Roasting a 1,000-Pound Cow Is an Art Form
I’m surprised by the solemnity of the whole image: the perfect silhouette of a dead animal, its muscles exposed with just a film of fat around, 10 men struggling to carry it.
This story originally appeared in Spanish on MUNCHIES MX on September 5.
Dante Ferrero walks around, coming in and out of the cooling chamber. He's wearing a white T-shirt and an apron with Alodé—the name of his restaurant located in San Pedro, Monterrey—embroidered on it. You can hear his musical Argentinian accent from afar and when you meet him you'd think he's a visitor even though in reality he's lived in this magnificent city for more than 15 years.
He seems lost in his thoughts looking at the floor, pacing around. He gives orders to a couple dozen men that work next to him—employees of a local butcher shop—while they hold a sharp metal hook in their hands.
The men go inside the cooling chamber at Hotel SM as they start planning how to carry a 1,000-pound cow. "I'm sorry, did I hear that correctly? 1,000 pounds?" I ask one of the workers. "Yes," he answers. "When it was on foot it weighed around 1,500." It costs around $70 Mexican pesos ($3.50 USD) per pound. I do the math and the whole cow was around 32,760 pesos ($1,800 USD). Considering that this animal will feed around 400 people, it doesn't seem too expensive.
I'm surprised by the solemnity of the whole image: the perfect silhouette of a dead animal, its muscles exposed with just a film of fat around, 10 men struggling to carry this cow that Dante personally picked from a local ranch. They can't seem to make it until they decide to use a hoist. It looks like a sinister ceremony, one in which the men treat the dead animal with utter respect.
They take the cow all the way to the restaurant where they need to climb some steps to get to Grill 3.0. It looks like an impossible task. The name of the grill is a reference to all the improvements they've made on it, since it's a design that Dante has developed to make the perfect roast. In its newest version, he cooked 11 of the 17 cows for his new series: "La vaca es mia" (The cow is mine).
Today's cow is number 18 and the biggest one yet. "It's going to be a challenge," the man at the grill, who is also known as "king of the cow," tells me. Dante is an innate meat lover—something that's expected from an Argentinian—and all through his career he has been deeply involved in "the art of roasting meat." In his restaurant, he has a chamber where he ages the meat that he later serves to his costumers. He has made a name for himself as "the chef that grills whole cows" in gastronomical events around Mexico.
After another display of struggle and sweat by the butchers, the cow finally makes it to the grill. The next step will be to tie it up with metal wires and give it a last touch of salt before grilling. There are around 250 wood logs (almost a ton) placed to feed the fires for the next 23 hours.
The butchers leave happy with the work done, but Dante stays to tie the cow up with the help of some gastronomy students.
At 8PM they light the fire.
This is one of the most compelling moments of the whole show. The fire comes up and demands our full attention; we start to feel the heat in our skin. If there were music it would be played by violins to accompany this dramatic image.
Dante keeps his attention on the animal, then the fire, then back to the animal. There's nothing else in the world for him at this moment. During the first few hours he doesn't leave the grill's side because "the fire is demanding and cruel," he says. "It demands our company." He gives precise instructions: keep the fire constant, just add wood logs when it's necessary and spread the hot coals slowly around the cow. "We can't subdue the fire," Dante says. "We just do our best to control it."
The first hours of the grilling have passed and the cow starts changing its color slowly. The mesquite smell is so intense that I feel it inside me. There is no way to escape it—it gets in your clothes, hair and skin. It's a pleasant aroma, and once it spreads around, the area attracts people that come around to take a look or to take pictures.
As any good Argentinian, Dante recognizes that grilling is not just a cooking technique but a cultural ritual. In Argentina there is a hierarchy for these kind of cooks. To be a "parrillero" is and honor and it takes a lot of instinct to be a good one. "A lot of people ask me about that thermometer, but it's actually not mine. I just do things guiding myself by my experience and patience." And he seems to have lots of patience. Dante says that when he stands in front of the cow on the grill he feels the same fear and uncertainty every time. He believes that no one, not even those with burns scars all over their hands, will ever master the art of the "asado." It's not about a power struggle between the cook, the cow and the fire," he says. "There are no winners in this game."
Time is the main ingredient—although the brine used as seasoning is also essential. Hours go by and the animal starts shrinking because of all the fat lost in the fire. Around 11AM they turn it around for the first time. Although the grill was designed to do this, Dante helps his workers because he wants to do this maneuver in one sudden movement.
I try to help too. I take a glove lying around and put it on my right hand and hold one of the grill corners. The other sides of the grill are controlled by the students and by Toño (Dante's main cooking partner, who's only 21 years old but has already cooked 18 whole cows). We are ready. Dante directs us: "I'm going to take the breaks off and we'll start pushing together."
I don't ask anything, I just follow orders. The cow starts to be lifted and I'm suddenly in shock thanks to the intensity of the heat and the fact that it's way heavier than I've imagined. We push hard and the cow finally turns around. I rest for a bit to cool myself down. Here is where I understand everything that Dante previously told me: to grill takes temperance, energy, skills and some tricks. There is no recipe for this and you have to do everything by instinct. After all, we are animals eating meat and that's a human instinct.
"I'm more skillful when carving it," Dante says when he calmly starts doing it. "It's a really tiring task, like spending an hour at the gym. I always start at the ribs."
At dawn the cow's vigil comes to an end as people start coming and going. Hotel workers start setting up the tables, vendors bring in the wine and coffee, and desserts are being made. A jazz band start to set up their equipment and screen are installed on the walls to show Dante's final hour, when he'll serve the roast. Then they'll transmit a soccer match to finish this amazing show.
"I'm part of the show," Dante says. It's a great gathering and I love how people react. The cow means a lot to everyone."
Time to cut the cow.
The cow is ready. You can see the golden flesh and cracklings everywhere while juices keep flowing on top of the coals. The smell is powerful and omnipresent. The cravings of stuffing our mouths with meat are getting stronger by the minute. Dante moves the cow to a vertical position while people start making a line and take pictures. He looks tired but happy. He enjoys this event that's far from being morbid is actually very joyful.
Once the picture-taking stops, Dante gives instructions to servers and cooks. "As soon I carve the cow in pieces you should bring it to the costumers," he says. "The experience here is to eat a cow that was grilled for 24 hours, to taste all different textures and flavors. You have to give emphasis that this is not like any other buffet but one where you can taste any and all parts of a cow."
Dante takes his chef knifes and starts carving the ribs. He takes one piece, looks at it for a second and brings is to a board where he gives a lesson to his students.
Then there is frenzy in the place while people anxiously wait in line. Dante starts working faster, carving and serving. There is a rhythm and a hint of the movie Delicatessen. The end line is never in sight since there are almost 1,000 pounds of meat to be served.
The roasted meat finally makes it to the people, erupting in applause when they see the first batch arrive. They seem satisfied because it's difficult not to feel joy in front of roasted meat. We are omnivorous and it's part of our lives. "This traditions helps us remember who we are," Dante says. "We are just animals that kill to feed themselves."