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A Slow-Cooked Tradition Takes Centerstage

A Slow-Cooked Tradition Takes Centerstage

3 Latin chefs share personal connections to barbacoa

Talk to any chef versed in barbacoa, the traditional method of slow-cooking meats over a fire in a pit in the ground, and you are sure to get a very personal account involving traditions passed down through generations of family gatherings and special occasions.

“I’m a third-generation, native Texan,” says Demetrio “Chef D” Marquez, a Reinhart Foodservice corporate chef for the New Orleans division. “My great-great-grandfather came to [the United States] in 1812, and barbacoa is a tradition I grew up with.” Many of his Latin-inspired recipes have been passed on for generations.

“My family always had barbacoa for weddings, and my earliest memory of it was at my cousin’s wedding in Mexico,” recalls Diana Dávila, chef/owner of Chicago’s Mi Tocaya.

“It’s a primitive celebration,” describes Anthony Lamas, chef/owner of Louisville’s Seviche. “I grew up on a farm in central California. Through the whole process, you learn respect for the food given—it’s more than just the end result.”

Originating in the Caribbean before migrating to Central America and Mexico, barbacoa is historically a community effort, with everyone participating. The process can be described as cooking in a large, earthen crockpot and starts with the freshest meat available, usually farm-raised sheep, lamb or goat.

While being prepared and seasoned, a hole is dug in the ground and lined with rocks, into which wood is burned until the oven is red-hot. The meat is placed into a large pot (sometimes with the stomach and edible organs on top), then lowered into the coals. Covered with maguey leaves or large cactus paddles and dirt, everything is left to steam-cook until tender, sometimes overnight.

“My anticipation for barbacoa was like a kid not able to sleep well the night before Christmas morning,” says Marquez.

Variations of this ancient cooking method differs from region to region, but the outcome is always the same: juicy, succulent meat that is easily shredded and served simply in soft, corn tortillas with onion and cilantro; a delicious, rich broth is often enjoyed first as a consommé or soup.

Because it is so labor intensive, authentic barbacoa is usually only available at family-run establishments and not often on general restaurant menus.

“To make the dish, you have to understand it, you need to do the research and get to know the origins to understand where it comes from,” explains Dávila. “At some places, people might just like the way it sounds. They’ll cook lamb and call it barbacoa.”

Nevertheless, committed chefs are adding their own spin on it. At Seviche, Lamas does lamb barbacoa with poblano manchego grits, lemon rosemary demi glacé and root vegetables. Dávila has marinated whole beef ribs in adobo before smoking in banana leaves, slicing the meat and reassembling back onto the bone for serving. And Marquez slow cooks beef cheeks in herbs, guajillo chilis and pasilla chilis in earthenware for a beefy, bold, robust dish.

Ultimately, this is a style of cooking close to the heart, existing beyond trends in places where delicious food and family intersect.

“I learned barbacoa before farm-to-table,” says Lamas. “It’s a way of life.”

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