What happens when an East Village chef heads to the legendary beachside haunt of Parador La Huella to cook Uruguayan food? Gabrielle Hamilton, chef of New York City’s Prune restaurant, finds out.
I am working in front of a queen-size bed of hot coals. My sweat is trickling—and, at times streaming—down the backs of my kneecaps into my clogs. A winged column of eucalyptus logs—in an iron-barred grate bound to the back wall—burns lively in front of me, dropping red coal like gargantuan, mythic bird scat. Andres Viñales, the pit maestro, rakes these coals expertly with a long iron hook into a shallow bed before me, at waist level, but the heat rises and stings under my chin. I have doubled up my aprons, one on top of the other, to make a better barrier. This kind of fire can melt the plastic buttons on my chef uniform and leave coin-shaped red bites—cruelly, neatly—down my torso. But I learned that—the hard way—a decade ago. I am cool, now, comparatively. “Puedes make this a little mas fuerte, por favor?” I ask Andres. It’s not hot enough.
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I’ve been invited here to the remote beachside town of José Ignacio, on the coast of Uruguay, to cook a guest-chef dinner at La Huella. Legendary among chefs I know and flocked to by vacationing South American cognoscenti, the restaurant is a kind of sprawling, open-air beach shack that was opened over 10 years ago. The giant cooking hearth, the very cool DJ, and a sand-in-your-hair vibe are at the center of what makes it so persuasive. I’ve harbored both a fondness for and an envy of La Huella for years, so when I received an invitation to come and cook Uruguayan food, my heart jumped. I’ve built my whole menu around this live fire—an opportunity I just don’t get enough of in my East Village, New York City, restaurant that offers nothing “open-air” but grimy sidewalks and parked cars.
So here I am smoking and charring 40 pounds of eggplant over real wood coals. Yesterday I carefully seasoned and rubbed and strung 21 legs of young Uruguayan lamb through the tendons in the shank, which will hang here—slowly spinning and roasting à la ficelle all afternoon. Uncharacteristically, I brought with me a veritable entourage: my two sons, the babysitter, and my assistant, but I don’t even know where they are now—probably napping on the beach or spread out around one of the front lounge tables ringing up a healthy tab of mojitos, fried fish, and dulce de leche “volcanoes,” the restaurant’s most popular items. I am sure it’s paradise out there, but I’m in my own utter heaven, here in this hell. I live for this kind of cooking.
We arrived a few days ago, flying all through the night from New York to Montevideo. In the morning, we met up with Gastón Yelicich—my friend, my host, my personal Uruguayan food ambassador, and the chef of Cuatro Mares, in nearby Punta del Este—and drove a couple of hours along the coast to José Ignacio. The buildings and junkyards and repair shops and grocery stores we passed have that uncanny, frozen-in-time characteristic of embargoed Cuba; 50’s-era cars and trucks, ingeniously and repeatedly repaired, still dominate the roads.
But beyond the gritty outskirts of Montevideo, the landscape becomes one of vineyards, grazing sheep, horses, cowboys in full garb galloping along the edge of the road. It is flat but undulating, and has that Montana way of making you unclear where your own body ends and the sky begins.
José Ignacio is just a gas station, a small butcher shop with provisions, a wine store, and a few small shops with well-made, carefully curated, and not-inexpensive things to buy—textiles, jewelry, clothing. Everything you see featured in tasteful shelter magazines is in the architecture. Walls of glass pegged together with eucalyptus timbers. Steel. Poured concrete. Reclaimed wood.
All I had ever read about this small and sleepy place described it as a kind of unimaginably remote impossibility, an unfathomable oasis at the end of the earth. I suspect, though, that anybody who has ever driven out to the Hamptons—to Montauk, with its discreet wealth—will find it not only imaginable, but familiar. The crowd here is all green eyes, good teeth, and heather-gray cashmere.
We pull up to La Huella in the early afternoon, in time for a late, leisurely lunch, and are greeted, professionally but maybe suspiciously, by Guzmán Artagaveytia—one of the three visionary founders of La Huella. He is barefoot. The logo of the restaurant involves a bare footprint in the sand. Huella means “footprint” in Spanish, or “trace.” I don’t need to be told twice; I take off my shoes. We settle around a big wooden table on the veranda, order mojitos, and eat little local fried fish called pejerreyes, octopus with potato, baby squid, and empanadas. When the server raises the question of another round, Gastón explains, reasonably, that we are obliged to have two: “Just one, and you walk lopsided.”
