Monday, December 01, 2008

Home Cooking: A Conversation with Daniel Perlman of Casa Saltshaker

This is part of a series of reports recapping my recent trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Check back every Monday and Tuesday when I’ll be giving you a taste of my food adventures in this South American metropolitan city.

I got to do some interesting activities while in Buenos Aires, and one of them was attending a home-cooked dinner. It’s not like I was friends with the host. This was part of a regular weekly meal prepared by Dan Perlman, a former chef and wine sommelier in New York who moved to this city about four years ago.

Perlman started cooking meals for strangers at his apartment that he shares with his partner (in life and business), Henry. I read about his dinners,
Casa Salt Shaker, when I was doing some research for my trip. I scoured Chowhound for recommendations for Buenos Aires restaurants, and I kept noticing that the sharpest comments came from this one particular poster. When I checked his profile, that’s when I discovered Perlman’s blog and read more about his unique dinners.

Of course, I booked myself for one of his dinners while I was in Buenos Aires, but I thought it would also be interesting to find out how a boy who grew up in Michigan and worked in the kitchens of New York City finds his way to welcoming strangers into his home in Buenos Aires.

The following are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Single Guy: How did you get into cooking?

Dan Perlman: I started actually as a teenager when I was 14, working in a neighbor’s restaurant in Michigan. I worked there all through high school — after school and on the weekends — and onto the start of college. Then I took time off from the culinary world and didn’t get back into it until I was living in New York five or six years later.

I’d always wanted to get back into it but just hadn’t figure out how to do what I wanted to do, and it just happened my grandmother died around that time and left each of us kids a decent amount of money — enough to pay for tuition for me and time off from working.

SG: I heard you worked with Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame. When was that?

DP: I went to work for Tom Colicchio at his first New York restaurant, Mondrian. I started as an intern there and continued to work for him afterwards. From there I went to work at a Cajun-type restaurant in the West Village and worked my way up to sous chef there, then went to the Kitchen Club as a chef. The Kitchen Club was a Japanese-Dutch fusion restaurant.

SG: What did you think of Chef Colicchio?

DP: I like Tom Colicchio. This was his first New York restaurant so it was the only place he was working. I think he was 24, 25 years old at the time. It was his first shot as head chef. He’d actually come in to work with a different chef, Dennis Foy, and then I don’t know what happened between Dennis Foy and the owners but Dennis Foy left and Tom sort of stepped into the position. I don’t know if it was intended he be the head chef long term except that they got a review from Food and Wine Magazine that named him one of the 10 rising stars. So at that point, there was no question they were going to keep him. But the restaurant didn’t last very long; it was only opened a couple of years at the most.

SG: What was he like in the kitchen?

DP: Very intense. … One of the things I really liked about him was he had this really great power of, he could imagine how things would taste together, and he would put them together and they would taste the way he would imagined. And he likes to train people to do that. I think I’d gotten to the point where I could generally do that, not always, but in large part due to the training I got from him.

SG: So you left the kitchen and got your certification as a wine sommelier. How did you end up getting back into cooking?

DP: I was in the sommelier world and I basically continued to work in the wine world, but I did these monthly dinners during the time I lived in New York for about 10 years. People would come over once a month and there would be a big dinner party with six to eight people, just experimenting with food. … People would say, oh, you should do this professionally again.

SG: How did you wind up in Buenos Aires?

DP: Came down on vacation.

SG: Oh, so it’s one of those stories where you came on vacation and just fell in love with the place?

DP: Liked the city. Fell in love with Henry. I met Henry and we hit it off and I spent a couple of weeks down here. I went back to New York and we kept in touch. I was planning to leave New York at that point, thinking of going to Key West and opening a place. And I decided to take about six to eight weeks to come down here, to see if (Henry) and I still had something interesting, and then think about whether or not we could get him to come to the states or whatever. About that time was when the series of hurricanes kept hitting the Florida Keys so I thought, well, I’m not going there. So I just decided to stay here.

Perlman’s partner Henry is originally from Peru and had been living in Buenos Aires for more than 12 years when the two met. A quiet, soft-spoken man, Henry works with Perlman with the home dinners, serving primarily as the head server.

SG: Other than Henry, what else attracted you to Buenos Aires?

DP: It just felt comfortable from the time I arrived here. I liked the place.

SG: Did you already know how to speak Spanish?

DP: Nope. Just taco burrito and combo No. 1. That was about it. You know, just a little bit of kitchen Spanish just from being around New York restaurant kitchens. Enough to ask for a clean plate or some more ice, things like that. … I saw this as an opportunity to live somewhere overseas and as an opportunity to learn a language intensively.

