The psychiatrist advised him to put a note on the menu, to acknowledge that his varenikes weren’t in competition with anyone’s grandmother’s. So Mr. Kalika added a disclaimer (“Bubbie’s are better,” it began) and carried on serving his tender thin-skinned dumplings, filled with potato and topped with gribenes, chicken skin and onion that have been slowly crisped in chicken fat and freckled with black pepper.
The dining room filled up, and Mr. Kalika’s anxieties subsided. He is feeling much more confident now: In March, he plans to open Fayer, his second restaurant in Buenos Aires.
Argentina, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, is his inspiration. At Fayer, he will cook more of what he sees as an emerging Argentine-Jewish cuisine — multicultural Jewish influences from across the diaspora, unified by the open-fire grilling and wood smoke that define Argentine cooking.
Meat, a focus of Fayer’s kitchen, will include Patagonian beef, along with lamb, quail and duck from various producers in the Pampas region.
“The idea is also to recreate how Jewish people have used wood for cooking,” Mr. Kalika said. This could mean serving dishes traditionally grilled in a Middle Eastern mangal, an Italian spiedo or even a basic cast-iron caldron. Mr. Kalika also wants to explore the foods of Jewish communities in Ethiopia and Iraq, which often go underrepresented.
“Jewish cuisine is global,” Mr. Kalika said as he tended to a rack of short ribs on a recent trip to New York.
The beef had been brined for a week with sugar and spices, including coriander seeds and star anise, then smoked. The ribs were transferred to a pot with wine and stock, sandwiched between flames in a multilayered Argentine grill, the heat licking it from above and below. The pot simmered for hours, until all of that marvelous pink-edged meat pulled away from the bones.
In January, when Mr. Kalika was asked to present his style of Argentine cuisine at the international food conference Madrid Fusión, he chose to make this same dish, which he calls pastrami asado.
Mr. Kalika also flipped whole eggplants on the coals, searing them until they collapsed inward and it was easy to wipe away their charred skins. At Mishiguene, he serves these creamy eggplants intact, with a tahini sauce and a tomato sauce, like a bowl of chopped baba ghanouj that has somehow been pieced back together.
Mr. Kalika, who shaves his glossy head clean, has a warm, TV-ready smile and an earnest love for the food he cooks. Holding a peeled eggplant with both hands as if it were a newborn baby, he gazed down on it and beamed.
“It’s just so beautiful, no?” he said.
Mr. Kalika, 37, grew up in the northernmost neighborhood of Buenos Aires in a middle-class Jewish family with roots in Russia and Poland. At 17, he says, he was a particularly aimless sort of teenager. His interests were limited to the guitar and watching the charismatic chef Carlos Alberto Dumas, better known as Gato Dumas, on television.
As Argentina experienced an economic depression in the late 1990s, Mr. Kalika’s mother sent him to Israel, hoping the trip would set him on a new course, any course. Mr. Kalika worked for a while as a dishwasher on a kibbutz and quickly took to kitchen life, eventually cooking for the Israeli chef Eyal Shani before returning home, charged with new ideas.
Mr. Shani, who had helped propel the whole-roasted cauliflower to international fame, deeply influenced Mr. Kalika as a young chef. He makes his own version of the dish now, poaching the cauliflower in milk until it almost falls apart, then letting it cool overnight in the liquid.
The next day, when the cauliflower has firmed up, it is dribbled with as much clarified butter as it can hold, dusted with Mr. Kalika’s ras el hanout spice mix, and roasted at a very high temperature. The cauliflower is remarkably sweet and moist, its surface crisp and golden brown.
This is how the cauliflower is served at Mishiguene, where every Friday night, a band lights up the dining room with klezmer, the Eastern European folk music passed down through generations, across oceans.
Though the restaurant does not serve kosher food, the whirling, joyful mood during Friday dinners is that of an unconventional Shabbat. There is often drinking and dancing and roars of applause, and when the music is over, the band sits down.
“They refuse to let me pay them,” said Mr. Kalika, who has tried and failed to put the musicians on his payroll. Instead, every Friday night, the men just show up. And every Friday night, Mr. Kalika saves them a table and fills it with plates of hot varenikes.
Recipe: Roasted Cauliflower With Ras el Hanout
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