Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Leaving the Quacks Behind

Sometimes swans swim around with ducks for a long time before they figure out who they really are. I was part of the duck crowd until May of 2009.

Insert dramatic pause....

I don't eat vegetables. I never have. I likely never will. It's mainly a texture thing. Also, I'm a primal carnivore. I've always said if George Burns could smoke and drink and live to be 307 years old, I believe I can live to at least half of than number by just eating meat, cheese, rice, potatoes, and bread.

For years I have been told I was a finicky eater. I have spent measurable hours of my life at social gatherings picking crap off of otherwise great pizza. I am the king of soup broth eating, where prior to bringing the main course, the waiter takes away a bowl half-filled with dried celery and carrots yet completely devoid of all meat, broth, and noodles. If you have a stubborn four year old carnivore, then you have experience with how I get my sustenance.

During the first of my 15+ trips to Brazil (in May '09), just outside Sao Paulo, my friend Sundeep took me to my first Churrascaria, a Brazilian Steakhouse. Immediately, I found what I had been searching for my entire life. Endless supplies of delicious steak (sizzling hot and fresh) delivered continuously to my plate. There were comments about how much food I consumed, but no one had any concern about the lack of vegetables on my plate.

Late in the summer of 2009, I was informed by a friend in Brazil that the greatest of all Churrascarias (Fogo de Chao) has one of their restaurants in my home village of Indianapolis. Upon my return to the United States, I told Gail that I was going to show her the taste of Brazil, the steak-on-a-stick of true Churrasco, and we made our first visit to Fogo in August of 2009.

After convincing Gail to go easy on the most amazing salad bar she had ever seen, we began the dinner portion of our meal. We flipped our cards to green. The first Gaucho Chef who came by was carrying a large chunk of roasted meat. He approached Gail and said, "Lower Sirloin?" I gushed, "Oh, Gail, this is Fraldinha (frau-JEEEEEN-ya)... and it has an amazing flavor!!! This is one of the cuts of meat I have told you about." He cut a long, narrow piece and Gail guided it to her plate with the small silver tongs. Then, he came over to my side of the table, and he smiled at the gleam in my eyes as I said, "Fraldinha, Sim. Por Favor." And once the prize was on my plate I gave him a sincere thumbs up and said, "Obrigato."

The next few moments were some of those that happen every now and then that we never expect or plan for. It was that moment that I first encountered a man who has become a very dear friend to me. It was that day at the end of August that I met the man we will call "Brunetto." He was the Gaucho serving Picanha, and he approached our table likely expecting we would be the typical Americans who agreed to try a little of what he offered as we awaited the guy with the Filet Migneon. However, he was instead greeted by me, an expressive babbler who cried out just a little too loudly, "Oh Gail! This is it! Behold... (hands waving like Doug Henning) Let there be Picanha!!!!!!" Brunetto's smile clearly showed I had made his day. As he began to slice the steak for Gail, I explained that Picanha is the best part of the Alcatra (the top sirloin). I summarized by saying this (one of my best quotes of 2009):

"In Heaven, the Entire cow is Picanha."

As Brunetto moved to serve me, I immediately saw greatness. He shaved off a perfect, wispy thin slice of Picanha that was unlike anything I had ever seen in Brazil. Although there would be little compulsion for a Gaucho chef in Brazil to make perfect cuts for a visiting Gringo American like me, the reality is that there is no Gaucho in Brazil who is capable of cooking and cutting the way my friend does. Like Rob Cosman cutting dovetails, Brunetto has a gift. Mere mortals can try to recreate what Brunetto seems to effortlessly do, but just like woodworkers who watch Cosman's dovetail videos the results just never measure up to those produced by the gifted master.

Now for my confession. Brunetto is not his real name. It is a family name that helps to provide some privacy. I'm really not kidding or exaggerating. There's a reason why Batman doesn't tell anyone where the Bat Cave is....because if he did, there would be people there all the time. And if I told you Brunetto's true name you would find him and bang on his door and make him cook for you. And just like Batman, it is Brunetto's place to decide when to reveal his true identity to the world. However, tomorrow I will write a short (I promise) blog entry that gives away a huge secret but also gives great insight into the talents of Brunetto.

Since we met, Brunetto and I have become true friends. Gail and I have been to his home many times.

He has often been to my home, where he has attempted to teach me the ways of the Barbecue Jedi. The day that his lovely wife gave birth to his younger daughter, I smuggled a bottle of wine into the hospital and we toasted little Bianca, with no concern that the styrofoam cups did nothing to enhance the bouquet or color of the wine. But Brunetto's story must wait until tomorrow; today's entry is about ducks and swans.

367 days ago, Gail and I visited Fogo on the day after my birthday. (We were a day late because I had been on a plane on the real day my age increased.) And as we ate, all of our Gaucho friends (Edson, the Rafael's, Luciano, Thales, Ronaldo, Carlos, JoseRobeto, Victor, and the others) took such good care of us, even though I told no one it was my birthday. As we left Fogo that day, my friend Joelcir (the General Manager) asked how our dinner was. I responded with, "Well, I've been a little down, because yesterday was my birthday, but it always makes me happy to be here." Joelcir comforted me that I was still so young that my life was just beginning, and I felt better as Gail and I walked toward the door. As we were putting our coats on our friend Sean came up and asked us to wait for a moment, and we then saw Joelcir sprinting from the back of the restaurant with the legs of his Gaucho pants fluttering. He pulled up next to me, handed me the black box shown below, and said, "Normally, we give a free dessert on someone's birthday."

He paused and smiled. As I opened the box, Joelcir said, "But let's face it.... YOU'RE JEFF!!! Happy Birthday, my friend."

The gift overwhelmed me. It showed me that Joelcir recognized the same thing Brunetto had always seen. They recognized that a Gringo from middle America really could understand the Gaucho culture of Brazil.

And as I left Fogo that day and returned to world of ducks that surround me, I finally realized I am neither a duck nor a swan. I am Jeff, and I am Gaucho.

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