the spirit of Argentina
An interview with Executive Chef Natalia Machado
By Kimberlie Robert
Nothing describes Argentina like Tango—a dance that delivers a promise of sensuality and surprising delight. It quiets the mind, connects with you on a deep level and stirs romance in your heart. So, upon entering L’Atelier d’Argentine located downtown on Crescent Street with my husband, the first thing I saw was a Tango video projected on the overhead screen hanging high in the mezzanine, and I understood instantly that my meal would embody the spirit of Argentina.
The night we experienced L’Atelier d’Argentine, we were seated at a charming, rustic, candle lit table surrounded by leather and wood. The food was dazzling and sizzling and it was clear that live crackling fire was at the heart of this restaurant’s cadence: the smoke permeated our rustic smoky tomato soup and the flames had seared our meat beautifully.
…it was clear that live crackling fire was
at the heart of this restaurant’s cadence:
the smoke permeated our rustic smoky tomato
soup and the flames had seared our meat beautifully.
The creamy Sweet Corn and Basil Empanadas reminded me of my summer times as a kid. The light and crispy Buñuelos de Espinaca, made with spinach and fontina cheese touched with hot mustard, made my mouth tingly. The Entraña con Chimi (grilled skirt steak, chimichurri) was salty and smoky and the Asado de Tira (beef short ribs) gave new meaning to meat with texture. All of this, combined with juicy Argentine wine, meant we were having a wonderful evening. When we learned that our dinner was also available as a lunch table d’hôte – two courses for $16, we decided to come back sometime during the day!
We cleaned our plates because the food was so delicious and it was implicitly understood that the chef who created our dinner was impassioned by the traditions of emerging authentic Argentine food. Our meal was infused with strong yet pleasant seasonings. We could taste the clean, savoury flavours that cooled and warmed our palates and we appreciated the crispy, chewy textures that contrasted with creamy and tender ones. There was no mistaking the expertise and artistry behind this menu. Who was this generous and talented chef? What was her background? Where did she learn to cook like this? So when I had the absolute pleasure to meet the woman behind L’Atelier d’Argentine, I allowed our beautiful meal to inform the conversation. I knew exactly where to start.
Natalia Machado, the executive chef at L’Atelier d’Argentine, approached me with a large smile. We sat down in her downtown restaurant to discuss her career and the things that drew her into the kitchen. My first impression of her was that she is creative and high energy. She explained that she was born in Buenos Aires, but was raised for the first several years in Patagonia. Her French, Spanish and Portuguese father was an architect and her Spanish and Irish mother was a writer. They worked for the same company and were sent to a small town in Patagonia for a long term project, which was where the family started. Even after her parents’ project was completed, the family continued to summer in that region of Argentina. She admits Patagonia remains a major influence for her: the rugged mountains, seafood, fire pits and fish markets are at the heart of her understanding of Argentine cuisine.
As Natalia explained to me so articulately, she is motivated by nostalgia and is on a quest to recreate the smells of her mother’s kitchen. Family gatherings, her aunt, her grandmother, their aprons, the meats and fish, and their preserves, are touchstone memories – memories that are so magnetic for her that, even after she chose to study medicine, the attraction of the kitchen was too distracting. It wasn’t until she enrolled in a cooking class that she realized that she was most at home in the kitchen and gave up medicine to pursue cooking.
Q: I read in your bio that you summered in Patagonia with your family. Let me quote from a New York Magazine review about your restaurant Tribeca restaurant Industria Argentina: (Its) “twig-hewn art, leather chairs and the roaring flame of a parrilla transport diners to a Patagonian estancia.” A quote like this begs the observation that Patagonia remains very alive for you and influenced your menus. How have you incorporated your Patagonia experiences to L’Atelier d’Argentine here in Montreal?
