How a Cleaning Lady Became One of Argentina’s Only Female Grill Chefs
In Argentina, cooking asado barbecue is a guy job—women get to dally about with lettuce and wash up. But at a restaurant in Mendoza, lady griller Virginia Lázaro is changing all that.
Asado. A beef-dominated barbecue extravaganza using the entire spectrum of a cow (including chitlins, sweetbreads, brain, skirt steak, fillet, and short ribs), devouring asado in Argentina is as regular an activity as bowel movements.
Pioneered by Argentina's gauchos (cowboys), who'd hack up unsuspecting bovines roaming the vast pampas flatlands in the 18th century and now replicated by millions every weekend, it's an industry still dominated by men. From choosing wood over coal to stoking embers and flipping the enormous racks of meat, manning the parrilla (grill) is very much a "guy" job. Womenfolk get to dally about with lettuce and tomatoes, lay the table, and, ah yes, wash up.
So, how did a humble cleaning lady with no barbecuing experience land the top job of womaning the grill at one of Argentina's biggest wineries?
It's not as if the stars were alined in Virginia Lázaro's favour. A quietly spoken woman who still lives with her parents in Perdriel, Mendoza, the country's main wine-producing province, Lázaro spent the past 11 years making ends meet as a cleaner.
But when Nieto Senetiner Winery's head of tourism Marcelo Molina looked into revamping their restaurant four years ago, he gave Lázaro a life-changing opportunity: to assist making the daily parrilla.
"I started out working at the bodega in 2001 and was housekeeper at Villa Blanca, the owners' farmhouse," Lázaro tells me. "Then Marcelo suggested I help the gardener out with the asado, that he'd cook while I'd undertake service. I'd never made an asado—though I'd always watched my grandad prepare homemade charcuterie when I was growing up then cook it—so I kept an eye on what the gardener was doing."
Lázaro's understanding of the grill soon started to grow.
"The parrilla is like a game: you have to play with it," she says. "I learnt everything I know here at the restaurant. And it was a really big deal to move up to this position and leave my cleaning days behind. It's been a big step up but the whole discovery means I've grown a lot."
Lázaro has now been an asadora—the rare term given to female grill chefs—at the winery for three years. She is in extremely select company. In nearby Buenos Aires, Patricia Ramos oversees meat matters at the Four Seasons Nuestro Secreto steakhouse, but even in 2016, taking charge of the parrilla is considered a job for the man of the house.
Regardless, diners at Nieto Senetiner usually have their interest piqued by the sight of a blonde ponytailed lady slicing through vast slabs of meat and moving embers.
"Everyone thinks it's weird to see a woman at the parrilla, and a woman making great asado at that," says Lázaro. "People are always interested, though, first commenting that it's strange but then asking how I got into it. However, I don't know any other parrilleras here in Mendoza."
True to form, on my visit to the winery, an elderly couple start nosing around her prep table. The familiar line of questioning commences but Lázaro takes it in all her stride, lightly moving around the double grill and catering to 80 guests' meat whims a day.
Watching the asadora in motion is a calming, zen-like experience rarely seen in this usually macho environment. Chorizo pork sausage, black pudding, ribs, and flank are all cooked to spec—rare, medium rare, even well done.
But Lázaro's grilling technique wasn't always quite so smooth and elegant.
"My first asado was a bit of a disaster—I burnt it!" she remembers. "The ribs were blackened. But the diners liked it anyway. I didn't know much back then but it turned out I'd used too many embers. It takes time to learn how to do things right and the secret to a good asado is to cook it very slowly and be patient."
A feminine touch Lázaro does bring to the grill is to add a whole pineapple into the embers, where it slowly cooks, before peeling and slicing it to pair with her pork.
"Agridulce," she says—sweet meets sour. Going above and way beyond the classic gammon and pineapple combo, the pairing is delicious.
Thanks to the upgrade in job description, life has taken a complete about turn for the Lázaro, who has been able to buy a new car as well as a house.
"I love every part of my job: the satisfaction of enjoying what I do, knowing what I do, helps me to grow plus guests leave happy," she says. "That's what being at the parrilla is. I never imagined for one second I'd be doing this, but the truth is I love it and I'm very comfortable."
But it's not just about Lázaro's own professional and personal satisfaction. Her job also means she paves the way for a new generation of female grill masters.
"The girls are learning little by little, though one of them is very anxious and wants to get things done fast," she says. "Obviously I'm teaching her that the parrilla needs time and patience. They replace me on my day off. But the truth is, I prefer to do everything on my own—I don't like sharing my parrilla with anyone!"
And what would her grandfather say if he saw her womaning the winery grill today?
"Ah, I'd love it if he could see me. He'd be so proud."