For the next three days, we prep. It’s a hunt the whole time—for the right spoon, the right pot, the space on the counter to work and the space in the walk-in to put our work. For the words in Spanish to describe what I’m looking for. Thank God for Gastón, who was a cook in this kitchen for many years, and who knows everyone here and where everything might be located. Gastón and I meet each morning and go over the long prep lists I have written on big white sheets in jumbo black Sharpie. Gastón always has a few stray short pencils in his pockets—from the golf course—and he pulls one out each day to parcel out the day’s work into his little notebook, in small, gentle handwriting. Every morning he arrives and retrieves me from my cottage, and we come into this bustling prep kitchen and peel tomatoes and pick parsley and sliver garlic and knead bread dough until the work is done.
All day long, complete strangers in fresh clean aprons and warm smiles pause at my cutting board to give me a kiss on the cheek in greeting as they arrive to commence work. Everybody kisses everybody here, and with a daily staff of 40, I joke that they should probably punch in a half-hour early just to say hello properly. On the second day, Marco, my nine-year-old, unexpectedly presents himself in the kitchen, begging me to let him cook. I am dubious. For eight and a half of his nine years, it’s been a tedious dinner hour: buttered pasta with cheese and french fries. And a nightly futility to get him to even clear his own plate. But he pulls his Jim Morrison hair back in an elastic, puts on an apron, washes his hands unbidden, and actually lights up at the 40 pounds of zucchini we place in front of him. For the next silent hour, tucked in the corner, Marco meticulously scrubs down every piece. I put him next in the pastry kitchen to cut tempered chocolate, while the ladies around him serve out hundreds of tempting sundaes and volcanoes. He remains focused, intent on using the knife properly and careful not to transfer the heat of his hands to the fragile chocolate. I am moved to hot tears.
At the end of that long day, the incredibly generous owners of La Huella—Guzmán, Martín Pittaluga, and Gustavo Barbero—arrange a local guide and horses, and they are lined up in the sand with their reins loosely tied to the wooden post outside the restaurant. Almost too tired to accept the kindness, we nonetheless all climb on and giddily ride off into the sunset.
Marco gets dragged right into the tree his horse wants to nibble at, and then raked to the ground by its branches. But my seven-year-old, Leone, roars with daredevil laughter at the feeling of having no control and there are a few brilliant moments when we are all firm in our saddles, at the ocean’s edge, swerving to dodge the foamy surf. The beach is littered with beautiful, small, clear hollow eggs that we cannot fathom; our guide cannot translate. “Caracol?” he shrugs. My kids’ exhilarated shrieks ricochet across the chalky blue sunset, and we come back more alive than when we set out.
Guzmán solves the mystery of the caracol by wiggling his two index fingers up from his head and hunching forward. “He carries his house on his back?” We fall apart in giggles to see Guzmán—graying, etched, restaurant-worn—making such a silly sight. The entourage, all girls, melts at the glimpse of the poorly concealed secret: Guzmán is a big oozy sweetheart under the hard shell. Sea snail.
We are lucky enough to celebrate our last day of prep with a late-afternoon excursion into the countryside for dinner at the five-room hotel and restaurant, El Garzón, owned by Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. Here, finally, there is some tooth to the repeated description of an almost incomprehensible oasis in the middle of nowhere. Only 200 people live in this village. I take an unhurried stroll before dinner. In just a matter of steps, I am at the outskirts, the end, facing nothing but sheep and far-reaching pasture and that vast, holy sky. As Francis had described in an e-mail to me, “It’s on the hills, at the edge of uncertainty. Might you come?”
The town square is a Gabriel García Márquez town square. A plain whitewashed church with a wooden door, and a wooden cross pegged to its façade. A social club with a few chairs outside at the corner. In the park in the center, there is a spigot where a few children stop to drink from their cupped hands. Stray dogs trot around and through.
