It didn’t feel like a tropical anticlimax, that draining spume of humidity — rather, this was the dry burn of pure, hot fire.
The setting: a full-blown asado barbecue that blazingly splayed over the back terrace at Quality Meats on Miami Beach — fire-cooking parts of a 900-pound steer, a castrated male bovine that’s been raised for beef.
Guests chattered and drank local microbrews, as a team of sweat-stained fire-keepers tended to the wood and coals, smoke billowing with high heat, the event’s two spearheading chefs — Patrick Rebholz, executive chef at Quality Meats, and guest chef Norberto “Negro” Piattoni, who has worked with the great Argentine fire-master, Francis Mallmann — busily melding into the fray.
They were collaborating, with Piattoni spreading knowledge of cooking over open fire and Rebholz indulging in his passion for cured meats and the timelessness of charcuterie.
“We each had a lot to learn from the other,” says Rebholz, reflecting back on the experience.
It was important to both Negro and me that we pay homage and respect to the whole animal by using the whole animal completely.
This asado welcomed guests right in the thick of it, featuring a variety of techniques on dishes cooked from the same fire. “We fried rendered beef fat over the fire, grilled the beef directly over the flame, cooked a la plancha over its heat, and even slow-roasted over the coals,” says Piattoni. “Limited by the use of only fire, it was extremely liberating and actually opened a lot of doors creatively for what we prepared and also for the unique, smoky flavors imparted to the dishes.”
“Negro used a lot of the animal in the main dishes and some offbeat cuts that we don’t use every day,” adds Rebholz. “For example, he slow-braised the neck for an estofado, and I was able to smoke some meat in Argentinian spices to make beef jerky and Slim Jim-style charcuterie.”
The resulting feast released my inner hedonist as I observed the panoply of delicious, buttery meats for the taking. Whole ribs, sausage, cuts of bavette, hanger, and skirt steak, and the main dishes balanced with a lighter array of salads — one with heirloom tomatoes that was particularly symbiotic with my steak. No need for potatoes or starchy carbs. Maybe they were around, but my plate was served the Argentine way, with some fresh greens and those lovely heirlooms, which is much more appealing as the heavier focus should be on the meat.
Then, a surprising dessert arrived at our table: a bowl of creamy sweet potatoes (ah, so there are potatoes), cooked in the ashes, and served with a dollop of white chocolate mousse and honey. And whoa — upon first taste, an acutely smoked flavor that could perhaps be too daunting for the squeamish.
But, ultimately, what left the most indelible impression was watching the chefs and their bustling crew working the fire, a cooking realm where patience, foresight, and planning are key virtues.
“The chef must always be thinking 30 minutes or an hour ahead,” says Piattoni. “He must read the fire to ensure the coals and embers are at the proper heat for different aspects of the meal. Most importantly, he must feel the fire — intuitively, he must be able to coordinate how long the heat of the fire will last with how long it takes to cook a piece of meat.”
The raw, primeval nature of the barbecue scene posed quite a contrast to the surrounding Deco environs and the superficial Beach brouhaha, eliciting a visceral emotion — an elemental connection that goes well beyond the hyper-linkage of this digital sharing era. You suddenly feel a more tenuous attachment to the entangled complexity of a madcap world, and the fire burns slowly but surely, giving you time to bask in simpler moments, the better to focus on things that matter, jettisoning all other existential worries (perhaps even tossing them into the fire).
“Like before all these smartphones,” says Piattoni. “You know, it used to be your first cell phone when you were 20, but now… We can’t forget how people lived before opening restaurants, before gas and electricity.” Adds Rebholz: “When you get outside the kitchen and its powerful equipment, you need to think more carefully about your process and the basic tenets that make chefs better.”
Back home later that evening, sliding over to the kitchen for a snack of sturdy beef jerky and leftover steak, I was thankful for the bounty of food (and so was my rascally terrier), but something deeper had struck, and just before going to bed, strands of fiery flames were still imaging in my head. As Piattoni says:
Cooking with open fire is a primal experience.
“It gives a lot of flexibility and freedom, as you go anywhere in the world and need only minimal equipment to create unique dining experiences. It’s a simple and elemental form of cooking, yet at the same time — the most elegant.”