SG: How soon after you moved here did you start doing the home dinners?

DP: It was close to eight or nine months. We’d gone to a few places that were doing restaurants in homes and really liked that idea and decided we could do something similar. And I thought about the dinners I used to do in New York and I thought let’s try that format and see if people like that, and it turns out that they did.

SG: Do you do this full time?

DP: It’s not full time. We do the dinners two to three times a week. But then I’m also a food and wine writer. We teach cooking classes here as well. I take people on food-related tours. Anything food and wine related.

SG: How would you describe your food?

DP: Good.

SG: Yes, I’m sure it is. But is it a particular type of cuisine? Are you influenced by any particular country?

DP: No. If you look at our Web site we do everything all over Europe, all over Asia, to Australia, to South and North America. We do everything. The only continent we haven’t hit yet is Antarctica. … There’s obviously going to be influences from the things I was trained primarily. It’s got some influences of working at a Japanese fusion restaurant. Every now and then a little bit of the Cajun stuff sneaks in. A lot of the presentation tends to come from working with Tom (Colicchio). And the first restaurant I worked in back in Michigan was an Italian restaurant. But it’s a real mix. Tonight we’re doing Malaysian.

SG: So you have a theme for your dinners?

DP: Yeah, we pick a theme that often connects with the date. But the food’s not traditional. For example, nothing we’ll have tonight will be like what you’ll get at somebody’s house if you went to Malaysia. But the flavors and ideas are inspired by Malaysia.

For the dinner, Perlman prepares five courses and also offers a wine tasting to go with each course for an additional cost. At the Malaysian-themed dinner, we started with a Malaysian-inspired ceviche called umai, an Indian-influenced soup, an eggplant tart inspired by a Malaysian dish called tiyung belacan, fillets of white tuna in a sauce inspired by a dish called ikan tenggiri and finally dessert, which was simply slices of melon in a caramel-coconut sauce (loved the sauce!).

SG: Who typically comes to your dinners?

DP: It’s about 40 percent tourists and the rest split between Argentines and ex-pats from all over.

SG: And how do they hear about it?

DP: Word of mouth, searching the Internet. We don’t do any kind of advertising. At this point having been in business for three years, we’ve gotten written up in a bunch of places, different blogs refer to us, we’re in a couple of guidebooks now. … When we started out we were thinking of doing it once a month or once every two or three weeks at a time, and it built very quickly. Within six months we were doing it once a week and within another six months we were doing it twice a week.

Perlman’s home is in the Recoleta district, which is a really fun neighborhood close to the main shopping street and filled with a lot of little shops and cafés. In his house, he sets up two tables that can seat a total of 12 diners. On the night I went, everyone was from out of town and from the United States. So as a solo traveler, it was a fun evening talking to fellow travelers and listening to their discoveries in Buenos Aires.

At my table, there were three young recent college grads from Southern California, a nice couple from Chicago and newlyweds from outside Vegas. I also chatted with a couple from Los Angeles who travels often to Buenos Aires and has eaten at Casa Salt Shaker more than a few times.

SG: How do you handle issues like vegetarians?

DP: I look at the menu. Like when I sent you the response (confirming my reservations), I ask if there’s any dietary restrictions. There are times when I can’t do it. We had a dinner recently where four of the courses had meat in it. I think it was a Romanian dinner. I just said I wasn’t going to make four totally separate dishes. … I’m the only person doing the cooking. There’s no assistant or anything like that. It has to be something I can easily substitute. If it’s leaving a piece of steak off and putting a piece of fish or tofu or something, that’s easy. If it’s something that’s integral to the dish or stewed together, that’s not going to happen.

SG: So for those people do you just tell them not to show up?

DP: I just let them know, this is what I can do, this is what I can’t do. You make the decision. Some people still want to come and they’ll skip the course, and that’s fine. That’s their choice. As much as we can we try to accommodate people’s requests.

SG: Do you notice if the people who come to your dinners are certain types? Like are many of them real foodies?

DP: Not necessarily more food-oriented but more adventurous. I think it takes a certain spirit of adventure to go to somebody’s house in a country, especially for the tourists, to go somewhere where you don’t know what the language will be. There are nights where out of 12 people, 10 of them speak only Spanish. Then you get two people who speak only English. In general there are a few people who are bilingual, and other languages, too. We’ve had nights where we had French, German, Dutch, Turkish, whatever going on. Although I’d say English and Spanish are the most common.

SG: It must be fascinating meeting people from all over?

