Welcome back to Eater in the Embassy, where we ask the chefs behind DC's diplomatic receptions and events about what it's like working in an embassy kitchen and their favorite places to eat around the city.
It must be in the spirit of diplomacy that the Embassy of Argentina employs a chef native of Spain's Canary Islands. At 34, Alfonso Carton's already cooked in his home country, Germany, New Zealand and England. He's been at his current post for almost four years, serving food from a country he's never visited. Carton told Eater about his easy path in learning Argentine cooking and his disappointment in DC's Spanish restaurant scene.
How did you start cooking?
When I was 21, I decided to stop my study in graphic design. I liked it, but I didn't like it that much. So I decided to work in hotels [in the Canary Islands]. I enjoyed it and from there until now, pretty much, I've worked in hotels and restaurants.
How did you end up as the chef for the Embassy of Argentina?
[After working for the Embassy of Spain and a two-week stint at Jaleo] I bought a ticket and I quit the job and everything was pretty cool. The same day, three hours before my flight back to the Canary Islands, I was turning off my cell phone and I look at my cell phone and I'm like, "OK God, if you want me to be here it is your time to do something right now because, if not, I'm leaving." So, right after that, somebody called me. And I'm like, "What the fuck?" And it was [from the Embassy of] Argentina. And she's like, "We have an interview for you tomorrow."
I lost my flight and I came the day after for my interview and they were like, "We'll think about it and we'll call you in a couple of days." Three hours after that they called me and gave me a job. So it was pretty cool.
Have you ever been to Argentina?
I've never been there but hopefully I'll go soon. I want to see the country. If you think about it, Argentina's traditional food is based on Italian and Spanish.
How did you learn about Argentine cooking?
I sat down and read a little bit about it. And I knew a little bit about it.
Has the Ambassador ever said anything to you about the authenticity or lack of authenticity of your food?
One time he didn't like it much. But he didn't want to tell me anything, so he had one of the secretaries that is a good a friend of mine [tell me]. It was hard to hear that.
Do you like any Argentine or South American restaurants around here?
Not that I know of.
What about Spanish restaurants?
Something I don't like about Spanish food in the city is that everybody has to say Spanish food with tapas: Tasca, Jaleo, Estadio. Taberna Del Alabardero is not tapas, they have tapas, but it's not about it.
How does your day start as an embassy chef?
Normally, in the morning we have to prepare the food for the staff. And I have a worker, Christina, she's from Argentina and is 65 years old. She's been here 18 or 20 years. She's in charge of cooking for the staff, but I sometimes do it also. It's traditional, typical food: white rice with roasted chicken and a salad, for example.
How do you prepare for an official embassy event?
They normally send me all of the information, like we're having an event on the 12th of October at 8 p.m. for 50 people, who are they, more or less, and if these people are from the Congress, or Department of State. That is when I decide what I want to cook. Then I send a couple of menu options for the Ambassador. He has a look at it and picks whatever he likes. Sometimes he's like, "Alfonso, do whatever you want."
How would you compare working in restaurants to working for the embassy?
This is easy. Compared to be working in a hotel or restaurant, this is nothing. Nothing. Sometimes I think about it like this: The rhythm that I have right now, here working, [compared to] the time that I used to work 17 hours per day, like bam, bam, bam, chefs on top of you and crazy, crazy places. But those were the good places to learn. So working as a chef at the embassy, I think is the easiest job as a chef. [But] you have to do everything right.
Do you hang out with other embassy chefs?
Zero. I don't like to. I'm weird. When I get off from my work, I don't want to be [talking about food]. I love it, it's my life, but I have another life, too.
What are your plans after leaving the embassy?
I want to open a restaurant or fast-casual food. I'm thinking about opening it here or back in the Canary Islands. It's something that I'm going to do with my brother and sister and we promised each other we're not going to talk about it.