A: My earliest memories of Patagonia are of the family fire pits and the fish markets, where my mother bought spider crabs. Being Argentine is an essential part of me, and my way of expressing Argentina is what I do here at L’Atelier d’Argentine. I express my vision of Argentine cuisine in contemporary ways, so Patagonia, and Buenos Aires will be reflected in my cooking.
Q: Patagonia also caught my attention because Francis Mallmann, one of Argentina’s most high profile chefs, resides in Patagonia. He is very famous and passionate about cooking on fire. I understand you apprenticed with him.
A: I apprenticed with one of Francis’ friends and rivals and I partnered with one of his disciples in our Tribeca restaurant Industria Argentina. I look up to Francis a lot because he is, in a nutshell, Argentina. Years ago, Argentines who wanted to learn how to cook went to France because the cuisines of other countries were thought to have more value. Argentine chefs were not looking outside the Buenos Aires barrios; we were not thinking of the influence of Latin America in the north of Argentina; we were not thinking of the influence of Chili in the West. Our local products were outdated, even though they were used in cuisines of other countries. Local ingredients were overlooked because there was nothing new about them. Now chefs, starting with Mallmann, are saying that we have an identity, we have a product, and we have pride in the way we cook Argentine cuisine.
Q: How did that experience influence your “cocina de autor” or individual point of view of Argentine cuisine?
A: (Natalia smiles) The cocina de autor is adding your own flare to something without overlooking the fact that you are influenced by others, like Francis Mallmann or Fernando Trocca. It’s your own vision of what you’re doing, and that’s what makes the kitchen at L’Atelier d’Argentine contemporary. Argentina is evolving, we’re in a period of transition to find out what Argentine cuisine is all about. As long as it’s treated with respect, it’s influenced by a childhood memory, of Patagonia for example, or as long as it has the distinct roots of Italy, Spain and Germany, then it’s Argentine.
Q: Many chefs talk about first studying in the French tradition, only to return to their native roots. I know you followed this trajectory, as well. What keeps you exploring the cuisine of Argentina? Is it the techniques of cooking? Is it farming practices that inspire you? Is it the cultural blending of indigenous, Mediterranean, Italian, and Spanish cooking that keeps you motivated? Can you comment on this?
A: I think that what really motivates me are my memories. It’s that constant quest to find that specific Sunday afternoon smell in the house, or that perfect blend of herbs in the chimichurri. Maybe they were much, much better in my memory than they actually were, but that’s what keeps me motivated.
Q: How could you possibly recreate the smell of your mother’s kitchen in a restaurant like this?
A: I will never sleep until I make it happen. My mom always says: “Why would you want to cook what I cook when you are so much better,” but I think the whole point is creating that same memory in someone who sits down in my dining room. It’s not even about what I cook or what it smells like. It’s the fact that that person thinks the same way I think about my mother’s apple pie for the next 15 years. That’s all it is. That’s what motivates me. It’s definitely an emotional connection to the person that sits in the dining room.
Q: Did both men and women do the cooking in your family?
A: My mom’s a great cook, but she’s a self-taught home cook. She was a very busy magazine editor and didn’t cook for a living, but she did stop working for almost ten years while my brother, sister and I were still young, and I guess we didn’t keep her busy enough. So with my aunt, she put together a small preserves company. They were bottling things at home; they were going to the market early in the morning, and the house smelled of pickles, mustard, jams and jellies and dulce de leche, and a whole mix of sweet and savoury scents. The company grew so much that my dad delivered boxes and boxes of preserves on the weekends. Anything that my mother did, she did brilliantly so the company got too big for her to continue at home.
Q: Did you help her?
A: A little. Peeling fruits for the compotes, and sterilizing jars, stuff like that, but I was probably six or seven years old. We spent a lot of the time in the kitchen. It was very fun and it was very loud, you know, all women, and my brother (she giggled). I remember the aprons they used. I think I might even have one at home. I have all the books and recipes and try to use them at the restaurant. We actually bottle a lot of things here for private use.
