15 Minutes: Chef Franco Savors Argentina

Fernando Franco’s kitchen preps 400 dishes daily, 

Sean Drakes surveys the chef’s table

 

When you’re the executive chef of a restaurant situated at a premier address for conferences and international business travelers, expectations are high and distinction is everything.

Fernando Franco has been at the helm of Waterfront Restaurant since its January 2008 opening at Hyatt Regency Trinidad.  The native of Buenos Aires, Argentina has worked for Hyatt since 2001.  “I think it was a very good idea,” shares Franco, 43, “to open a hotel is like to have a baby, you see the baby from when it’s born.  To be here from inception was very exciting.”  Franco has created inventive courses at hotels in Europe, Spain and Portugal.  His culinary career was launched in 1989 at Alvear Palace Hotel in Argentina where he was a chef de partie.  He also served as chef at the US Embassy in Argentina.

Trinidad experienced a restaurant boom in the last decade.  The capital city’s allure to the international business sector was heightened after Hyatt catered to President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Franco reinvents menus every three or four months with innovative pairings and approaches using local ingredients.  He turned down his pots for 15 minutes to celebrate an Argentinian passion for beef.

Executive Chef Fernando Franco at Waterfront. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

Franco’s approach to fusing culinary traditions of two cultures onto one menu:

“When I make menus it’s funny,” begins Franco, “with the chef you know all the different ingredients…the produce, you know the taste you know the flavors, and when we talk about new menus and we invent new dishes you mix together ingredients, but you think in terms of flavor.  The lamb is good with this herb and this carrot, and then you put the mash, because you know the different flavors and combinations, you don’t need to try the dish.  You know when it’s good and it’s not good; take a carrot sauce and you put a sausage with too much herb it’s not that good a combination.”

Franco observes the divergent food habits of three cultures:

Upon arriving in Trinidad his first task was to scour local cookbooks to acquire a primer on indigenous ingredients.  Chadon beni, bhagi. dasheen bush, curry and coconut milk are the ingredients that are now fixtures in his culinary arsenal.  “The big difference between [Trinidad and Argentina] is breakfast,” suggests Franco, “here you have the doubles, it’s spicy and fried, in Argentina it’s just bread or croissant and coffee, nothing else.  It’s not like in the States, they eat eggs, bacon, sausage.”

Sun-dried tomatoes herbed risotto with seared sea bass and fresh organic arugala lettuce. Right: Roasted lamb loin, sweet pumpkin "coo coo" with organic cherry tomato and a merlot reduction. Photos: SeanDrakes.com

Franco factors in geography and creating an experience to feed meat lovers:

“It’s different here than in Italy, France, Miami or Buenos Aires, we have different kind of guest in each place,” he notes.  “In Trinidad we have plenty products.  You put on a list all the products you can find here, then start doing the combinations,” explains Franco in his slightly patchy English.  To construct menus he considers: “If I use white fish and salmon [on a current menu], I find another fish, like sea bass and snapper [for a new menu].  If I used before lamb chops and now lamb legs, next menu I use lamb shank.”  Hyatt Regency Trinidad recently unveiled themed dining nights with Argentinian feast for meat lovers on the first Wednesday of each month.

Shrimp and papaya salad served with organic mixed greens with a lime vinaigrette. Right: Dessert trio of steamed chocolate and banana pudding with caramel sauce and vanilla gelato. Photos: SeanDrakes.com

Franco embraces culinary traditions that preserve the bond to his homeland:

“My father cooked on holidays, weekends, special days,” recalls Franco, “all the family worked together in the kitchen.”  Franco apprenticed with Francis Mallman and El Gato Dumas, who are credited with launching a culinary revolution in the ’80s that converted aspiring engineers into celebrated chefs, and spawned a slew of culinary institutes in Argentina.

“We are famous in Argentina for beef,” claims Franco, “the rib eye is one of the best cuts now, the strip loins is very good.  In Argentina parrillas (bistro-style eateries) serve every cut of beef.  On Argentina Night we have the parrilla on two large outdoor grills, we grill beef, lamb, pork, sausage.”  Another new fine dining attraction at Waterfront is Brazilian Night.  The black bean-based feijoda, explains Franco, is a traditional Brazilian dish served for lunch on Saturdays.  For feijoda, most items on the menu are cooked with black beans.  Once cooked, the beans are extracted from a black liquid which is separated into six to eight pots and used as stock to cook sausage, bacon, dried meat…all the different parts of the pork.

Franco spends 12-hours each day in a kitchen with his staff of 55.  Though he finds time to visit Maracas Beach for a shark ’n bake treat, Franco’s charge to be a creative leader at Waterfront Restaurant keeps his plate full.

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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