Churrascada a carnivore’s dream
Churrascada, the only place in the world that could get away with calling itself a true Mekka for meat lovers. The annual BBQ festival in São Paulo, Brazil should be visited by every BBQ enthusiast at least once in their lifetime. This so you can experience the absolute shock and awe that happens when chefs from around the world meet to make the biggest fire cooking showcase in the world. We flew to the land of churrasco and caipirinha’s to experience and partake in this unique smoke and meat infused festival and an exploration of the city’s culinary offerings. Let’s dive in.
‘Would you like to cook at one?’ he nonchalantly asked…
Would I? Hell, yes I would!
And so, an incredible fire fed adventure began for me and my cameraman Rainier.
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SÃO PAULO’S FOOD FRENZY
We got picked up from the airport by Bruno Panhoca and Carlos Cunha, our Churrascada chaperones arranged by Gustavo to help us settle in and show us around town. As soon as we met them, we were showered with Brazilian hospitality. Here no hands are shaken, you hug, pat each other firmly on the back and are greeted with intense and sincere kindness. We liked these guys immediately and during the 2-hour ride from the airport to the hotel combatting the notorious heavy traffic this metropole is known for Bruno and Carlos gave us an elaborate rundown about the Brazilian BBQ scene that they were both deeply involved in. We dropped our suitcases at the hotel and with no time to lose grabbed a few beers in a local BBQ joint called Caddilac BBQ where we met some of the other chefs of the Churrascada festival before catching some much needed shut eye.
The next day we got up early and were driven around town to visit some of the city’s food hot spots such as A Casa do Porco a renowned restaurant (ranked highly in the Pellegrino’s world 50 best restaurants) cooking nothing but pork dishes. With a small number of Churrascada chefs we attacked the menu by pretty much ordering each item they had listed. Small plates of pork perfection kept coming from the small kitchen where a fire pit roasting a whole flattened pig was the main attraction. Signature dishes include their perfectly roasted and crispy fried pork belly with guava jam and sushi made from lacquered pork lardo on rice. Already quite full our chaperones insisted we should go a few doors down to try a hot dog from Hot Pork. A fancy hot dog outlet by the same owners. Oh well, why not and so we feasted on the most well sauced hot dog we ever ate. As if lunch had not yet turned into enough of a food frenzy, we decided to top everything off with some incredible ice creams made with crisp pork skin and salted caramel.
CHURRASCADA PREP TIME
After our light lunch we explored the Churrascada festival venue. Taking a look at the place we would be building our own cooking installation. This because standard grills or BBQ’s here are seen as mere hot holding devices rather than cooking material for your main dish. Churrascada is all about showcasing the art of cooking with fire in an adventurous way. So rather than going by the ‘how can I cook a thousand dishes in one day as easy and efficient as possible’ all chefs are trying to build an attention-grabbing installation from steel and metal sheets to cook on. We were giving a pile of steel rods so we could build a spit to roast our stuffed piglets on. We came up with the idea to build a rig from scaffolding steel pipes that would hold the small piglets with ease and slow roast them over the open fire.
‘Once we were ready to pick up the pigs
we were in for a surprise.’
Apparently we had to cook about 2.000 portions so the festival had replaced our little piglets with four of the biggest hogs I had ever laid my eyes on. Not only the sheer size of these pigs was something of a challenge, the fact that these massive mountains of meat were still frozen rock solid also offered a challenge or two for the idea of stuffing them. Churrascada (and cooking in a country abroad in general) is all about overcoming these types of challenges, improvising and finding new ways to cook with what is given to you. We altered our plans on how to construct our fire pit and prepped some of our side dishes before heading to the chefs gathering at the Underdog bar, an Argentinian style Burger & BBQ joint ran by the Churrascada Chef Santi Roig. Beers were only an arm’s reach away from the serve yourself fridges along the bar that kept being loaded with morsels of meat fresh from the long parrilla grill manned by Santi and his crew. The beers, laughter and whisky flung through the air and it was with quite some resistance we left all this behind because we knew that the next day would be long, very long.
FROM FINE DINING
TO SLEEPING ON THE FLOOR
Before we were to start our Churrascada adventure there was one place I simply had to visit: D.O.M. the world-famous restaurant by Alex Atala. In his restaurant Alex showcases the richness of the Brazilian kitchen loaded with ingredients from the Amazon all set in a fine dining décor. Together with our BBQ chaperones Bruno, Carlos and our newly made friends Mike and Christine Fitzgerald (BBQ pitmasters from the USA running Sugarfire Smokehouse and Hi Point Drive In Burgers also cooking at the Churrascada festival) we went for a modest 12 course lunch and wine pairing. Dish after dish were set upon our table with never tasted before ingredients including chef Atala’s signature Amazonian red ant.
After this elaborate feast it was time to get serious and start cooking for the thousands of Churrascada festival visitors so we headed to the festival venue. Here we met plenty of volunteers ready to lend a hand in helping us prep and cook.
