While I was in Buenos Aires, chef Dan Perlman was kind enough to let me observe one of his cooking classes and talk to him about his in-home restaurant and other enterprises.
Casa SaltShaker is a restaurant in Buenos Aires popular among in-the-know tourists. It’s a cooking school for many expatriates. It’s the office of writer Dan Perlman. And it’s the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner Henry Tapia.
Casa SaltShaker is the place Perlman dons his many hats. In 2005, the American chef/sommelier/writer moved from New York City to Buenos Aires, where he added a few more slashes to his title: restaurateur/instructor/food blogger/author.
Tired of working restaurant hours, Perlman focused on freelance writing for Time Out Buenos Aires and other publications but kept cooking as a hobby. On weekends he had friends over for multi-course dinners as he had been doing in New York since 1994. In 2006, Perlman decided to turn his dinner parties into a business. Friends invited friends and so on until Casa SaltShaker became a destination for hip porteños, expats and tourists.
The media has since described Casa SaltShaker as part of a new trend of “restaurantes a puertas cerradas” (“closed door restaurants”). Perlman says there’s nothing secret or underground about his or most other in-home restaurants in Buenos Aires.
“People forget that restaurants started in homes,” Perlman said. “We just stopped doing that as things became commercialized. But it continued that way here (in South America).”
It is easier to have a legal in-home restaurant in Buenos Aires than New York, Perlman said. He made some adjustments to his home to match restaurant code, he’s open to inspection and he pays taxes on what he earns.
In that way, his operation is not unlike traditional restaurants, but the dining experience is. Casa SaltShaker is usually open two nights a week, and each night Perlman offers a different five-course prix fixe menu, which he plans a month in advance. Diners must have a reservation. A maximum of 10 guests are seated at two communal tables.
It’s not for everyone. If you want an intimate evening with your significant other, or if you are someone who makes special requests to have a dish without olives or sauce on the side, SaltShaker is not right for you.
“People don’t understand that we’re not a regular restaurant,” Perlman said.
Although he will consider special requests made in advance, Perlman wants diners to realize he is the sole person in the kitchen. His partner helps serve food and drinks, but it is Perlman who plans, preps and plates each dish. Perlman says organization and planning is imperative.
“You have to learn to say no,” he said.
Diners should read the menu and the FAQ page before booking a reservation, lest they become the butt of a joke by asking about valet parking or whether they can be seated near the window.
Perlman often finds inspiration for his dinners in historical events. Menu themes have included actor Errol Flynn’s 100th birthday and Thailand’s Sunthorn Phu Day. Perlman is mostly trained in Italian cuisine, but he has experience in Japanese, Chinese and French schools, and he is trying to learn more about Peruvian and Brazilian cooking. Like his dinners, his cooking courses reflect his international influence. He does not, however, cook much Argentine food.
“I think (Casa SaltShaker) fills the niche of food people can’t get at other places,” in Buenos Aires, he said.
But his blog, SaltShaker.net, is an unrivaled source for information about Buenos Aires food. He reviews restaurants and keeps lists of the best parillas (steakhouses), empanadas and gelato, for instance. He also writes about markets and food-related shopping.
“In terms of food and doing it in English, I don’t know of anything else like it,” he said.
Another useful tool for English-speaking foodies in Spanish-speaking lands is Perlman’s food and wine dictionary, now in its second edition. Perlman is working on another book, this time a Casa SaltShaker cookbook.
“I fit in the writing around everything else” — the menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, teaching, Twittering… It’s a lot at once, but Perlman says he will hang up his hat if things become overwhelming.
“If we stop having fun and it gets difficult, we won’t do it anymore,” Perlman said.
Make reservations for dinner or cooking lessons at CasaSaltShaker.com. You can also read Perlman’s SaltShaker blog and follow him on Twitter.
Read more from my interview with Perlman at The Argentine Post.