A Brazilian cowboy in America. Brazilian Churrascarias are taking the country by storm. The first to arrive in the country, Fogo de Chao, brings traditional churrascaria cuisine to six major cities in the U.S. At its flagship restaurant, located in Dallas, Texas, head gaucho chef Vilmar Zenzen is constantly enticing the Texan palate with more than just steak and potatoes
Dalia Socorro Herrera
Vilmar Zenzen knew very little English when, as an established Fogo de Chao gaucho chef in Brazil, he first step foot in Dallas, TX, nearly nine years ago. But he knew meat. In modest fashion, he briefly describes the training process at his first “real” job 15 years ago–yes, at Fogo de Chao: He started as a dishwasher when he was 18 and worked every aspect of the restaurant until he was ready to practice cutting and serving meat to his colleagues.
This is the standard for not only would-be chefs, but for the entire staff. It distinguishes Fogo de Chao’s customer service from other restaurants. “It’s very important for a gaucho to understand the entire operation,” says Selma Olivera, COO of Fogo de Chao. “Then he starts working with the meats and starts developing all these skills with the meat. When you transform that to a restaurant concept, working with the meats is a vital part of the concept, but you also have to understand how the restaurant operates.”
Even before Zenzen, 33, began apprenticing at Fogo de Chao, he was skilled in the gaucho tradition of churrascaria, roasting meats over an open fire. Growing up in southern Brazil, in a German enclave, Zenzen’s father introduced him to his newfound love: cooking. He enjoyed the time spent cooking on the weekends with his father for big family reunions. By the time he was sixteen, Zenzen moved to Sao Paulo, where he would later be introduced to the concept of churrasco in a restaurant format.
Eventually, the restaurant owners decided to bring their Brazilian churrasco concept to the United States, and with it, Zenzen. “It wasn’t a big change from south of Brazil. I’m a gaucho, and a gaucho is like a cowboy. South of Brazil is a lot like Texas. [But,] I barely spoke in English. I had to go back to college to learn English.”
Texas, explains Olivera, was a prime choice to test their concept in the U.S. market. The similarities between their open-pit barbecue style and the traditional Texan steakhouses made it a perfect match. “Dallas was known as the toughest city to start a concept,” says Selma. “If you could survive there or be successful with a new concept, you could go anywhere in the United States.”
But that was yesterday. Today, Fogo de Chao boasts opening six restaurants throughout the United States and four in Brazil. And, Zenzen as a renowned gaucho and general manager has helped launch two of them.
Since then, Zagat Survey listed Fogo de Chao as one of America’s Top Restaurants. With chefs like Zenzen at the helm, Fogo de Chao has received numerous awards touting it as the best Brazilian steakhouse in each city it has opened. Wine Spectator Magazine has presented Fogo de Chao with an Award of Excellence every year since 2002.
It is happily a stylized niche restaurant that very few can compete with. It is also a reminder, in case one needed it, of an old world tradition of simple, but savory dishes and exemplary service. “We are here to provide people with great food and exceptional service with the hope that they will come back over and over,” say Alceveda. For her, there’s only one more ingredient to add that keeps the clientele coming hack–just listen to what they have to say. And the end result: Their customers always leave satisfied!
Culinary consistency is another part of Fogo’s success. Their patrons visit for a specific gastronomic experience where they do not have to spend 15-20 minutes deciding what to order. “We have the same menu,” explains Zenzen. “I would say 90% of our menu has been the same for the past 25 years. We don’t change too much. We really try to make sure that the customers get the same quality every time they come here.”
For Zenzen, this mission of high quality transcends all the way to the grade of meats served: “I always try to do my best. I always think I can do more, I always think I learn more. I always focus on the quality of the food and the meats.” The restaurant delivers the same high quality meats on a daily basis. “The filet mignon comes from Australia. The lamb comes from New Zealand. But, most of the beef is USDA,” says Zenzen, who clarifies that it is not the location that makes a difference but the superiority of the meat and the cut.
One dish is not better then the other. They are all equally delicious. “I’ve been eating here for 15 years [laughs]. It’s very hard to say this or that is best … I don’t have a favorite.” Except perhaps for the desserts that he confesses to sample, at least one, on a daily basis.
Fogo truly is a cut above other restaurants in the area, though the competition does not seem to faze Zenzen. To him, it is almost nonexistent: “I haven’t been [to other restaurants]. I don’t have time. I really know what I’m doing here and I’d rather not follow the others. Let the others follow us. We lead, you know, we always try to do the best.”
For more information on Fogo de Chao, visit their web site, www.fogodechao.com.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group