Lucas Adrian Farias, Chef de Cuisine at Saudi Arabia’s first Argentinian restaurant, talks to Catering News Middle East about bringing native flavours to new markets and creating the best restaurant in Jeddah. Words by Melanie Mingas
In any national cuisine, there are certain ingredients and techniques essential to authenticity, from meats and marinades to native grains. When it comes to argentine cuisine, those ingredients include Asado grilled steak, chimichurri and a glass of velvety, local grape – tastes that can greatly influence how and where the food is re-created. And that goes some way to explaining the absence of Argentine restaurants in Saudi Arabia.
With the opening of Rocco Forte’s first property in the Kingdom, Assila Hotel Jeddah, that has all changed. The brand’s highly anticipated debut, in the heart of Jeddah’s fashion and business district, Assila Hotel fuses “European sophistication with Arabian craftsmanship”.
The hotel was brought to life by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio and the group’s director of design, Olga Polizzie; it boasts 147 rooms and suites, each with high ceilings, large windows and full-height wooden doors, and a gallery of 2,000 original artworks by Saudi Arabian artists. Elsewhere, the Assila Spa features two gyms – each with floor to ceiling views over Jeddah – two squash courts, and a 25 metre rooftop pool and poolside lounge.
A truly family affair, the five-star luxury property boasts five dining experiences, all developed by Lydia Forte – bar and restaurant development manager at Rocco Forte Hotels, daughter of founder Sir Rocco and niece of Olga Polizzie.
Perched on the hotel’s 17th floor, Pampas, uses adapted Asado grill techniques to create Arabian-inspired South American cuisine, with a menu of the highest quality meats and fish, Argentinean ‘mezze’, mixed grills to share and a custom-made caviar trolley.
Named after the grassy plains that surround Buenos Aires, since its opening in January 2017, Pampas has become a hit with regional critics and diners alike. It has already received its first award, in the 2017 Restaurant and Bar Design Awards, presented in London in early October, due to the striking combination of stained glass, aged oak herringbone flooring, and worn leather upholstery.
Vamos a comer
As a concept, the Asado grill is a favourite among carnivorous Argentinians, who are rumoured to eat as much as 60kg of meat per person per year. To capture the fullest flavour, meat is cooked medium to well done. However, to achieve this it must be cooked low and slow. The whole process can take up to two hours.
A challenging concept to execute in a country with limited access to key ingredients, Chef de Cuisine, Lucas Adrian Farias, explains: “Pampas is basically an Argentinian concept – we tried to add a bit of Latin American cuisine also and to try to adapt to the local guest. Because 90% of our guests are Saudi Arabian, we cannot give them a 100% Argentinian concept, so we try to adapt to the local palate to reach more guests.”
Working under Executive Chef Maurizio Panicali, Chef Farias is one of a team of 120 chefs and 35 stewards working across the hotel’s F&B portfolio. Chef Farias joined Pampas in the pre-opening phase and was heavily involved in menu creation, staff training and kitchen set-up.
Serving a menu of beef, lamb, seafood and, of course, goat, Chef Farias says: “At Pampas we have re-created how we cook in Argentina, but using many ingredients from here. So we try to make a combination between the techniques of my country, which is very important on the grilled meat, but using local products so people see something familiar cooked in a different way.”
The mouth-watering results include Rabbit “Escabeche” with baby roots; Seafood ceviche a la piedra; empanadas; and of course the finest cuts of beef, lamb, baby goat poultry and seafood, all served with chimichurri, BBQ and mushroom sauce. In the signature Pampas Mixed Grill, guests can dine in groups, helping themselves to meat fresh from their own grill, cooked to order at their table.
“Because we use the Asado technique to cook food, people can see the food cooking live and they can enjoy the smell of the wood because it’s a live grill. We do this in two ways. Firstly, we use the grill with good fire, charcoal and some wood chips to allow you to have a smoked technique in the same time we are cooking so it gives you a very nice combination of flavour. Secondly, we use our grill, so we have a direct grill and then another that allows us to cook the meat very, very slowly, which gives the meat tenderness and juiciness.”
In the discerning Saudi market, the combination of the two is crucial.
Raising the stakes
Chef Farias was granted near free reign by Panicali in the menu design, allowing him to source ingredients and implement techniques from home, then build on their localisation by collaborating with colleagues.
He recalls: “Yes it was tough, it’s difficult to get some ingredients, for example, the different types of potato, tomato and corn from my country, but we did manage to get everything we need for the menu. In the cooking, I use all techniques from home – for example we cook the vegetables and after they are finished we put them in the charcoal so next day they’ve got a lot of flavour from the ash and the smoke. We use all techniques, but I cook most things in the grill.”
While the techniques and tastes are authentic, the ingredients are an international affair, with an ethos of quality first. While many products are locally sourced – including the chicken and whole baby goat – the Black Angus comes from Australia and Canada and the lamb is sourced in New Zealand.
Chef Farias continues: “You meet many Saudi guests when working in Dubai, but working in Saudi Arabia is different because of the local market’s demand for quality. I think the market here wants to compete with Dubai and guests are certainly looking for outstanding quality.”
Sourcing ingredients wasn’t the only hurdle. As is expected in a market such as Saudi Arabia, recruitment and relocation of staff was also challenging, reducing the time available for training, due to delays in visa processing.
Despite this, Chef Farias overcame the issues to spend two months setting up the kitchen, training staff in the restaurant’s standards and recipes, and preparing for the first guests.
He explains: “We trained staff in our Argentinian influences, as well as the recipes and standards. In the hotel we have a high percentage of local Saudi staff, which is good, and we have staff who are international, from India and other different countries, so it’s a multi-cultural environment and that is very nice to work in. You learn to deal with the culture of another colleague so that is great.”
With the first year of operations almost complete, Pampas has already undergone one menu change, based on guest feedback, best sellers and global dining trends. Chef Farias and the team will continue to bring local flavour to Latin roots, to create a-typical tastes that keep Pampas well ahead of the curve in the local market.
While signature dishes such as the Pampas Mixed Grill will be certain to feature, the rest of the new menu is a closely guarded secret.
Assessing the local competition, Farias continues: “We are fine dining and we’re the only Argentinian restaurant in Saudi Arabia, so mainly there is no competitor. We do consider other grill and steak restaurants to be competitors in a way, but still they are not meeting our standards yet. Even if there are a lot of steak houses here in Saudi Arabia, particularly in Jeddah, we are unique because we are on the 17th floor of an exquisite hotel, so this helps us to grow more and push the boundaries of our menu creation.”
For now, the focus falls on maintaining the leading reputation Pampas has forged since January, with a clear ambition to take the title of best restaurant in Jeddah – and keep it.
Looking ahead, Chef Farias, has his eyes on only one prize: “My ambition is to position Pampas as the best restaurant in Jeddah. I’m very positive about this.”