Playing with Fire: Backstage at Smokin’ South American Steakhouse Del Campo with Chef Victor Albisu

Washington, D.C., chef Victor Albisu has accumulated many accolades since opening the doors to Del Campo in 2013, including having his eatery named a Best New Restaurant 2013 by  Esquire, besting Bobby Flay on the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay, and being named Chef of the Year at the 2015 RAMMYS. Go behind the scenes with dining scribe Nevin Martell and photographer Laura Hayes for a delicious look at one of the capital’s hottest — in more ways than one — restaurants. 

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Victor Albisu has always loved fire.

Growing up outside the nation’s capitol in Falls Church, Virginia, he and his Cuban grandfather, Paco, would grill in the dead of winter on a small Weber in the family’s backyard. They kept a cutting board and a knife next to their modest setup so they could slice off pieces of meat as it sizzled over the flames. If they were feeling particularly inspired during warmer months when the ground thawed, they would dig a pit to cook whole pigs or the deer his grandfather hunted.

Albisu got his first taste of kitchen life as a teenager by working at his Peruvian mother’s Latin market and butcher shop. “That’s when I started to fall for char,” he says.

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His passion for cooking kindled, he attended Le Cordon Bleu Paris, followed by a stint at the acclaimed L’Arpege. Returning stateside, he began ascending through the Washington, D.C. dining scene with increasingly statured positions at the Tabard Inn, DC Coast, Ceiba, Marcel’s, Ardeo + Bardeo, before he was appointed the executive chef of BLT Steak. There he began to earn attention, awards, and acclaim. Not only did the First Couple dine at the restaurant, but Michelle Obama became a regular.

During his tenure at the steakhouse, Albisu found himself being continually drawn back to his family’s food and its wider roots. “It’s like I didn’t have a choice,” he says. “The dishes just started coming out of me.”

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His specials began showcasing Latin elements, even as he explored Spanish culinary traditions during his travels. A meal at Asador Etxebarri in Basque country opened his palate to the possibilities presented by cooking with fire in its many forms – grilling, charbroiling, smoking, charring, and torching. He combined those techniques with the idea of a South American grill to create the concept for Del Campo, which he opened in D.C.’s Penn Quarter in the spring of 2013.

In the kitchen, Albisu is a calculated pyro, adding just the right amount of burning, blackening, smoking, and searing to his creations. On a recent March afternoon, he fired up five favorites showcasing his red-hot culinary style. Mackerel ceviche begins with halved lemons face down on the stovetop so they’re seared black. “When you squeeze them, the juice falls through this charred ‘membrane,’” explains Albisu. “It sweetens it, smokes it, and adds this over-caramelized flavor.”

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He smokes oysters by igniting a bed of thyme, rosemary, and oregano, and then combines their juices with lemon juice and crème frâiche to create the dressing that is spooned over slender cut slices of fish. Grilled avocado slices, gold-skinned bits of dry sautéed mackerel, and flash seared pickled Calabrian chilies finish the dish.

Oysters Blog Del Campo DSC_9672 copyContinue Reading

Chef Charlie Palmer on Bringing His Take on Steak to New York City, Longevity, Luger’s + More

CP-BlogThis fall, chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer opened Charlie Palmer Steak in the Big Apple, a much-welcomed addition to Manhattan’s midtown east neighborhood. Joining sibling Charlie Palmer Steak restaurants located in Las Vegas, Reno, and Washington, D.C., Palmer and his team are ready to wow savvy steak-loving New Yorkers with carefully sourced and deliciously prepared meats (and more). Renowned for his restaurants, hotels, and food-forward wine shops around the nation, he discusses the Charlie Palmer Steak menu, how his restaurant differs from the fabled Peter Luger, what’s in chef Matthew Zappoli’s signature cocktail sauce (sort of!), and diners’ longstanding love affair with the steakhouse in this exclusive Q+A.

You’re a native New Yorker and you opened your very first restaurant, Aureole, there. You have other locations of Charlie Palmer Steak around the nation — what made you decide to bring Charlie Palmer Steak to Manhattan at this point?

I’m actually from upstate New York, a small town called Smyrna, surrounded by farming communities. I opened Aureole in 1988 here in New York City, followed by Astra (which we just closed this year and are reopening as Upper Story in the next month), Kitchen 22, Kitchen 82, Metrazur, and more. So, I’ve long had a footprint and a place in New York City. We’ve been searching for the right location for a Charlie Palmer Steak in Manhattan for quite some time, and this one landed in my lap earlier this year.

Dating back to Peter Luger, the steakhouse feels like a very New York convention. What are the challenges of this market? What do diners expect from a New York steakhouse — and how do you deliver that?

It’s true. The steakhouse, or actually the ‘beefsteak’, has been a New York tradition since the 1800s. I think the challenges are numerous, but so are the successes. There are a ton of steakhouses in this town, so it’s about standing out, serving top quality beef, and providing the best service. My philosophy on steakhouses has always been different from the Luger format. I don’t want it to be a men’s club – I want it to be a place where men and women are both equally comfortable and the food goes beyond the beef — to really thoughtful, composed seafood dishes and hearty salads.

Why do you think we, as a nation of diners, have such a longstanding love affair with steakhouses? What is the ongoing allure? Continue Reading

Dining Poll: What’s Dad’s Favorite Cuisine When Dining Out?

Sunday is Father’s Day! Dining out for dad’s special day has always been a popular tradition in our family, possibly because my father is not the greatest griller (Ed. note: My dad readily admits this.). Also, he loves a great steak, and it’s really tough for even the best home griller to source and cook one as as well as the pros. So, we’ll be tucking into some quality meat with all the fixings at one of his favorite steakhouses this Sunday. What type of restaurant is your dad’s favorite? Weigh in on today’s dining poll!