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Somewhere between the skewers of salt-studded picanha and floral-scented lamb chops, I realize what’s bugging me about Fogo de Chão. I’m paying nearly 50 bucks for a dinner that’s produced without many of the traditional trappings of a fine-dining experience: There’s no menu that reflects weeks of mad ingredient manipulation behind the scenes and no care whatsoever about dish presentation or even that my plate, at this very moment, looks like a war zone of sawed-off and oozing red meats. This churrascaria chain seems to spit on the notion of chef as centripetal force, forever drawing customers to his brilliant light.
With no golden toque to worship at Fogo, I’m supposed to delight instead in an adult game of Red Light/Green Light. A genuine gaúcho, one of a circus troupe of mannered and mostly silent servers, efficiently responds to my every cry for meat, offering perhaps a thin slice of glistening bottom sirloin or a hunk of bacon-wrapped filet mignon speared on a skewer. And yet with every bite of Fogo’s rich, salty, and juicy-red steaks, I feel less like a VIP than like a tool of this high-brow house of rotisserie barbecue. Fogo de Chão, I start to suspect, may be Brazil’s less-animated answer to Benihana.
Churrascarias are nothing new to the area. They’ve been around for years, from the now-defunct Coco Loco in Chinatown to the Green Field Churrascaria in Rockville to the new, rock star–esque Chima Brazilian Steakhouse near Tyson’s Corner. But Fogo de Chão is different. It shoehorns the humble gaúcho tradition of grilling meats into the jackboot of an American steakhouse, operations as much about conspicuous consumption as about the fulfillment of carnivorous desires. And for the honor of composing your own dinner in its moneyed temple, Fogo charges you nearly a Benjamin for two.
Yet what exactly do you get for $48.50 a head? Something besides the opportunity to indulge in an orgy of meats at Fogo’s pricey, abstracted–Old West playground? Something you can’t get from Fogo’s competitors at a fraction of the cost? Something that truly recalls the Brazilian churrasco technique of grilling salty meats over open flames?
Fogo loves to trumpet its founders’ gaúcho cred. The company line goes something like this: Two brothers from southern Brazil sweated their way through the gaúcho-cooking ranks not only to become full-blown churrasqueiro chefs but also to ride herd over a U.S. invasion of seven churrascaria houses (and counting). It’s a Brazilian version of the farm-boy-done-good story.
Now compare Fogo’s bona fides with its local competitors’. The Green Field chain was founded in the mid-’90s by Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant who had previously earned his keep in the dry-cleaning business. Kim’s only connection to gaúcho cooking is that he lived in Brazil for years. With five operations to oversee now, Kim doesn’t put a premium on churrasco experience when hiring Brazilian chefs living in the states. He prefers those who know how to cook Brazilian staples such as rabada and feijoada, not barbecue, says John Ho, co-owner of the Rockville location. “The meats, all you need is a recipe,” says Ho. “Once the recipe is done, it’s pretty simple.”
By contrast, both Chima and the Malibu Grill Steak House in Falls Church opened with Brazilian cowboys in the kitchen, though neither place had the knowledge or experience to groom its own. Chima poached the majority of its gaúchos from established operations in Brazil, says founder Bruno Silva. Likewise, the Malibu Grill began business in 1997 with a chef and two cooks imported directly from Brazil. They’re all gone now, replaced by cooks hailing from El Salvador and Guatemala, which is just as well, since the restaurant’s clientele is mainly Hispanic. “That’s why the taste [of the food] had to be changed,” says Malibu manager Chan Wong. “When it’s 100 percent Brazilian, they don’t like it.”
Wong’s quote would seem to hit a tender spot for Fogo or any U.S. churrascaria that wants to play up its hardcore gaúcho connections: It seems Americans, no matter what ethnicity, don’t care much for genuine Brazilian barbecue. Fogo, Chima, and Green Field, just like Malibu, dial down the salt quotient on their grilled meats, which is arguably the defining quality of Brazilian barbecue. Dan Walters, Fogo’s front-of-the-house manager, estimates that the restaurant’s meats are 70 percent less salty than the sodium-carriers back in Brazil. “I cannot eat salty foods,” echoes Green Field’s Ho. “Anything new that the chefs make, we all taste. If it’s too salty for us, then it’s too salty for our customers.”
So if they all fudge on salt, then by what criteria should we judge Brazilian barbecue, other than by the standard steakhouse measures of taste, tenderness, and texture? The fact is, I prefer—by a wide margin—Fogo’s succulent, slightly charred meats over the far less expensive offerings from some of its competitors. (A Green Field dinner runs $27.95, while Malibu charges $16.95 or $17.95 depending on the day.) I even give the edge to Fogo over Chima, which asks $43.90 for dinner. Is that merely because Fogo’s founders—guys who could never personally oversee an empire that now stretches from here to São Paulo—are well-grounded in the gaúcho tradition? I doubt it.
No, I have to assume it’s something far simpler, namely that Fogo’s premium prices allow it to buy superior meats. But even that assumption doesn’t stand up to examination. All of the local churrascarias are mostly content to purchase USDA Choice meats, which they don’t age because they’re only salting and grilling the outer layers. The only obvious difference is that Fogo buys Certified Angus beef.
Call me stupid, but I have a hard time believing that the difference between Fogo and its peers boils down to breed-specific beef. Which leaves me with an uncomfortable, romantic conclusion: that Fogo’s homegrown gaúchos, all dressed in their pilcha outfits, do more than add a cowboy ambience to the place.
The way Walters explains it, Fogo has developed a farm system for its gaúchos that goes beyond teaching those knife skills on view in the dining room. The gaúchos train for a couple of years in southern Brazil and then emigrate to the States, where they work in every restaurant in the chain before settling down at one. By the time they reach your table, they have perfected this Brazilian barbecue theater that few understand, let alone see—a highly developed act of salting, grilling, monitoring, slicing, and serving meats (and the resalting and regrilling of those same meats).
The gaúchos are “professionals,” Walters says. “It’s like that old lady that makes meatballs at the Italian restaurant….Maybe you’re like, ‘What is this? She does something different. I just can’t tell what it is. She does something different than that chef at the Olive Garden. What is it?’ Well, maybe it’s because she’s been doing it all her life.”
It would seem that at Fogo, you don’t have one chef in the kitchen. You have potentially 17 of them. While they don’t innovate like a typical four-star chef, they are more than just dudes in poofy pants serving you meat. They have skills—for which you will pay, dearly.—Tim Carman
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