Inside Buenos Aires' Parrilla School, La Escuela Argentina de Parrilleros

Parrilla Checho looks like any other barrio beef den in Buenos Aires. The lunch time crowd lines up alongside the large grill and orders meaty sandwiches to go, while sit-down diners head to the restaurant’s back room for a casual steak. But at 3pm the nearly four-decade old Nuñez meat joint transforms into La Escuela Argentina de Parrilleros, or EAP, Argentina’s first (and only) cooking school dedicated to teaching the art of Argentine barbecue.

With over 38 years of professional grilling and cooking experience, owner Carlos Lopez (who is known as both Paty and Checho) founded the grill academy to train cooks to become masters of the parrilla. Lopez still mans the barbecue daily at Parrilla Checho, teaches all the courses at EAP, and travels around the world leading seminars on local grill techniques. In 2013, he published the cookbook Escuela Argentina de Parrilleros, El Libro, which won several awards, including a Gourmand World Cookbook Award. After the lunch rush I caught up with Checho, and over a medium rare bife de chorizo, or sirloin, we talked beef in Argentina.

What does an asado mean to an Argentine?

It’s like corn to the Mexicans, burgers to the Americans, pasta to the Italians, sausages to the Germans, rice to the Chinese. We eat meat all the time. Day. Night. Afternoon.It’s our main source of nutrition. The average Argentine consumes 300-400 grams of meat per day, or 70 kilos per year. It used to be 90 kilos but meat got expensive and they began exporting it, so the numbers have dropped. But it’s still the food that defines us. While we have lots of different immigrant groups: Italians, Spanish, German, Jews, French, English, and all of these cultures combined and have one thing in common: the custom of eating asado.

How did asado become so popular? What cuts are essential?

The history of the Argentine asado is born in the countryside with the laborers. There were always three classes of meat: third, second and first. I guess in those days there wasn’t refrigeration, so the prime cuts were the first to be consumed. The second and third class cuts were sold cheaply to workers – we call these the corte parrillero, or grill cuts, which are the ribs, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks. That’s why Argentines eat so much tira de asado (ribs) because they were cheap without a high demand. In other parts of the world, these cuts aren’t used because of the high fat content and bones, but these secondary cuts, like sirloin, ribeye, ribs, and skirt steak, are the most popular in Argentina. Then, of course, there’s the achuras (offal). Kidney, chitterlings and sweetbreads are most common, but you’ll also find brain, tongue, cheek, and udders on the grill. We use everything.

What differentiates a regular asado from an incredible asado?

Your level of hunger.

Why is the Argentine parrilla unique?

Beside the cuts we use, Argentine barbecues usually have a side box for the embers. First you need to start the fire – using charcoal and/or wood – which is done at least 30-45 minutes before the actual meat is placed on the grill. In Argentina, you regulate the heat with an atizador (fire poker) and crank. Other styles of barbecue, like in the USA, you have a direct flame and a lid – it smokes nicely but the problem comes when you open the lid and oxygen gets it. BOOM! Direct fire! That’s not the idea here.

Where does the meat you use come from?

All over Argentina — La Pampa, Buenos Aires Provincia, Santa Fe, San Luis, Córdoba, Entre Rios. There’s 1000 km by 1000 km of plain flatlands in Argentina, prime for grazing and raising cattle. And that’s where the best animals are. Although today there are more and more feedlots used. The animals don’t walk, stay still, remain flaccid, and eat, eat, eat, eat until they increase in volume and fat.

What is the ratio of grass fed vs. feedlot cattle in Argentina?

I think all cows pass through feedlots, even if just for a few months. If I am a farmer and I need to sell my cow, I send it for three months to a feedlot to fatten it up and increase the overall volume and weight, then I sell it.

Do you think Argentine meat is the best in the world?

No no no…there’s lots of good meat all over. Australia, USA, Germany, we all have the same cattle breeds, and there are places with the same climates. I’ve eaten amazing meat in Texas and Europe. Not all meat in Argentina is good, qualities vary. There is good meat, normal meat, and bad meat. Sometimes it comes mixed up so you need to have various providers and be aware — you don’t want them to sell you bad meat for expensive “good” meat. But since it’s not regulated, and there’s no guarantee or certificates, it’s up to you to keep an eye out.

