Story by Adrian Brijbassi
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Vancouverites were stopped in their tracks on Wednesday afternoon and it had nothing to do with the traffic on their usual commute. The sight and smell of flames cooking attractive portions of meat caused people to halt and stare at what was happening on Robson Street.
The spectacle was part of CinCin restaurant’s collaboration with Francis Mallmann, the renowned chef from Argentina who is considered one of the world’s authorities on cooking with fire. Mallmann was recruited by CinCin executive chef Andrew Richardson to come to Vancouver for a two-night appearance that included a public display of grilling.
It took some convincing of City Hall to ensure such fiery activity could take place on Robson Street, the city’s busiest shopping thoroughfare. In fact, the official go-ahead came so late that CinCin had a back-up plan to showcase Mallmann’s skills away from the street. On a sunny afternoon, however, the demonstration took place as planned.
Mallmann and his team from South America lit up open-pit grills and drew a crowd. They hung Alberta ribeye beef on rungs and let it cook for about nine hours while the flame was constantly coddled and cared for. Mallmann’s team also grilled sweetbreads, letting the fat from the ribeye drip onto the throat and neck portions of the cattle before moving those cuts onto a separate grill and squeezing lemon juice onto them for what would result in a flavourful combination of tender, delicious meat and citrus.
“Observing how he does things is just amazing to me. It’s a very natural approach,” says Richardson, who is from Britain. He met Mallmann two years ago in New York and has wanted him to come to cook at CinCin since then. “I’ve been learning about grilling simply from watching how he does things. No one cooks like this. Now it’s all about science, but this is a very primal way of doing things. This is so great to see.”
Richardson’s team at CinCin, one of Vancouver’s finest Italian restaurants, built the A frame grill from which Mallmann hung the meat. The Vancouver chef also sourced all of the ingredients for his visiting colleague, noting that Mallmann was keen for local products and not items shipped in from Argentina or elsewhere.
It took Richardson about 30 months to secure Mallmann for the dinner. It helped that the acclaimed chef has a new book, “Mallmann on Fire,” to promote. His previous published work, “Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way,” is considered an essential cookbook for aspiring chefs and his flagship restaurant in Mendoza, 1884, is one of the most revered establishments in the western hemisphere. Raised in Patagonia and trained in France under Paul Bocuse, Mallmann, 58, has found fame by taking a brave turn to return to his roots. Almost two decades ago, he decided to focus his attention on rediscovering his early days in Argentina, on the culture of the gauchos and the native people of his continent.
“When I was 40, I was wondering what was I really doing and what did I want to do with my life and then I remembered my childhood. I came from a house that was ruled by fire,” he told me while the wood-fired flames seared the meat in front of us. “Fire heated the house, it gave us water, food, allowed us to take a bath. It was the reason we were able to live the way we did.”
He spoke of fire the way men speak of their great loves or of ambitions. There is a mix of reverence, fear, joy and poetry.
“Fire we think of us a manly thing but to me it’s very feminine. It’s fragile and tender, something that requires time and care. You don’t have to rush it. It works slow,” he says. “Look at me, I’m sitting here and the food is cooking away.”
When the food was done cooking, it was served to a restaurant full of eager diners. They weren’t disappointed.
The dinner was incredible. Having been to a large number of these kinds of culinary occasions over the years, it is with tremendous excitement and thoughtful consideration that I can say this was the best cross-cultural food collaboration I experienced at a Canadian restaurant. The main reason why? That ribeye — the star of the evening — was every bit as delicious as it promised to be. While hanging on a hook hours earlier, it was worked over from the flames beneath and the sun from above as cars and buses and passersby streamed along, gawking at the peculiar sight. Hefty portions of it were served onto the plates of diners who paid more than $150 for the five-course meal and were left, in many cases, with some to take home.
To the CinCin crew, the quality of the finished product wasn’t a surprise.
“They’re such perfectionists that they’ve been working during the day, every day,” says Michael Doyle of his Argentine visitor and his team. Doyle is the new president of the Toptable Group, which owns CinCin. He has been showing Mallmann and his assistants from Argentina the area since they arrived over the weekend, but only during the few hours of the day when they have the time.
Everyone, it seemed, couldn’t wait for the final outcome of all of the preparation. Mallmann looked delighted as he sliced through the ribeye, smiling at the marbled meat whose smell alone would make you salivate. It was the work of the fire, he would say, but also the fire in the people who were responsible for the event.
“I know it takes a lot to accomplish this kind of a set up,” he says. “I am honoured by the efforts and the understanding of what it takes to make something like this possible.”
MORE ABOUT CINCIN
Location: 1154 Robson Street (see map below)
Contact/Reservations: Telephone, 604-688-7338; email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Menu Price Range: Most dinner entrees cost $30-$35, with the priciest item being a 20-ounce, wood-fired, bone-in ribeye steak ($65).
More CinCin Coverage: Italian wines find their match at CinCin