Together we stuffed the still semi-frozen hogs, sewed them back up and lifted them on a pallet to be transported to our cooking site. We build a big fire using a leaf blower to get those embers glowing and started the long low & slow session to get the heavy pigs weighing about 250 lbs (120kg) each done around lunchtime the next day. All night we maintained our fire shoveling embers under the hogs and cooked them low & slow on the open pit. We watched in amazement how a group of men used a fork lift to hoist a whole cow on a humongous spit and started roasting the beast 16 hours before the first visitor would enter the festial grounds. Around 4 am in the night temperatures had dropped way below what we expected from a Brazilian night and the lack of sleep and cold got to us. We searched the premises for a cozy and warm place to lay down but were unable to find one in the old abendoned factory that hosted the Churrascada festival. With nothing better available we piled up some empty cartboard boxes on the floor and crashed for two hours until the hustle and bustle from chefs tending their fires woke us at 6 am.
An explosive festival
Whilst more and more chefs started building fires on the old concrete floor of the festival area we started hearing odd noises. Sounds of explosions followed by falling rubble would start to come from various corners. This turned out to be the concrete floor exploding due to water trapped in the concrete turning into steam by the fires and wanting to expand. Each time an eruption would fling concrete chunks and glowing embers high into the air only to fall back down as if hell was raining upon those near the explosion. Me worried about the possible dangers of this occurance hastely tried to find Gustavo, the Churrascada organizer. Once I found him I explained the potential danger when visitors would arrive. To my big surprise my excitement and panic was merely answered with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘no worries’. The water would be gone and no more explosions would occur by the time crowds would flood through the gates. Gustavo was right, for the most part. Only two or three explosions happened but even these did not freak out the festival visitors. A cheers with a beer to the ‘no one got hurt’ and the festivities just carried on.
Amidst the explosions we were busy prepping the food for the soon to arrive masses. As I had not taken into account we would be serving 2.000 portions in one day my esquites side dish (grilled corn salad) would not be enough to cover this amount of servings. I asked Gustavo if he could help me obtain some more corn so we could make more. To my big surprise Gustavo not only arrived with a ton of corn husks, but also with the street vendor that sold them. Gustavo had picked this guy from the street as he was on his way with his pushcart to his vending location to set up shop for the day. Gustavo bought his hole stash before his day even had begun. In front of our cooking station the friendly fellow started peeling the ears of corn and cooked them shortly so all I had to do was give them a nice char on the improvised grill. We finished the esquites just in time before the madness of the festival burst lose. Despite the fact that Brazilians are true beef lovers, my stuffed hogs served with esquites and adobo demi glace were a big hit. Long before the festival was over together with my solid crew of volunteers we had cranked out the 2.000 portions. Me being able to leave my station I wandered around in amazement looking at all the different cooking installations and dishes my fellow chefs were cooking. A few beers went in but then the lack of sleep and long days of prepping and cooking forced me to make it an early night.
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Just a few more bites….
What started as a light lunch turned into another elaborate feast when Roberto himself joined us at the table calling to his colleagues to keep bringing us new dishes to try. We enjoyed Italian classics such as vitello tonato but were mostly impressed with the rich & dark ragu and tripe under a flaky crust of puff pastry. The food kept coming, the wines flowed richly and the conversations continued long into the late afternoon. I really started to like this Brazilian hospitality. On our last day in São Paulo Bruno and Carlos took us to the central market to learn about the local produce and some street food specialties. Highlights were the cod fish pastry and the Mortadella sandwich, also eaten right here by Anthony Bourdain. This meat loaded sandwich is made by many layers of griddled slices of mortadella, melted cheese and a large helping of spicy mustard sauce. Because of the sheer size of both items Rainier and I split each and it was still quite a heavy breakfast. But we had no time to linger around, lunch was calling.
A true churrasco
Bruno and Carlos took us to Barbacoa, one of the best upscale churrascaria’s in town ran by Jeferson Finger, off course also a Churrascada chef. He welcomed us with open arms and introduced us to the true art of churrasco. The traditional way of roasting skewers loaded with various cuts of meat over a large rotisserie grill and presenting these skewers at your table. You are given a button with two sides. If you present the green side the chefs will come to your table with the skewers and slice pieces of to your liking. If you present the red side up they know you are taking a brake and will pass you by allowing your digestion to catch up. One thing should be mentioned, it seems that having the owner of the restaurant at your table overrules the red sided button showing. No matter how we turned the buttons, 22 cuts of meat were on the grill that day and apparently all had to be tasted. Stuffed as the hogs we cooked at Churrascada we left Barbacoa and headed to the airport.
We said goodbye to our BBQ chaperones and boarded our flight back to the Netherlands. The Churrascada festival and the visit to São Paulo left a big impression on us. The friendliness of the Brazilians, their lust for life and the many adventurous ways of cooking their beloved ingredients are just a few highlights of our discovery. Knowing we only just scratched the surface of Brazilian culture we knew one thing for sure: we wanted to go back for more!