Argentines tend to order their steak temperatures well done, what do you think about that?

No, I think that most people order it medium, sometimes they order it rare, and others order it well done. It’s fundamental to cook it medium rare. The body wants to eat it medium rare. It’s like making fresh squeezed orange juice and eating the peel. When you overcook a piece of meat, the levels of saturated fat and cholesterol rise.  Plus, you are burning it on the outside and eating carcinogenic particles. The idea is to eat something healthy, and beef is very good for you — when cooked properly. Plus, for those who order it well done — it takes so long to cook they might as well eat it with whipped cream for dessert!

What do you think about dry-aged meats?

I’m totally against dry-aged meats. I’m against the idea that meat is too tough so it needs to be tenderized by aging it. If you like rotten meat, that’s one thing — but it’s not okay. Quality meat doesn’t need to age. Sure, you are controlling the amount of oxygen, humidity, etc., but it is still undergoing a rotting process. I want a fresh animal that doesn’t start to dehydrate – I want all that juice for myself. It’s customary to consume the animal seven to fourteen days after it is killed, and the beef I receive is generally four days after. I’m also against searing steaks. I think that is really stupid because you are creating more saturated fats and cholesterol, and you are forcing it to keep the juice inside. It takes a lot longer to cook a steak this way and it comes out cold in the middle. It should be hot inside, and raw inside, and it shouldn’t be burnt at all.

What’s the best accompaniment for meat?

Meat goes with salt. Then salad or French fries on the side. Wash it down with wine and water. Those are the basics. Then, of course, there’s chimichurri, which is a registered national product, born here in this country. Chimichurri is a red base with crushed peppers from the north of Argentina that has a little bit of heat — not too spicy nor too weak. My recipe also calls for dried oregano and white vinegar. I cook it so it and jar it so it lasts longer, top it with oil and I store it. Then, every day I fatten up the preserved batch with fresh tomatoes and raw onion. It’s not obligatory to eat meat with chimichurri, it’s more a dip for the bread or a sauce for the choripán. Salsa criolla also goes with the meat, which is like a pico de gallo.

What’s the secret to a good sausage?

I make my own chorizos (sausage) and morcillas (blood sausage). My recipe for blood sausage calls for powdered cow’s blood, pork parts, green onion, walnuts, almonds, raisins, and caramelized orange peels — we stuff them in intestine lining and they come out fantastic. For the chorizo, I used pure pork with lots of spices.

Why did you begin La Escuela de Parrilleros? What’s the course like?

There are a lot of people who don’t know how to make asados and want to learn. There’s a difference between making an asado in your house and working professionally as a cook who specializes in asado. We get a lot of people from abroad, especially international culinary students, who come to learn. The course is dynamic and basically teaches everything about cooking on the parrilla: lighting the grill, preparing all of the cuts and other foods on the grill, how to cook all the cuts, and so on. I also travel around the world — Germany, Chile China, Patagonia, Ecuador — teaching seminars and leading demonstrations on Argentine asado.

How does one become a grill master?

The parrillero is a specialization inside the kitchen. One needs to have the soul of a cook and the basic techniques in order to perfect the grill. You can’t be just a parrillero, you need to have knowledge of temperatures, textures, heat. A cook, especially a grill cook, isn’t made in cooking or parrilla school — I can teach everything they don’t teach you in cooking school, to give a basic knowledge, but the true cook and true grill master is made in a kitchen after two, three or four years of work. To become a professional cook, and a professional parrillero, it’s essential to master many different positions in the kitchen. A surgeon doesn’t become a surgeon overnight. There’s lots of practice involved.

How often do you eat meat?

I eat meat every day, all day. Probably about half a kilo per day, sometimes more. I love it. I can eat the same thing, or sometimes I change it up. Sirloin and asado ribs are my favorites. I don’t eat achuras all the time because that’s more dangerous for my health with all the fat, so I have to control myself. But I just love a great piece of meat cooked rare to perfection.

Why dedicate your life to the parrilla?

I am a cook. I do what I know how to do. I talk about what I know, I write about what I know, after years and years of experience. I am here to share my knowledge with you and whoever wants to listen to me.