Inside El Garzón, a fire burns. The exterior is kind of Wild-West-frontier, with its wraparound wooden veranda and thin timbers holding up a rain roof. But the inner courtyard welcomes you with a decidedly Continental silver bowl of chilling champagne. We are invited to sit at a large wooden table in the center of the courtyard and for the next couple of hours, as the sky slowly descends through its blue-green bruise of dusk, we are lavished with the simplest meal, cooked over wood coals, of octopus and beefsteak and zucchini with blistered edges, and spoiled with exceptional Uruguayan wines. As we are finishing the dulce de leche ice cream, the sky turns electric with sharp veins of white lightning and a high wind kicks up. Just as the rain begins to splash down, we make it inside to the salon, where there are daybeds and wide sofas and bookshelves crammed with old volumes of poetry. One more bottle of wine before we head back to José Ignacio.
Starting at midday, the lamb legs spin slowly on their little nooses, the fire crackles behind them. We expect our first reservations around nine o’clock and it’s immediately packed: lively, loud, palpably festive. We have courses of this meal going out from three different kitchens, while the restaurant does its crushing regular dinner service at the same time; it’s insane.
Harry Humpierrez, whom I meet for the first time just as our first ticket is coming in, runs our station—formidably. He speaks as much English as I speak Spanish but the kitchen drill is universal. The tickets roll in. Harry calls them out: “Two lamb, Miss.” “Four more, Madam.” “Seven more lamb, Miss.” I can count in Spanish, but he’s firing the tickets to me in English and I love him for it.
Between one big push and the next, I slip out into the dining room to quickly check on my boys. Leone gushes to me his excitement about his own performance. “Mamma! I ate cow tongue! Mamma! I ate lamb! Mamma! Is this the chocolate Marco made?! I ate it!” I do see, just here and there, some bad Botox and some sequined harem pants among the crowd. But let’s be clear: for all of its barefoot gestalt, La Huella now has valet parking.
The rest of the night, I am rotating the legs, slicing meat, honing my knife. To Harry’s right is Andres, the king of the fire, who earlier in the day devised our system for hanging the lambs, who found the right hooks and the right twine, and staggered their heights and proximity to the fire. Andres expertly shovels our roasted onions and seeded flatbreads into the hot, coal-fired ovens. Together we come to the plates in front of us in the fraternally understood wordless choreography of a busy night on the line. Fourteen tickets deep, I cut into two consecutive legs to find them near-raw at the center. Unthinkingly, I drop a few f-bombs, but Harry is delighted and teaches me the local way to vent. By the time I’ve found two perfectly cooked legs, I’ve learned to call the Virgin Mary a whore in Spanish.
At the end of the night, I take off my apron, wash my face, and thank everyone who helped me—as many handshakes and graciases on the way out as there were kisses on the way in. We have well exceeded our 100 expected covers; Guzmán takes the time to bark, in his gruff way, “Hamilton! Very nice.”
My boys are out—asleep on chairs pushed together to make a bench. It’s almost three in the morning when I ready myself to haul them out of the restaurant. There are a few late revelers out on the porch and the staff is finishing its cleanup; pot smoke wafts out of the staff changing area; a small team of teenagers—heartbreakingly beautiful in their awkward new muscles and khaki shorts—polish glasses back at the dish pit.
The lights glow from the empty, tidy pastry station, the empty grill station, the plates stacked in neat clean readiness for tomorrow. The fire is just warm ash. With smoke and sweat dried into a pleasantly familiar film on my skin, I scoop up a snoozer in my arms and start to the car.
T+L Guide to Uruguayan Food
American Airlines connects through Miami to Montevideo. From there, it’s a two-hour drive to José Ignacio. High season is from December through February.
Playa Vik Modernist seaside retreat with contemporary-art-filled casitas. José Ignacio. $$$$
Posada del Faro 15-room hotel with private terraces overlooking the beach. José Ignacio. $$$
Cuatro Mares Capitán Miranda y 2 de Febrero, Punta del Este; 598/4244-8916. $$$
Hotel Garzón Garzón; rooms $$$$, meals $$$$.
La Olada A husband-and-wife operation serving rustic, Italian-influenced fare. José Ignacio; 598/9933-7908. $$
Parador La Huella José Ignacio. $$$
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150
Appeared as “Big Night in Uruguay” in T+L Magazine