MASA Chef Cooks Up Comfort Food
Article by Sharon Salt.
MASA die-hards, take note: as of late, this Club de Tacos might be more aptly named Club of All Foods Good and Hard-to-Find. That’s because Kevin Vaughn, MASA chef and founder, is adding wholesome down-home American food to the menu.
MASA Club de Tacos began as a puerta cerrada serving up just that: tacos. But when Kevin started sorting through his grandfather’s old recipes last year, he found himself making more and more southern food at home. “What happens in my kitchen is mostly based on nostalgia,” he explains.
Though it may seem that Kevin, a native Californian, would know more about tacos than comfort food, he actually has a great handle on both. Kevin grew up in Los Baños — pronounced by locals as loss banis, which, as he rightly points out, is important to note — a small Californian town populated by people in cowboy boots and Wranglers. Plus, his grandfather had Texan blood.
“He grew up near Fresno but his family came from a little town in central Texas,” Kevin says, “so the food he knew and loved to make was very much southern comfort food: fried chicken, pork chops, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, gravy, greens, lots of pies and desserts, homemade biscuits and jams.”
With his grandfather’s time-tested recipes in hand — plus a little improvising of his own — Kevin began cooking BBQ on the side for his friends. Eventually, he realized that this kind of food could be a part of MASA, too: not only does it fit MASA’s low-key vibe, but it’s close to his heart. And while Americans would love finding BBQ in Buenos Aires, Argentines would appreciate it for what it has in common with asado.
“The fascinating thing about BBQ is that people’s definition changes so drastically from region to region. You hang out in parts of Texas and it’s all about the dry rub but head over to South Carolina and it’s all smothered in a mustard BBQ sauce and each one is convinced [it’s the best way].” Not to mention the devout asado enthusiasts here in Argentina! But, Kevin says, “there are so many ways to cook the same thing, [and] that’s what is really exciting to me.”
For now, MASA plans to rotate between Mexican and American menus — and not just BBQ, either. Kevin’s working on homemade rolls, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, gravy, dumplings, fried chicken, pork chops, and “perfecting the brisket.” Eventually, the idea is to host two meals a week, one Mexican and one American, to serve both cuisines and also offer up more MASA spaces for those who want to come. Besides, both menus suit MASA’s onda perfectly: devouring (sometimes messy) food and hanging out, even if everyone starts the night as a stranger.
Though MASA serves up tacos, comfort food, and beers, “there is a lot of thought that goes into everything we make. We think really hard about how different flavors, textures, smells, temperatures and colors interact with one another, but we want to present all that in a way that is accessible to the diner…Our food is deceptively simple.”
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the chefs that put together a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings, and I won’t turn down a meal like that but it’s just not me. I don’t relate to it as a chef.”
Kevin explains, “Some people come and they love the food and tell us it’s something they can’t find anywhere else in the city [but they say] I’m not a real chef because I’m not formally trained…and journalists who come and [love the food], but they don’t want to write about us alongside other projects because we aren’t a real closed door – the ambiance is too informal, the plates not fancy enough, the drink is beer and not wine. [They tell us] we should write back once we’ve ‘evolved the concept.’”
MASA may be more laid-back than a five-course feast with wine pairings, but none of this means MASA is any less serious. In fact, because of MASA, Kevin is sure that he wants to work in gastronomy. This year, he’s focused on the restaurant aspect of MASA more than ever before, and he is taking online classes on the science of gastronomy as well as studying for a Management of Small and Medium Sized Businesses post-grad. The limited ingredients available in Buenos Aires have sparked a certain amount of inventiveness in Kevin, too, like a pinch of wasabi in his white BBQ sauce — nothing short of genius.
MASA is the food, certainly, but it’s also the onda. How can you help but feel anything other than neighborly love for the people you’re with, strangers or not, while you eat comfort food — or any meal, for that matter? MASA conversations run the gamut from philosophy to finance to chitchat, and each meal invariably turns into a low-key fiesta at the end, everyone riffing on each other’s jokes like old friends. As Kevin says, “The concept, the food, the price, it’s all accessible to the masses, and people really feel like they are at home.”
MASA has already “evolved the concept” — they’re showing that a puerta cerrada isn’t any one thing.