It takes balls to open a closed door restaurant. It takes even bigger ones to host a nine course tasting menu in your studio apartment in Once where there is just enough room to scoot the bed over to the side and seat six guests comfortably at a large dining room table. But for Ramiro Chevez, founder and chef of the newly minted Kill the Duck, it is the price to pay for freedom. “This is me,” Chevez tells me, “and Kill the Duck, in a sense, is a culinary protest.”
I arrive to dinner on a cold Friday just two blocks off of Plaza Miserere. The street is a ghost of the chaotic mess that is Once under the sun — there is hardly a soul in sight, the neighborhood is uncharacteristically quiet and the only evidence of life is a sign that reads Mami atop a shuttered up store across the street. Gisela Sanchez, hostess, sommelier and Chevez’ second-half, quickly greets me at the door and ushers me up to the ninth floor. “Am I the last to arrive?” I ask guiltily. “Yes, but you two are the only ones this evening.” Another chef might cancel the entire affair over two booked seats, but instead we were treated like royalty.
Rumbles of a small gathering fueled by cumbia and fernet ring from the neighbor’s door and are quickly washed away when I’m welcomed with a Hesperdina apéritif and the sound of french chanson. Chevez quiet nature, with a sincere smile stands at contrast to his wild tattoo sleeves. He quickly runs through what to expect for the evening — this is the first meal after months of reorganizing, menu planning, decorating and planting — and is clearly riding along the edge of pure joy and nerves.
The road to this night was a long one. As a small boy, he was fascinated by food and spent his time at home in the kitchen with his caretaker Nilda. He idolized Gato Dumas and carefully replicated what he could at home. He absorbed cookbooks and was constantly cooking for his friends. Even when he decided to study Management of Information Systems, he was filling the balcony with herbs and vegetables to experiment with. “My mother wanted to kill me, there was barely enough room to step out and water all the plants.” After three years of study, it was clear that cooking was never going to take a back seat to “life in a cubicle” and so he enrolled in the Argentine Institute of Gastronomy.
One of his first jobs was at the now defunct Nectarine, where head chef Federico Bamballi left a big impact on his future trajectory. “I would ask him, ‘How long does this cook for?’ and he’d tell me, until it’s done. It didn’t get it at first but now I do. Cooking takes feeling. You have to rely on your senses. You have to touch, smell, know what color a food takes when it’s finished.” He spent several years working in different kitchens — Thymus, Casa Rodante, Astor — but switched jobs frequently partly out of boredom but mostly because he was in search of a place that would afford him the genuine freedom to express himself creatively as a chef.
At Kill the Duck, he has created a puerta cerrada in its purist of forms. It is an anomaly within an anomaly. While many new projects tend to resemble restaurants—separate tables, wait staff and multiple services—Chevez has pulled it back to its roots. A single table, an intimate dining room and space for just a few guests, all of these elements stimulate a participative experience where diners are prompted to interact and share a unique experience together, and the chef takes on a role just as important as his dishes. “We aren’t here just to feed the body, but also the mind and the heart. Everything we do is with a lot of heart.” And he wears his excitement on his sleeve, “When I cook a steak just right I celebrate, not out of egoism or pride but because I’m sincerely happy.”
The dishes demonstrate his naturally strict attention to order and detail and an intrinsic understanding of food and flavor. The second course of nine was a tiradito de besuga — red seabream fish sliced thin like sashimi. The dish was restrained and allowed the freshness and purity of the skillfully chosen fish to sit at center stage while an aji amarillo salsa slowly crept its way up the back of the palate. The main course was beef that had been aged for a month and was served with yuca root cooked in squid ink and blue corn to give it the appearance of charcoal. We flicked the yuca with our forks first to make sure it wasn’t actually carbon. That vanguard attitude was replicated in a two different dessert dishes that paired pistachio ice cream and lemon mousse with wild embellishments like roasted beets and cilantro. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum was a seasonal mushroom dish cooked in a lovely broth and served with a salty potato foam.
To try each dish — which are thoughtfully planned and drawn out so that textures, colors, temperatures and flavors successfully build off of one another from one dish to the next—is to enter for an evening the mind of Chevez. Although the paint hasn’t quite dried, that is half of the excitement. We are in this together and as Chevez continues to build and philosophize. There is a spot at the table for us to be there as part of the process. “It feels like a birth after months of planning to be hosting dinners [sic] now is the moment to continue to get better.”
Private address confirmed upon reservation, Once