Every night at Fogo de Chao--the 350-seat restaurant on LaSalle specializing in spit-roasted meat--a highly orchestrated ballet takes place. Brazilian servers sporting pleated pants and boots circle the tables, carrying skewers of grilled steak, pork, and lamb. When diners show green cardboard disks indicating they're ready to eat, a flurry of "gauchos" approaches, slicing portions to order. Guests who've had enough flip their table markers to the red side, and the servers back off. Continuously returning to the kitchen fire for refills, the gauchos bear their skewers more like polite Parisians than wild and woolly cowhands; still, says manager Sidiclei Demartini, "We're working on the body language."
Part of a chain started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Fogo de Chao offers a prix-fixe menu based on the centuries-old tradition of churrasco, a style of barbecue practiced on the pampas of Rio Grande do Sul. "'Fogo de chao' means 'fire on the ground' in Portuguese," says operations manager Selma Oliveira. "Once a year, in September, all the small ranches and communities would come together for a gathering, a religious event, and cook meats. Fogo de Chao honors human beings, harvest, health, food, family. The closest thing to it is Thanksgiving."
Dinner at the holiday's namesake restaurant also includes fried bananas, polenta, and mashed potatoes served family style and a vast salad bar stocked with fresh jumbo asparagus, artichoke hearts, Belgian endive, multiple greens, shiitake mushrooms, smoked salmon, salami, cheese, and more. Besides the larger cuts of meat, the servers offer filet mignon, bacon-wrapped chicken, and lamb chops; items like costela de porco (pork ribs) and linguica (pork sausages) are of German inspiration. Some of the salad bar items--sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, and Parma ham--are Italian. The total concept reflects the influence of the Italians, Germans, and Portuguese who populated the cattle country at Brazil's southern tip.
While all people from this section of Brazil are called gauchos, Demartini actually worked on a small ranch until he was 15. "We lived in the country as cowboys," he says. "My papa put me on a horse the first time, and I fell down. That's how you learn."
Tending cattle and working the farm, Demartini labored until sundown six days a week. On Sunday, his family grilled their lunch on the pampas. "I was five years old when I did my first barbecue," he says. They dug a hole, put rocks around it, and lit a fire. In traditional churrasco, the meat is seasoned only with salt, and each gaucho has his own knife, which he uses to cut pieces of meat from the spit.
Jair Coser, one of the founders of the chain and its chief financial officer, was also a cowboy until he was 18. "Then I had to make money to save our ranch," he says. He and his brother and another set of brothers left the countryside and opened the first Fogo de Chao in 1979. "A few others had done it, but not this way."
Brazilians carve more cuts of meat than Americans; for some--picanha (cut from the rump), alcatra (cut from the top sirloin), and fraldinha (cut from the bottom sirloin)--there are no English names because there are no American equivalents. To grill so many different cuts, each restaurant has a specially designed oven with countless slots for skewers. The dining room on LaSalle, of course, is a far cry from the pampas, sporting its own decorative waterfall and a robust stone and wood decor. The gauchos are responsible for cooking and serving the meat, while other waiters explain the concept, serve side dishes, and take drink orders.
By 1985 the two sets of brothers had ventured into the bigger, more sophisticated city of Sao Paulo; they now own two Fogo de Chaos there. The Chicago restaurant is their fourth in America, following openings in Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta. Last year, total American revenues approached $50 million.
Coser and his partners would like to expand around the globe. "Within ten years, gauchos can become part owners," says Oliveira. "Fogo de Chao portrays not only the gaucho way of preparing the meat, but a culture of high achievers through perseverance and hard work."
Demartini's father, mother, and sister all still work the ranch (where "women and men do the same jobs," he says), but at age 18 Demartini got a job at a Fogo de Chao in Sao Paulo, "where we serve many, many Americans." Three years of training taught him how Americans eat. "Brazilians like faster service. You need to tell Americans about the meat to make them happy."
More than a means to a living, meat cutting is an art. "The talent is inherited," Demartini says. "It takes three to four years to learn to cut meat. A father teaches his son. If you have very good meat and don't know how to cut it, you kill it."
Fogo de Chao is at 661 N. LaSalle, 312-932-9330.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.