gastronomic” wines because their lighter concentration and complexity don’t eclipse the subtle flavors of food.
“The Michelini Brothers don’t look to Europe for inspiration,” Martitegui says. “They’re mavericks making irreverent wines that break the mold.”
SuperUco’s signature Genitori wine is a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Franc. “The marriage is perfect,” says Juan Pablo Michelini, who believes that blending these two varietals is the future of Mendoza’s reds. “Each year Cabernet Franc is getting better and winemakers are planting more.” The brothers also have an ample portfolio of white wines across their respective brands: Zorzal, Passionate Wines and Gen de Alma. Martitegui entrusted the Michelinis to handpick selections that would pair well with each course, as well as the 70-degree weather. They chose five whites from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and a rare citrusy Malvasia; one Cabernet Sauvignon rosé; two reds, including the Genitori blend and a Malbec from the up-and-coming sub-region of Gualtallary; and one dessert wine.
As for the 10-step tasting menu, it took Martitegui over three months to develop. The dishes were inspired by the freshest local ingredients he could find, with one major condition in mind: SuperUco’s kitchen doesn’t have gas. The team cooks with a wood-fire grill, clay oven, smoker and iron disk that give each plate a distinct character.
“Mendoza has a really arid climate, which produces very juicy fruits and relatively little beef, so we adapted to this. We’re keeping it simple and respecting the flavors,” he says. This approach manifested a more liquid menu than he’s used to, which guests can taste in a refreshing shot of rhubarb and watermelon juice served with the first course, and the second step’s oven-baked peeled tomato served in a tomato oil broth with a Parmesan reduction. Then there’s a smoked peach dressed with goat milk kefir, pumpkin juice and thyme oil, followed by a bright fennel soup.
Martitegui and his team also spent countless hours foraging for wild ingredients like frogs and snails, black mint and fragrant jarilla. They talked to local farmers and purveyors to source classic regional recipes like slow-roasted baby goat, trout, and a traditional hen stew. The culinary experience is as much an adventure for the chefs as it is for the guests. “Live hens are delivered daily and we have to prepare them for dinner,” he says, and guests dine on the hen confit by grabbing hold of its prehistoric-looking talon.
One local resident was surprised to see native plants and fruits on the menu that aren’t commonly eaten in Mendoza, like sun-dried grape leaves, raw quince and prickly pear cactus fruit.
“All I care about is that people enjoy it,” the chef says. As for the Tegui crew, “There’s vertigo in doing something you’ve never done before and risking the possibility of failure," Martitegu says. "But it’s in rising to meet that challenge that we all grow as a team.”
Open: February 27 to April 7, 2018 -- Seatings: 5:30pm, 6:00pm, 6:30pm -- Reservations: tegui-mendoza.meitre.com -- Address: Ruta 94 Km 11/Los Chacayes/ Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina