Last semester, I took a class called “Reporting Buenos Aires.” As our final project, we were assigned to prepare a profile in someone living here in the city. I decided to write about the asador (barbeque cook) at a parrilla (grill, pictured) that I frequented. I had been trying to get him to open up all semester (he had been quite reserved) and thought using this project as an excuse I could get him to do that. However, he remained distant and I learned the hard way how tough it can be to write a profile of someone.
Because I managed to scrap together 1000 words, I was fairly proud of the final version, although, coming back to it now, I see lots of room for editing and improvement. Anyway, have a look below – I think it captures his spirit.
On Güemes Street in Palermo Viejo, the now gentrified and trendy Buenos Aires neighborhood, a small restaurant spills onto the sidewalk, tempting passers-by with aged, painted wood signs listing almost all the food on the menu. The entrance is adorned with old photos, a gas lantern, a small Argentine flag, and a sign demanding, “Don’t take photos. No sacar fotos.” Two barstools sit outside in front of a small counter next to a stack of traditional wood, cutting board style plates. Just inside, shoveling a big chunk of coal onto the fire beneath the grill, stands Claudio, the cook and proprietor.
Claudio, 41, who refuses to share his last name, has been running the grill La Leyenda – the legend, in English – for fifteen years. He has grey-speckled black hair that forms loose curls that slightly soften his square, boyish face. His leathery hands are permanently blackened from years in front of the grill serving up steak, sausage, and other traditional Argentine fare.
“I learned to cook as a child, watching my Mother and my grandparents. But to grill, I learned from my Dad,” he wrote. (He refused to sit for an interview and would only answer a questionnaire. When he returned my questions, the pages smelled like smoke and meat.) He has spent his working life in the food business, but has always identified most with the grill. But don’t label him. Once, between bites of a juicy skirt steak sandwich, I asked him what he liked most about being an asador – the common term for a barbeque cook. “I’m not an asador,” he snapped. “I am a gastronomic storekeeper.”
Small, inexpensive neighborhood grills like La Leyenda can be found all over Buenos Aires. There’s nothing special about a place to sit down for a Coke and a choripan – sausage on bread. But most are like fast-food restaurants: bare décor, giant industrial grills, cooks working away from the customers. Claudio flips the script. He puts the grill right by the counter, where he can chat (and frequently does) with the patrons. The interior is filled with old bottles, books, and kitsch. A cord slices the air through the kitchen, holding up pots, pans, and sausages. He currently has no employees aside from his wife and daughter, who come in occasionally to help serve food, chop vegetables, and clean. Frequent visitor Eli Wilkins-Malloy told me, “It feels kind of like his home, it’s very personal…It doesn’t feel like he’s running a business or a restaurant.”
Claudio is operating what you might call a bodegón – a local eatery serving Argentine food to Argentine people. Writer Stephen Metcalf recently visited Buenos Aires and described the importance of the increasingly rare neighborhood restaurants in an article for the New York Times Magazine. He spoke (and ate) with local food critic Pietro Sorba, who said, “Bodegón is the opposite of the culinary culture of Palermo. It is comfort food – no tricks – for people who love to eat. Not for people looking for the fashion thing, or trendy. For my job, I must go to many restaurants. But for me, when I want to eat, I go to a bodegón.”
And La Leyenda is all about the food. Even when he is working with his wife, Claudio is always at the grill, preparing some flank steak for the dinner crowd. His restaurant comes first. A former employee told me, “Claudio’s a good guy who loves his job – nothing more…He really works a lot.” When I asked Claudio what he liked about the city, he answered, “My business, my house, my neighborhood. But I don’t like lots of people.”
Yet he sure knows lots of people. If you stop in for lunch, you might see him greet four or five friends just passing by to say hello – not a surprise for someone who has been in the neighborhood so long and is quite friendly. But, with strangers, he is much more reserved. He refuses to talk about his personal life and my repeated requests to interview his family members were met with strong ‘no’s. And, despite his claim that he is happy all the time, he definitely has bad days. Wilkins-Malloy noted, “He’s very moody…and he doesn’t stray far from small talk.”
Even on his best days, small talk dominates the conversation: football, Fernet, maybe a dash of politics. He has a deep love for Argentina that fills the walls at La Leyenda. “He seems like an old-school porteño type. He’s been doing things his way for a long time,” said Wilkins-Malloy. Once, I ordered some empanadas – small, savory stuffed pastries common in Argentina. They came off the grill very hot so I picked up a fork and knife to eat. Claudio stopped me. “You don’t eat those with a fork,” he scolded. “We use our hands here.”
His Argentine pride also extends to the people of Buenos Aires. One day, two thin Argentine women in their mid-twenties sat down at a table outside. After taking their order, he silently got my attention. Making sure his wife wasn’t looking, he pulled a magnifying glass from a shelf and peered through it, gesturing towards the women. Waiting only a split second for my reaction, he threw his head back and laughed.
Little trinkets like the magnifying glass hide all through La Leyenda. An avid antique collector, Claudio keeps many of his finds at the restaurant and even uses some of the old kitchen tools. His reservations about letting strangers into his personal life melted away when talking about his antiques – he was eager to share. During my most recent visit, he showed me some of his favorite pieces, including a Quilmes-brand corkscrew that was over 100 years old, from the era when liters of beer came sealed with a cork. His wife told me, “Because of the surge in tourism, a lot of the antiques [in Buenos Aires] aren’t really antique. But he knows where to find the real stuff.”
Claudio’s enthusiasm for the “real” Argentine culture and history is not unique; porteños are known for their pride. It’s his perspective that sets him apart. From his Palermo perch, he has watched the neighborhood become the fashion and design center of the city, worked through economic ebbs and flows, and seen gourmet restaurants and ice cream shops spring up all around him. Yet he remains an historic bulwark standing against the creeping gentrification of the city. He does not cater to tourists with English menus and he does not modernize. He just wants his neighbors to come in, sit down, and relax over a beer. He told me the worst part of his job is dealing with people in a hurry.
A sign above the door of La Leyenda reads, “We open when we show up and we close when we leave. For 25 years and many more.” In our highly scheduled lives, sometimes we want to go somewhere where time doesn’t count for much, if even just for some asado.