15th July 2007
There’s more than one way to cook the perfect steak. In fact, it seems that everyone has a different opinion, each convinced that theirs is the true path to carnivorous enlightenment. Some swear by barbecues for charred crust, others sing the praises of the griddle pan, heated a few degrees hotter than Hades.
One chef will sear sirloin briefly, then let it rest to reach required ‘doneness’, another degrees it should be served sizzling from the pan. And we haven’t even got on to the ‘dry vs. wet’ ageing debate, the importance of breed, or which cut gives the best flavour.
As is so often the case with cooking, there is no right answer, rather a collection of passionately argued variations. But as I entered the Gaucho Grill, in Hampstead, north London, on a damp Monday afternoon, I felt I had much to learn. A master class from executive chef Daniel Veron, a tanned, sparkling-eyed Spaniard, was not to be sniffed. This was a man who radiated meaty knowledge from every pore.
‘The first thing to remember about good steak’, says Veron, ‘is that it’s all about the cow – how it’s raised, fed, killed, hung and butchered. No two steaks are the same.’ Like all food, provenance is all. Just as in the UK, there’s poor Argentinian steak and stunning stuff. Only the latter makes the grade at the Gaucho Grill.
This small chain of restaurants is a temple to the finest Argentinian beef, and I’ve long admired the impossibly crisp crust and buttery taste of their cuts. The art of steak is taken so seriously here that it takes six months training before anyone is allowed near their grill. And each grill-chef is personally vetted by Veron. He wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter. ‘We have specially designed V-shaped grills with three different temperatures, a mixture of wet and dry heat.’ I gaze at these mighty machines with undisguised envy.
‘But you can cook good steak at home on a griddle pan, barbecue or grill. One of the biggest mistakes is lack of patience and lack of time. Preparation is everything.’ He grabs a fat chunk of exquisitely marbled Argentinian Black Angus rib eye, oils the meat until it glistens (he uses corn oil), throws it on the grill and anoints the meat with a liberal handful of high – quality salt such as Maldon. It sizzles seductively.
‘Now you leave it alone. The more you turn the steak, the drier and tougher it becomes. I salt on one side only, as the cooking process draws the salt through. And give it 70 per cent of the time on one side, then 30 per cent on the other. So if you want medium rare, give it about three minutes on one side, about one on the other.’
To my surprise, he holds no truck with resting the meat. ‘The moment it’s ready, it goes from grill to table.’ The lump of beef sits proudly on the plate, its crust charred and crisp in contrast to a soft, perfectly pink inside. I take a bite. There’s an underlying sweetness tempered by a hint of the mineral. Each chew releases a torrent of savoury juices. Veron watches my face.
‘It’s good, no? Patience, good meat and a little care… that’s the secret.’ All that I can do is nod in ecstatic, appreciative agreement.