Walking into Carlos Lopez’s restaurant, Checho, the atmosphere is one of community and busyness, with a slight smell of smoke in the air. I am welcomed onto an already laid table, where a number of people are sitting. López is among them, assured and friendly. He wears blue jeans, and a chef’s shirt with the “Escuela Argentina de Parrilleros” – Lopez’s cookery school– logo on it.
López, who established Checho with his father, is a self-taught parrillero. Perhaps, however, he is best known for being the man who prides himself of cooking over 10,000 asados. Since it was established in 1977, Checho has sat in the same quiet street in Núñez, making an increasingly loud noise in culinary circles.
López tells me that we will do our interview, ‘but first, we have to take care of the most important matter: eating’.
Carlos Lopez’s ‘eating’ is irresistible enough to suspend my vegetarianism for a couple of hours. One heartachingly good steak, one chorizo sausage, three green salads, three types of baguette, some provoleta cheese and some delicious chimichurri later, the conversation is still flowing. Topics move from Catalan independence to Brexit to food in the time it takes to chew a single mouthful. It feels like we are catching up with old friends, or close family over a meal.
After coffees have been offered and plates have been cleared, we get down to business. López tells me that it will be the restaurant’s fortieth anniversary on the 28th of December. He remembers its beginnings, when he and his father made choripan and other sandwiches in his grandparents’ old house. Many choripans later, they moved on to the parrilla, where Checho has continued to grow. It now also works as a school – the mentioned Escuela Argentina de Parrilleros – and its library features an award-winning cookbook written by López. Oh, and he is also featured on a Netflix documentary called “Todo sobre el asado” (all about the asado).
‘Forty years in the business. It’s not a short time,’ he tells us. And he’s gained the experience to know, only with his hands or his eyes, how to make every asado the best it can be. López can, he says, tell the quality of a cow just by looking at its ‘parte trasera’. To put that politely, he can tell how good a cow will taste by the appearance of its rear, and he puts this knowledge into practice.
But that doesn’t mean that he finds the work easy: grilling is ‘a long process’, he says, ‘you have to prepare the animal, the bones, the vegetables, the meat; these are things which take a lot of work.’ One thing that you need to be sure of is ‘control’ he says, particularly ‘control of the temperature’. He later asserts that a good parrillero needs ‘control of everything’: they need to know all about the providence and processes of the meat they are grilling. He describes this as knowing the ‘how and where and when and what’ of the asado.
When asked whether things have changed in the world of the parrilla over the course of these past forty years, López gives an emphatic yes. Outside Argentina, he tells us, the parilla was considered to be something really foreign, that only really happened here. Nowadays, the parrilla is popular worldwide. He travels around the world – China, Chile, Turkey, Germany, Colombia, Brazil, England, and the list goes on – showcasing his skills at different events. And in particular occasions, he will perform a unique task: cooking an entire cow.
It is notable that Lopez has specified that he teaches women and men. Because, as he says, there has historically been a lot of machismo in the world of the asado, a world which he compares with that of football – which is also well known for its reputation of machismo. As Lopez says, the asado has been ‘embedded in heart of men’. But Lopez is pushing against this tradition. His school emphatically welcomes women, and his own restaurant has two women on the staff. Women don’t yet seem to run the asado-show, but they are increasingly making a space for themselves. Encouragement and enabling of female asado chefs by prominent male chefs can only be good news here.
Indeed, Lopez has an anecdote which illustrates women’s increasing importance in the asado. He tells that one night, when he was in Germany for an event, the male parrillero that was supposed to fill in for him at Checho just didn’t show. A restaurant of 200 people was waiting to be fed. The two women who were working there called Lopez and asked him what they should do. He told them to cook the asado themselves. At first they were reluctant to take matters into their own hands, but in the end they did, and received a standing ovation when they finished. This story, which Lopez tells with a huge smile on his face, shows the dual importance of women’s increased confidence and knowledge of the asado, and the role of chefs like Lopez in making space for female chefs to shine.
When asked whether there is any difference – whether social or practical – in the way that women tend to grill, Carlos simply tells us that women of all ages and nationalities come to his school. When they are grilling they usually just buckle up and do it without any problems – other than the usual challenges a parrilla might present. Indeed, the two parrilleras to whom he introduces us embody this practical and determined attitude.
Both parrilleras, Susana Olazar and Gloria Vivallo, talk about the physical difficulties of the job – the heavy lifting, the hot fire – rather than the social barriers of being a woman on the job. But neither parrillera is daunted by the difficulty of the job. Although Gloria is shy at first, she later explains that the work comes naturally to her.
The interview ends in smiles as each person seems to chip in with a comment about food, or the asados. Whilst there may be more men at the table, and behind the grill, women are making space for themselves at the parrilla.