It’s always a busy night at Sydney’s famous Argentinian restaurant, Porteño, and the man behind all the action is Adan Abrahanowic. Barbecuing full lamb and suckling pig carcasses on the traditional asado (fire pit), Adan uses his expertise learnt from his South American upbringing to feed the hungry crowds of Surry Hills.
Adan is 64 and began cooking with the asado and the parrilla (barbecue) as soon as he was old enough to feel confident with the open flames. “I always loved gauchos (cowboys) with the fires, the horses, everything like that and I think that was part of why I wanted to learn about cooking this way,” he says. He cooked in this style across restaurants in Argentina and Sydney, where he moved to in 1974. He gave up barbecuing for some time, saving his skills only for special occasions with family and friends and pursued his other skilled craft of glass cutting.”My original job was cutting crystal and I really miss doing it,” Adan explains. “When I used to cut glass and crystal when I was 18, my teacher told me I was better than him.” It was only when his son Elvis decided to venture into business with Ben Milgate and open a classic Argentinian restaurant that Adan’s expertise was called upon. Firstly, with the opening of Bodega in 2006, followed by two-hatted Porteño in 2010. Elvis knew that no one could barbecue as well and as authentically as his own dad. “The day my son opened Bodega, I said that I would always help him and maybe one day I will go back to glass cutting, but for now, I’m happy,” he says.
Preparing the meat is no easy task and requires the upmost patience to achieve the perfect flavour and texture. Adan says one of the most important factors is that the meat has to be fresh and he can tell instantly if it has been frozen when it reaches the fire. The heat and size of the flame are also key elements Adan has to keep his eye on, constantly re-stocking the fire with four different sized logs to achieve the perfect temperature in accordance to the size of the animal. Using his knowledge of how the meat should look and feel once is it ready to be eaten, Adan says the entire process typically takes up to eight hours.
Using the asado can also be dangerous and even the master has the scars to prove it. Temperatures reach a high of 750°C and mount to staggering heights. It was only in January this year that a fire broke out in the restaurant from the flue above the fire pit where Adan was cooking. “All day you need to walk around the meat looking and touching it to see if it’s cooked,” he says.
For those wanting to venture into barbecuing with the asado and parrilla, Adan has some wise words to pass on. “Never drink when cooking around the open fire,” he says. “In Argentina this is typical, but it’s dangerous. Just wait until you can sit down and enjoy the meal.” He also adds that there can be a lot of money behind his profession, as the fie pit is a spectacle in a restaurant and people love to tip the person producing such delicious food. Finally, “you need to be friends with the fire, if you don’t like the fire, don’t do it,” Adan says.
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Photography by Emily Hutchinson