Ribeye beef with chimichurri sauce from San Telmo.
The end result ... Ribeye beef with chimichurri sauce from San Telmo.

Roslyn Grundy

Solid steel rig. Ironbark and red gum logs. One whole cow. It's not your standard barbecue shopping list. But then, this isn't your standard barbecue.

On Saturday,  Melbourne restaurant San Telmo will team up with Yarra Valley winery St Huberts to prepare an Argentinian asado (coal barbecue) for more than 250 people. Vegos need not apply.

The event has been more than six months in the planning. San Telmo head chef Mike Patrick enlisted his godfather, an engineer, to build an A-framed rig to cook a whole butterflied beast upright over a bed of hot coals.

The custom-made barbecue frame.
The custom-made barbecue frame.

“A lot of the structures they've got in South America and around the world are permanent and buried in the ground but we wanted something portable so we could take it to festivals,” he says.

After scouring the internet for information, Patrick's godfather, Shane Monaghan, and some engineer mates sketched up plans for a big steel A-frame on wheels.

“I think it's about 500 kilos and has aeroplane bearings in the middle where it hinges, so it's pretty over-engineered,” says the former Ladro chef. “They've done a great job.”

The team gave the rig a trial run last month.

“It went fantastically – pretty much flawless. We'd never done it before and we weren't sure of time frames. What we learnt was that the fire took a good three hours longer to get to temperature than we were expecting.”

The finished product also defied their expectations.

“We were worried it might dry out but it literally just flaked off the bone and had a beautiful smoky flavour from sitting over the fire for so long,” says Patrick. “It's  a lot different from cooking a steak. That long and slow cooking really makes a difference.”

Little wonder it's considered the national dish in beef-loving Argentina.

For Saturday's lunch, the San Telmo asadors (barbecuers) will light the fire on Friday morning, let it die down to coals, then start cooking the 300-kilogram pasture-fed yearling about 5pm.

Patrick and four colleagues will take turns through the night tending the fire and spraying the meat with salted water every 30 minutes for almost 18 hours so it stays moist – all under the supervision of CFA volunteers.

The meat will come off about 11am to rest. Four people are rostered to carve and serve, ? a process estimated to take an hour and provide enough meat for up to 300 people, including the CFA workers.

Along with platters of beef – variously crusty and tender – they will serve blood sausage and chorizo, cooked on a separate grill, plus potato salad, green salad, whole coal-roasted pumpkin and chimichurri, a blend of parsley, oregano, chilli, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Oh, and plenty of wine from historic St Huberts, founded in 1862.

“We're super-excited,” Patrick says. “None of the chefs who work here has done anything like this before, so they're jumping at the chance to stay up all night so they can say they've done it.

"We'll probably be putting small things in the coals all night to feed us. In Argentina, they put a lamb on [to cook] at the same time to feed the guys cooking the cow.”

The Two Saints and a Valley lunch is on Saturday, March 16, $125 a head. Details: melbournefoodandwine.com.au