Pitmasters Gone Wild In Uruguay: Day 1

In South America there's a tradition of throwing the most badass meat + fire cooking events called asados. This week, six American pitmasters are traveling throughout Uruguay to learn the finer points of the process. Drew Robinson of Jim 'N Nick's will be documenting the action for Food Republic.

From Memphis to Montevideo, with many obstacles and miles between, the Fatback Collective has made its way to Uruguay. My anticipation is high, albeit tinged with uncertainty. There are so many things we can see, experience and learn but I'm trying to put them all out of mind hoping only for the wonder that is found in the unexpected. I think we all feel this way, which is the beauty of our group; friends and like minds open to adventure and new possibility.

Passing above the Andes on the way into Uruguay could not have been a more beautiful moment. It set the tone for a stillness that we immediately met when we landed. Montevideo itself is an urban enough city, but the people exude a different rhythm than I am used to in America. As we left the airport, we took a deep breath to experience the ocean through the eucalyptus trees lining the shore. It was wonderfully fragrant and I closed my eyes and relish the moment. Riding in the back of a third world van with the widows open and the wind in my face, I was completely content with my shock absorption free ride that punched my kidneys all the way to el Mercado.

El Mercado is this wonderful market that dates back a century. When we walked in we were met by a great open space full of restaurants and cantinas to choose from. Each was full of people taking the time to enjoy their moments enhanced by the food of their land. Everywhere we turned there was fire. Each restaurant had a tower of wood blazing with so that coals could fall below and be shoveled under large grills full of beef, lamb, sausage, and vegetables. Even in an urban setting, the asado is at the heart of Uruguayan food culture. The scent of grass fed meats being kissed with fire was all encompassing.

We dined at El Palenque in Punta del Este. Offal of beef and lamb were served first as well as chorizo and the crispiest fire roasted sweetbreads I've ever eaten. Lamb ribs were followed by beef ribs and strips. We doused all of the meats in chimichurri, which is the preference of the native people. Courses of fire-roasted meats were finished off with what must be the soul of sweetness in this land, dulce de leche.

After lunch we crammed ourselves back into our van accompanied by liters of cheap, South American cerveza. It cooled us on the air-conditioned-free ride deep into the countryside. Our destination was Jose Ignacio and as we travelled we enjoyed seeing the sights of the city disappear and be replaced by the sprawling countryside well populated by horses, sheep and cattle. We travelled into the stillness and silence of life lived by the moment.

Once we arrived at our hotel we enjoyed a brief afternoon rest. After basically no sleep for well over 24 hours, our group understood why the siesta came to be. It was a short siesta but it was enough as we were anxious to move onto Belcampo for a more rural display of the asado. Dinner was served at what is soon to be the retail arm of the Belcampo farm. Again, we dined on meats raised on native grass by the Belcampo farmers. Kidneys seared on cast iron set directly into the heart of live flames were served with chicory cooked in the same fashion.

The flavor was simple and primitive but could not have been finer. Santiago was the chef responsible for the beautiful meal. He spoke of his love of fire and the cooking traditions of his people. He left us with the tease and promise of a grander asado on the grounds of Belcampo farm the next day.

Late in the night the Fatback Collective was full, content and exhausted. Our last craving was deep sleep which was soon to be found. The deep sleep was enjoyed in the stillness and silence of the new country we immediately fell in love with and our dreams were of fire and anticipation.