Diego Jacquet is the chef behind our May 2017 issue cover dish featuring a grilled ribeye served Argentinian style with chimichurri sauce.
The affable chef was born in Buenos Aires and spent his childhood in Patagonia. He started his career in the early 1990s as apprentice to Argentine chef Francis Mallman, before working at the famed El Bulli restaurant by Ferran Adria, and later, Aquavit in New York. During a photoshoot for our May 2017 issue, we asked him to share a few thoughts on all things beef.
It is not part of our culture to age beef. We are used to eating the meat very fresh because our meat is very tender. But when we say that the meat is very tender, we don’t mean it’s medium rare. In fact, Argentinians tend to eat meat well-done, especially on the bone. The landscape for grass-fed beef has changed in the last 20 to 30 years, but before, most of our cows were completely grass-fed. Cows roamed freely in our pampas (grasslands) with lots of space. This freedom helped them burn bad fat, leaving good fat. When the flavours are amazing and the level of fat fantastic, who would think about aging it?
There is a bit of a misconception in Singapore that beef always has to be melt-in-your-mouth. Some cuts of meat need to have a good bite so that you can savour the flavour of it. If you want to eat something that only melts in your mouth, that’s overcooked pasta!
Out of the ranches in Argentina producing beef, less than 10% of total production are totally grass-fed. The rest are finished in feedlots (but the cows still have some freedom to roam and are not housed in tight enclosures as some people imagine). But actually, it is not necessarily a bad thing to finish with grain. It can help to finish the structure of the meat. For more producers to keep the tradition of totally grass-fed beef alive, chefs and consumers need to demand for that. It is a critical moment of transition for the industry.
In Buenos Aires, there is just one restaurant I know of which offers 100% grass-fed beef. That is Don Julio (#21 on Latin America’s 2016 50 Best List). They take their meat sourcing very seriously. At my restaurants in London and Singapore, most of the beef we use is totally grass-fed. We are lucky to get access to that through one supplier, and that’s how we are able to control the quality of the meat.
You will see more of Uruguayan grass-fed beef in the years to come. Uruguay is like an extension of Argentina as they are divided by a big river. Some of the producers in Argentina moved to Uruguay when producing in Argentina became unsustainable for them. So we may say Uruguayan, but most of the cattle, producers and slaughterhouse are Argentinian. I import quite a lot of Uruguayan ribeye. The marbling is very good. As for sirloin, beef fillet and flank, I prefer Argentine.
Totally grass-fed meat is definitely superior. It is more fresh, the colour of the meat is redder, the texture better, and the flavour is more delicate, more lean. I wouldn’t say everyone will notice the difference, but we chefs will know.
We tend to pair chimichurri sauce with meat we grill on the bone, and even more so with fresh chorizo sausage. There are many versions of chimichurri sauce with different level of acidity and textures, each made to personal preference. BoCHINche‘s is made with fresh herbs.
In terms of cuts of beef, I love flank and ribeye most. I like flank because it’s a very versatile cut. You can grill it or roast in the oven; it’s full of flavour and very difficult to overcook. I would cook it sous vide with some chicken stock, bay leaf and garlic, then finish it on the grill. If I didn’t have a sous vide machine, I’d marinate it with olive oil, garlic etc, mark it on the grill and finish it in the oven. I also like Rib eye because it is juicy and flavourful. For a 150-200g piece, I would just pan fry it, finish it with butter, garlic and thyme, French style. Otherwise, just cook it on a griddle pan then let it rest.
How was a typical Sunday asado (barbecue) like when I was growing up in Patagonia? We actually do it with lamb there, not beef. We’d roast a whole lamb on a wood fire, cook it slowly for six hours, three hours on each side, and season it simply with wild mint, vinegar and some oil. Chimmichuri or a mint vinaigrette made a perfect marriage with the lamb.
My advice to the home cook about choosing beef is to talk to your butcher. Ask them what is good, what is fresh. Build a relationship like we used to do before. When my grandma used to go to the butcher, he would say to her ‘take this cut’. It was like talking to the Pope! They will ask you: “What you gonna do today?” If you say a sauce for your pasta, they will say “then you need to have this cut”. We need to go back to that. Don’t be afraid to talk to the butcher.
I started Comilona because I wanted to make the bridge between London (where I am based) and Argentina shorter. I moved out of Argentina in 1998 and have spent almost half my life abroad. There are many Argentinian chefs like me who are working abroad. As much as we represent Argentina when we are in Spain, Tokyo, etc, we are not in Argentina. We need to get as close to Argentina as close as possible in order to keep representing Argentina properly. Chefs in Argentina can provide that. They know all about the produce, their history and culture, while we have the refined techniques as we have been exposed to more things. The combination of both advantages is fascinating. We can talk for hours about just one ingredient like algarroba (the pods from the carob tree, sometimes used as a substitute for chocolate), and at the end, come up with the best ways to highlight ingredients from Argentina.
I’m looking forward to this year’s edition of Comilona which will be held in New York in the autumn. It gives me great satisfaction that we have been able to put Comilona up for three years running in three different cities: London, Singapore and now New York. Another upcoming project is my new restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden later this year. I’ve wanted to open a restaurant there for a long time. I lived in Sweden many years ago. The place reminds me of Patagonia, and I really love the way the Swedish people appreciate food.
Cover: Chef Diego Jacquet