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 (now Poca Madre) 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, Sababa, 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.

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The next course is lightly blanched broccoli seared black on one side. The verdant bundles are sautéed together with anchovies and garlic for added pops of flavor. “People don’t realize how much they love anchovies,” says Albisu. “They think they’re gross and they’ll never like them, but they’re often the secret ingredient in a dish.”

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His riff on a beet salad harkens back to his days at L’Arpege, where it was his job to peel the root vegetable. “My beet peeling left a lot to be desired,” he says. “I used a peeler instead of the bird’s beak paring knife. I caused a lot of food waste because they wouldn’t accept my beets. I learned very quickly though and became a machine. One of my favorite things here is that I don’t have to do that anymore. I can do whatever I want.”

So, he leaves the skin on the raw beets he slices to accompany larger pieces of blackened beets. The yolk yellow and deep purple pieces are crowned with burned pickled spring onions, arugula, pistachios, and punchy chunks of blue cheese. It all sits on a layer of hand-chopped charred onion balsamic jam that has a sweet burnt flavor, unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before.

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The salad finished, Albisu moves on to the next dish. He has been playing around with a take on takeout: salt baked Chilean salmon over crab fried rice topped off with smoked crab and trout roe. He calls the flavors “modern Peruvian.”

Olive oil crackles in the small cast iron skillet as Albisu quickly sautés ringlets of aji amarillo chili peppers, garlic, onions, spring onions, and bean sprouts. In goes the rice, along with singed vegetables, including asparagus, bok choy, and shitake mushroom strips. “It’s not fried rice unless you add scrambled eggs,” he says, as he incorporates them along with chili-sesame-fish-sauce, torn mint and cilantro, and the glistening orange orbs of roe. “It’s chaotic, but I like it.”

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Of course, he has to fire up a pair of steaks. First is a Wagyu bavette—sometimes known as a flap steak—marinated in garlic and yogurt. It’s not a cut you see on menus often. “It’s really emblematic of what we’re doing more of,” says Albisu. “We’re using cuts that are a lot less regular. We want to create an experience that’s a little more interesting than your run-of-the-mill steakhouse.”

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While that’s searing on the gas grill, he rubs a prime dry-aged ribeye from Creekstone Farms with smoked butter, then showers it with salt and pepper. The well-marbled meat gets tossed on the grate alongside the bavette and rotated halfway through to create a crosshatch of char lines. Both go into the Montegue broiler for a few minutes to cook to temp.

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But it’s the final step that gives the meat what Albisu calls “the Del Campo flavor.” Taken off the blaze, the steaks rest inside a smoker box with torched thyme, rosemary, and oregano. They impart a smoky sensibility without overwhelming the beef’s natural flavor. Sliced and arrayed on a platter boasting a tray where more of the same herbs smolder, the bavette and ribeye are whisked out to dining room leaving a beguiling haze in its wake. For guests, it’s a visceral reminder of the role of fire in the enlightening flavors of Victor Albisu’s flame-kissed food.

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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell

Photos by Laura Hayes.