DP: It is. It’s fun for us. We get to meet new people from all over. A good number of people who’ve come have become friends. We have a lot of people who are regulars who live here and even some who are tourists who just come back often. We have a guy who comes down to Buenos Aires every year for three months. While he’s here for three months, he’s here every Friday night. He books it in advance. …

During the dinners, Perlman is tucked away in his kitchen preparing the courses. At the start of the evening, he holds a cocktail hour as people arrive and meet each other, then after a brief welcome, he’s back in the kitchen and stays there all night until after dessert. His partner, Henry, takes care of bringing out the courses and wine, and the guests are left to marvel at each course and talk about the meal and Buenos Aires.

SG: What do you think of Argentine cuisine?

DP: It depends what you’re looking at. If you’re looking at what most people think of which is the typical steak-salads-potato sort of stuff, it’s not that interesting. The beef is good, and who doesn’t like a real nice grilled steak that’s simply seasoned with salt and pepper and maybe a little steak sauce on the side? But there’s a lot more to Argentine cuisine. You’ve got Patagonian game dishes, and fish and shellfish dishes.

From the north you’ve got all sorts of stews and the different empanadas, most people think of empanadas as mostly steak and potatoes, but there’s a whole sort of mushrooms, lamb, spicy vegetable ones. It just depends what part of the country you’re talking about. So there’s a wide variety of cooking. You don’t see it all here in Buenos Aires. There are very few restaurants serving much in the way of northern Argentine cuisine.

SG: Is there a particular kind of approach to cooking that represents Argentine cuisine?

DP: Given that it’s heavily European influenced with the Italian and Spanish populations and English populations that are here, there are all those same techniques that we’re used to from straight-forward oven baking to sautéing to braising. There’s nothing really out there that’s what we would think of being different.

There are a lot of creative Argentine chefs here that are doing interesting stuff, ranging from being very creative about traditional dishes and creating modern versions of them, to those restaurants doing molecular movement cooking. I wouldn’t say it’s taking off, but there’s a local molecular gastronomy association that a lot of chefs belong to and a lot of home cooks take classes there.

SG: Do you ever think about opening your own restaurant?

DP: I think about it. Then I think about how easy and simple it is to do this by comparison. How much fewer headaches and how when I want to take two weeks off to go on vacation it’s not a problem.

SG: Many ex-pats moved here a few years ago because of the cheap cost of living, but with the recent inflation, I’ve read a lot of them are thinking of moving back.

DP: At one point I think that was a stupid reason for people to come here to live. I think it’s a perfectly valid reason to come here for vacation, even an extended vacation. Anybody who moved down here just for the cheap cost of living thinking it’ll stay that way given Argentina and any country’s history of economics, Argentina has had economic crisis before and they always have hyper inflation for the next five or 10 years until it gets back to a quote-un-quote normal level. …. I hear from people, it’s like they take it personally like it’s been done to them. It’s a recovering economy. The fact that their entire economy collapsed wasn’t done to make their life cheaper.

SG: How much longer do you think you’ll be living in Buenos Aires?

DP: No idea.

SG: Do you miss the United States?

DP: Not really. I miss things about it like the access to certain ingredients. It’s much easier now than it was a few years ago to find things. But a few years ago it was hard to find ingredients to do stuff. Now it’s gotten a lot easier. … then friends, family. It’s just a place to live.

It was a wonderful evening of tasting some excellent cooking without the stress of ordering in Spanish or struggling with explaining what I need from a confused server. I enjoyed my time at Casa Salt Shaker and meeting all the people who gathered to taste Perlman’s dishes.

Special thanks to Chef Perlman for letting me hangout as he prepared our dinner, and for a wonderful home-cooked meal!

If you’re in Buenos Aires and would like to learn more about Perlman’s home dinners, check out his blog at


Anonymous said...

This was quite well written and thorough. Dan is a friend of mine. You misspelled his last name all the way through, though.

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks for the catch, Ken! I've fixed the spelling now. At least I was consistent all the way through. ;-)

Anonymous said...

This was such a great entry. Sounds like a wonderful experience. Wish I had known about this during my trip.

Anonymous said...

wow that sounds like a great time! interesting that the other guests are all from the states too. extra cool to be eating malaysian influenced food in buenos aires!

Anonymous said...

I visited Buenos Aires about two years ago, after a trip to Mendoza. The city has an astounding array of culinary offerings and influences. Argentine beef is on a whole other level than the stuff we have in the U.S. There's some really fine Italian food and pizza, too, as BA has a large Italian population.

My one regret is that I had to fly home before eating at Dan's restaurant. I'll do that on my next visit.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview. Really looks and sounds like you had a delicious time at CasaSaltshaker. I hope to eat there one day.


Anonymous said...

I know people that tried his food, I heard it´s awesome. Great food but not for budget pockets..