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Lifestyle

May 1, 2013

Chef draws on South American barbecue culture

Saunter through the kitchen of Del Campo, Victor Albisu's new Washington restaurant, and you might think the chef is having a bad day.

Over here is a blackened avocado. The halved fruit rests on its rounded bottom, skin still on, and its creamy green interior is barely discernible under a layer of black char. Tomatoes are blistered. Chilies are blackened. Broccoli rabe is charred. Pretty much all the other foods in sight are similarly discolored.

But these are not mistakes. Albisu simply likes to play with fire, and his new restaurant celebrates a char-focused approach to South American cooking.

"I feel it's going to be familiar but almost revolutionary," Albisu says. "Maybe revolutionary isn't the right word. It's more the elevation of simple cooking."

As a boy growing up in Falls Church, Va., Albisu learned the techniques of Cuba's fabled barbecue from his paternal grandfather. "My grandfather and I would dig a pit in the back yard and roast whole pigs, or we would just grill," Albisu recalls. "He was just an amazing natural cook."

On Sundays, his family hosted giant asados, or barbecues. Friends, acquaintances and relatives flocked to the Albisu home to socialize while dining on crispy-skinned pig marinated overnight in sour oranges, garlic and oregano, then smoked all day on a section of fence over the hole they'd dug.

Other grills were going at the same time, including a brick pit. "We were cooking every kind of steak you could imagine, and chorizo," he rhapsodizes. "We also had empanadas, and put those on the grill."

Albisu sees Del Campo as a paean to those backyard gatherings. "This restaurant is kind of a desire to get back to that," he says. "It's kind of a trip backwards, to the kind of contentment I felt in my childhood."

The trip has been long. From age 12 through his adolescence, Albisu worked in the butcher shop of his Peruvian mother's Latin grocery store in Alexandria, Va. He went on to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. He has worked at Michelin three-star restaurant L'Arpege in Paris and, in Washington, the contemporary Latin restaurant Ceiba, the Belgian-influenced French restaurant Marcel's and the American bistro and bar Ardeo (plus) Bardeo. Most recently, he served as executive chef at BLT Steak.

In recent years, the scruffy 38-year-old chef has traveled to South America, where he had something of a culinary awakening in Peru. "To me, Lima is so unrecognized, even today," he says. "It's amazing to me. I can't tell you enough how inherently refined the flavors are. It is something I took for granted until my experience expanded and I lived in Paris. The more I knew, the more I respect where I came from. Obviously, French food is entirely different. But the flavors and the pairings just made me really proud of what I already learned."

Albisu is a sentimentalist but not a traditionalist. At Del Campo, he'll serve grilled seviche and charred salads. His personal history and ethnic background inform his relationship with food but do not suffocate it.

His experimentation in charring and grilling, for example, draws on flavors summoned only by a classic asado, or South American barbecue. Where meats, typically cuts of beef, are grilled or smoked in open pits over wood embers, Albisu conjures similar flavors from a small smoker box, a charcoal grill and, of course, a few cast-iron skillets.

He uses a dry skillet to impart a grill-like flavor to vegetables. "It caramelizes them and brings out hidden flavors," he says, adding that charring is common in South America. "Metal on fire. Pretty basic. I am just doing it in some different ways."

While we talk, as if to demonstrate, he slaps some ricotta cheese on a dry cast-iron pan over high heat. When the cheese is blackened, he transfers it to a plate. He proceeds to char vegetables: tomatoes, olives, broccoli rabe, a couple of small chilies. He adds them to the cheese, then drizzles the whole with an herb-and-lime vinaigrette to create a complex salad — a wonderfully earthy, sprightly dish. (When I get home that evening, I try to duplicate it for dinner guests; I get close.) The grilled-cheese-without-bread trick shows up on the menu at Del Campo in the form of charred provolone with an herb salad.

"Use a cast-iron pan," he says when I ask later about tips for home cooks. "Set your heat at medium to medium-high. Allow the char to develop to caramelization. You don't want to cook the food, just caramelize it. It's trial and error."

Albisu also uses a simple Cameron's indoor stovetop smoker, which is basically a deep, rectangular cake pan with a tight lid and a rack. He places a bed of house-dried herbs into the bottom of the pan, places a cut of meat on the rack, then carefully wields a blowtorch to get the herbs to smolder. He closes the lid and lets the herb-infused smoke perfume the meats for just a little bit, anywhere from about 30 seconds to two minutes.

The menu features a smoked Iberico pork chop with "burnt garlic pearl vinaigrette." The veal chop comes with blistered arugula. Prawns (grilled, of course) are dressed with grilled lemon oil.

Even desserts get the flame. There's grilled pineapple in the tres leches cake, grilled apricot in the rice pudding and a grilled lemon pound cake with pisco-macerated strawberry compote.

All that scorching, charring, burning, smoking and other three-alarm variations on barbecue and grilling extend traditional notions of live-fire cooking, which says something about the incredible rise of barbecue in recent years.

"I think definitely now is the time to do something different," the chef says. "I grew up on it and continue to eat this way and enjoy it. I'm just refining it a little."

His refinements are less about technique than about flavor. They include adding nontraditional ingredients such as broccoli rabe and olives to classic Peruvian dishes and tweaking traditional Peruvian pairings, such as citrus and fish, with char.

On cue, Albisu gets an idea. He happens across a piece of beautiful raw salmon and cuts it into thin slices about an inch long and half-inch wide. He grabs the charred avocado I saw when I arrived and chops it into small squares, then forms the diced fruit into a line about the length of a finger. Meticulously, he drapes the salmon slices over the avocado, then drizzles a burnt-onion-flecked chimichurri vinaigrette over it. (Sometimes, he says, he chars salmon and pairs it with avocado and a lemon aioli.)

I take a bite. The flavor is both bright and subtly dark, familiar and transporting. By using the standard combination of fish and avocado and pairing it with the unconventional chimichurri (usually reserved for steak) and charring, Albisu doesn't upend tradition; he just tweaks it. The spontaneous dish is a modern take on a Peruvian mainstay.

"Seviche," Albisu says.

Of course. Seviche. Just, you know, a little refined.

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