Having been chosen to reopen Argentina’s embassy in Singapore in 2017, after a 15-year closure, Federico Barttfeld knew what he had to do to jumpstart interest in his country. When he got the keys to his residence at Beach Road, he kitted it with an industrial-grade Argentine barbecue grill, custom made in a shipyard in Singapore using military grade steel. It would be from this 2.5m by 1m platform that could feed up to 150 guests that he would, with the adept skill of a gourmand who knows his way around a kitchen, entertain state guests as well as woo chefs, and food and wine importers and distributors to the Argentine cause.
His grill ingredients of choice: pasture-raised, grass-fed beef that he would turn into aromatic steaks and cold-water, wild-caught red prawns that can alternatively be eaten as sashimi. These items are increasingly offered on menus here – at Argentine restaurant Bochinche at Amoy Street, of course, and now Meating Place at Duo Galleria.
And from his balcony, Barttfeld is helping to spread the word. “I invited the chef of Tono, the only Peruvian restaurant in Singapore for a barbecue that included these prawns and the day after, he served it as one of the restaurant’s star dishes. And now they will offer Argentine beef,” he says. The F&B directors of Fullerton Bay Hotel and Mandarin Oriental have also been won over. “It’s a daily job that you have to do little by little, helping people know about Argentine food, what it tastes like, so that they are convinced by themselves. You cannot push them. It’s a very artisanal job.”
To be sure, Barttfeld, as the only child of a diplomat who was exposed to world cuisine at an early age, has a deep-rooted passion for food that people here know only too well. “I find it easy to make friends in Singapore. Only when the lights turn off do we stop talking about food,” he says. Explaining his epicurean obsession, Barttfeld, 50, says his father loved to cook and he grew up trying to replicate classics such as beef wellington, beef tartar, and chicken Kiev supreme.
Then, there’s his nose, he adds facetiously: “I am sensitive to smells and flavours. I can taste something and generally tell you what’s in it.” Earlier this year, he swapped his suit for chef’s whites and checkered pants to team up with Argentine chef Martin Rebaudino to cook at Skai, as part of the World Gourmet Summit. He prepared a dish of pan-toasted Argentina Barlett pear with honey, burrata, and caramelised onions. With such a rich culinary pedigree, we cannot help but ask this career diplomat and gourmand to share his expertise and recommendations.
Federico Barttfeld’s tips on working an Argentine grill
“I use an Argentine technique to light the charcoal by surrounding a bottle with rings of newspapers that is then removed – it is a sin to use lighter fluid, because you can taste it in the meat afterward. It takes half an hour to get the charcoal glowing. In Argentina, we use quebaracho, a slow burning type of wood that doesn’t emit a huge flame. In the US, they want the flame to touch the beef. This is not the Argentine style. I begin by searing the meat to create a crust, then I elevate it, put it further away from the charcoal so it can cook evenly inside too. Since the steak is thick, you need to have indirect heat or it will be charred outside and raw inside. The only way to have Argentine beef is to sprinkle coarse salt on it before it is cooked – as this kind of salt melts bit by bit. Don’t add anything else, not even pepper.”
(Related: The Peak Expert: Grill)
Federico Barttfeld’s top eats in Buenos Aires
Barttfeld has a knack for spotting star restaurants, having championed Don Julio, which ranked 35th on this year’s World 50 Best, since it was a neighbourhood steakhouse. Below, his other picks in the capital.
- El Cuartito (“the little room”) for its fugazzeta, a pizza filled with tasty and fatty cheese, topped by braised onions. “It’s a cultural mix between Italian and Spanish cuisine. When you cut it, there’s an overflow of cheese from the dough. The flavour is superb. You eat that and skip dinner.”
- Roux, whose chef Martin Rebaudino cooked at this year’s World Gourmet Summit. Roux is renowned for its regional specialities. Goat sweetbreads – “I’ve never had it anywhere else. He serves it with egg yolk ravioli. Very umami. Afterwards, you take a nap.”
- Chori, for its smoked sausages. “They serve you vermouth, and gin and tonic in plastic glasses. Most of the time, you have to eat standing up, but it’s in a very nice neighbourhood of Palermo. You will be surrounded by locals.”
- Las Pizarras Bistro (“the black board”) every day, the menu changes according to freshest product in the market. “It’s a good place to try wild game – boar meat, deer stews – and Patagonian seafood. You can get a squid steak, which is cut from a gigantic squid that weighs around 100kg.”
- La Carniceria (“the butcher”), for sweetbreads.
Federico Barttfeld’s tips on pairing wine with local cuisine
- Spicy dishes such as nasi lemak or Peranakan food: “Argentine white wine, made from Torrontes grape, the only domestic grape of Argentina. It’s very fruity, perfumey and dry on the palate.”
- Chinese pork belly, steak: Argentine Malbec (“Malbec and steak is a match made in heaven”), Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc.
- Chicken rice: Pinot Noir from Patagonia
How Federico Barttfeld finds the best restaurants
Barttfeld does his own research when planning a gastronomic trip. It involves Googling, cross referencing blogs, checking rankings and evaluating recommendations by people. When checking Tripadvisor, he would take note of those who have written many reviews as opposed to one – which might be planted – and would follow that reviewer to see what he or she thinks of a restaurant he has tried. He says he has created his own algorithm to find good eats.
The Asian dish that defeated Federico Barttfeld
While he has taken to pungent South-east Asian delicacies like durian and buak keluak with gusto, one item trounced him. “I sometimes think I am world-food proof,” Barttfeld says. “Stinky tofu was able to beat me. I could take the initial taste, but the after taste was too just too much.”