Last November, my husband and I knocked on the door of a stranger's house tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street in Chacharita, a middle-class residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Sanra Ritten, a tall, graceful woman with long, brown hair and dark eyes, answered the door with a warm smile. "Hey guys," she said, "Come on in."
Three nights a week during Argentina's warm summers, Diego Felix, an Argentinian chef, and Ritten, his American photojournalist girlfriend, serve dinner in their home to a group of strangers. Adventurous diners, who pay for a multi-course, mostly vegetarian meal, learn about Casa Felix on trendy travel blogs or, more recently, in mainstream media outlets. Diners are given an address and a reservation only after emailing Casa Felix and passing muster. He doesn't hesitate to weed out particularly demanding diners, or those who just don't seem to fit. "It's not for secrecy or security," he says.
The menu, which changes nightly, reflected the breadth of Felix's ambitions. He's not just trying to give you a good meal; he's trying to teach you about the very essence of Argentinian culture.Ritten and Felix usually serve dinner on their back patio, next to their small garden, but it was chilly that evening so we ate in their living room instead. Like Buenos Aires itself, the room felt old and elegant—high ceilings, white walls, and wood floors. An ancient, heavy set of wooden shelves held wine and water glasses of all sizes and colors. A motley assortment of benches and bronzed lawn chairs clustered around tables provided seating for the four or five groups of people dining at Casa Felix that night.
The menu, which changes nightly, reflected the breadth of Felix's ambitions. He's not just trying to give you a good meal; he's trying to teach you about the very essence of Argentinian culture. His interest in cooking originally grew out of a desire to understand his roots, and the roots of an immigrant culture. "The culinary culture in Argentina exists in the context of a country which has been a huge agro-exporter for years, colonized by Europeans, mostly from Spain and Italy, with very little space for local, indigenous cultures to thrive," he told me in a recent email.
To broaden their understanding of Argentina's culinary traditions, Felix and Ritten spend half their days exploring rural Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. "What I have learned in my travels," he wrote, "is that we have an immense gastronomic cultural patrimony and it would be good to share this with the rest of the world. The only country that is really doing this right now is Peru, and that is why there are many excellent Peruvian restaurants in major cities."
Like many chefs today, Felix relies on fresh, local fare and often uses ingredients from his own garden. He served a humita "raw-violi" to start, with linden flowers he grew out back and cancha corn (a Peruvian dish of lightly salted, toasted corn—basically Andean popcorn). The second course, my favorite of the night, was inspired by his travels: mbeyu, a Paraguayan dish made of cassava and cheese. Felix modified the dish slightly, grilling it rather than frying it for a lighter effect, but the warm, slightly crisp final result was still cozily filling and reminded me of the vaguely guilty pleasures of hot hash browns on a Sunday morning. He often modifies the dishes he finds on his travels, but tries to maintain the essence of the flavor. When constructing the mbeyu, for example, he asked himself, "For me, how was the flavor of Paraguay?"
Felix doesn't serve meat, a bold stance to take in steak-heavy Buenos Aires. Instead, we dined on Patagonian sand perch in a light, flavorful broth. Dessert was another sampling from his garden: lemon verbena ice cream. He brought a sprig of the herb to the table, crushing it between his fingers and instructing us to smell it, then taste the ice cream.
The Whisk and Ladle headquarters is located in trendy-industrial Williamsburg. Old factories make way for luxurious new loft condo buildings overlooking the Hudson, and everywhere construction trucks work to complete the transition. It's the kind of neighborhood where six 22-year-old marginally-employed guys can still (for a few more years at least) rent a 3000-square-foot loft and throw killer parties. Alas, the lofts usually require a walk down the hall to shower—and the kitchens generally consist of a hot plate and a mini-fridge.
The confirmation email for the dinner noted that the entrance to the Whisk and Ladle apartment is behind the building itself, down an alley, "across from a small motorboat." As we approached, a young man was idly carving a six-foot long piece of wood. Canoe? Bench? Who knows?
The Whisk and Ladle is the kind of hipster supper club where obtaining a reservation requires a strategy. One of our fellow diners regaled us with tales of trying to get a reservation: She concluded her (slightly desperate) email with a picture of their pug puppy and offered to bring him to dinner. I was grateful our Casa Felix connection had guaranteed us a reservation as our dog is a bit big and unruly for crowded dinner parties.
Inside, the loft was busy and loud. A dapper bartender mixed strong cocktails at a small bar. The open kitchen, clearly renovated to allow for serious cooking, was crowded and bustling as both the Casa Felix and Whisk and Ladle crews worked. Ritten gave us a big hug when she saw us and filled us in on their travels since our last visit, then went back to taking photographs of the colorful meal.
While dinner was being prepared, we wandered the loft, enjoying the high ceilings, wood beams, open stairway to the sleeping loft ("a death trap," pointed out one mother in attendance), and eclectic furnishings. At one point, one of the guests got a little woozy in the warm, tightly packed room and an ambulance was called. I knew a moment of panic. What exactly happens when EMTs enter an unlicensed restaurant? Nothing, it turns out—the EMTs stay outside.
When he's cooking in the States, Felix does his shopping at farmers' markets, which he laughingly describes as "a little bourgeoisie." In New York, the Prospect Park farmers' market provided the bounty for a creamy, lime-green avocado soup to start, red quinoa-crusted fluke for the main, and a watercress, frisée, and sprouts salad in a light vinaigrette with fresh strawberries. Dessert was an Argentinian specialty: alfajores de dulce de leche coated in chocolate with strawberry custard. The fluke and dessert tasted of South America and reminded me of the meal I'd eaten months earlier, the other courses less so, which made sense as the meal was a collaboration between Casa Felix and the Whisk and Ladle.
After New York, Felix and Ritten cooked in Chicago and California, before pausing in San Diego, where Ritten's family lives. I asked Felix about the next step for Casa Felix. "We discovered the world was really open to this idea," he says. "Now we are asking: What are we going to do with all the energy?"
Currently on the list: a baby boy (due in February), an expansion of their garden, a line of preserves from the garden (a project Felix's sous chef will undertake while he travels), more culinary investigations throughout Argentina, trips to Italy, Thailand and the Caribbean, and a Casa Felix 'zine. He also hopes to expand The Casa Felix Collective, a term he and Ritten use to refer to the disparate employees and associates who are a part of their "gypsy lifestyle"—people like his sous chef and Ritten's sister, who lived with them in Buenos Aires for awhile, and their hosts around the world.
Felix also expects to continue cooking at his home for a few more years. But he points out, "It's fun, but you can't have dinner parties in your house for the rest of your life."
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