Q: Did you make the mustard for the Buñuelos de Espinaca?
A: We make our mustards, our ketchup, our chimichurris here. The mustard is very artisanal, very coarse, but it’s full of flavours, with pure mustard seed and different kind of vinegars. We make it for the ribs but, for the buñuelos, we use a hot Dijon infused with a puree of confied garlic and olive oil.
Q: Is it really an accident that you went to cooking school and then gave up your medical aspirations? And I wonder what about that light bulb moment that made you say cooking is for me. Is it the love of the task? Or is it the emotional connections to the people you are cooking for? Or is it that you just like yourself best when you’re cooking?
A: I think I definitely like myself best when I’m cooking. Part of being an executive chef is that there are a lot of executive things to do. I cook a lot, but that’s a condition I put on myself. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen. I can’t tell you that this is what I was meant to be or if I just felt better being inside a kitchen than being inside a hospital, but the truth is that I remember walking into a cooking class and saying this is it. This is all I want to do. It was home.
Q: Are you carrying on the traditions of the food from your childhood supper table?
A: Yes, of course. My husband is Italian so there are a lot of new traditions that come to the table. I was born with the privilege of eating spider crab for supper. That’s not the normal childhood memory. Also there was no pasta rolled on Sunday in my family. Sunday traditions was Asado (short ribs). Here at the restaurant, I make fresh pastas and stuffed pastas, and I love it. That’s not something that comes from my mother’s household at all; there was no pasta-anything there. We followed the Spanish traditions because of my grandmother, but ever since I met my husband, we have pasta in my home at least three times a week.
Q: Does your husband cook too?
A: He’s a great cook. He cooks for the kids; he has a flair and wants to learn more. He’s constantly asking me, if I do this will I get that? He cooks very, very well. He has a good feeling around the kitchen.
Q: Is being a woman modernizing your interpretation of the traditional Argentine steakhouse?
A: The reason I cook what I cook is not that I’m trying to modernize everything. It isn’t odd for an Argentine woman to be behind the grill; however, this is a female-friendly steakhouse, meaning the design of the menu is lighter; it’s fresher, and you walk out satisfied and not heavy.
After the interview, I was given a tour of the lofty mezzanine that looked down onto the first floor restaurant. The space has its own bar, two large open rooms, a private lounge and a showcase area. It is an easy, comfortable area that seemed perfect for a family celebration, or a business mixer. Better yet, the mezzanine is a natural space for a Tango cocktail and Milonga (an evening of tango dancing). What I liked most is that it is a versatile space that could be adaptable to almost any event in dozens of creative ways. Together with the delicious food, the Mezzanine has a fresh open atmosphere – really terrific.
I left L’Atelier d’Argentine wanting to come back, and bring my friends.
L’Atelier d’Argentine Downtown
1458 rue Crescent
Montreal, QC H3G 2B6
Tuesday and Wednesday: 11:30 am – 12:00 am
Thursday to Saturday: 11:30 am – 3:00 am
Sunday and Monday: closed
Bar and upstairs mezzanine that accommodates large parties
Lunch and dinner menus
L’Atelier d’Argentine Vieux-Port
355 rue Marguerite d’Youville
Montréal, QC H2Y 2C4
Monday and Tuesday: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm / 5:00 pm – 10 pm
Wednesday to Friday: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm / 5:00 pm – 1:00 am
Saturday: 10:30 am – 1:00 am
Sunday: 10:30 am – 10 pm
Contemporary decor with private dining room for smaller parties
Beautiful view of water
Lunch and dinner menus
Kimberlie Robert is currently the Executive Cookie Maker at The Finer Cookie. As of recently, she has worked as an Executive Assistant for five years. Prior to that she was the Coordinating Director/Partner of an Advertising Agency. She has earned an MA in Art History and a BA in English Literature. She is also a writer and researcher, short story editor, pastry chef, tango dancer and gardener.