Chef Almir Da Fonseca of Sebastopol grew up on a sugar cane plantation and cattle ranch outside of Rio de Janeiro, where he butchered his first cow at age 11.
His great-grandparents hailed from Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. There, amid the vast, grassy plains known as the Pampas, the gaucho cowboys first developed the simple "churrasco" grilling style that would become sought-after throughout Brazil and, eventually, the world.
"The Pampas is the birthplace of the churrasco (shoo-haas-koh) barbecue," Da Fonseca said. "The gaucho cowboys cooked outside, over the flames, on long skewers made of wood and metal."
With the Labor Day holiday weekend looming and the backyard beckoning, grilling enthusiasts drawn to global flavors can take a tip from these gauchos when preparing their own feast of grilled meats.
Because the gauchos ate the tougher cuts of the grass-fed beef, they developed ingenious methods for tenderizing the meat. Da Fonseca brushes his beef with a Molho Campanha marinade, a salsa-like sauce made of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and vinegar.
"The vinegar flavors and tenderizes the meat," Da Fonseca said. "The tomatoes and vinegar hit the flame, and there's a sweet and aromatic flavor that is infused into the meat."
In his 25-year-career in the San Francisco Bay Area, Da Fonseca has apprenticed with French and Italian chefs, but the food from his native Brazil has become a singular passion.
As an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Da Fonseca introduces students to his native cookery during "The Cuisine of the Americas" course.
"Brazilian food is such a beautiful food," he said. "It's colorful and flavorful, with lots of history .<TH>.<TH>. there are so many influences on the culture."
In Brazil, Da Fonseca is known as "the ambassador of Brazilian cuisine," because he goes back on a regular basis to give lectures on everything from salt-curing to sustainable cuisine.
"I'm a Brazilian-born, French-trained chef," he said. "But tropical cuisine is in your blood."
During the week, the Brazilians eat their main meal at lunch, Da Fonseca said. It usually includes rice and beans and some kind of braised stew or street food. Dinner is just a light snack.
But during the weekends, the Brazilians enjoy coming together and celebrating with a feast.
"By nature, Brazil is a religious country, and there is a lot of emphasis on getting together," Da Fonseca said. "Wherever there is a gathering, there is food, dance and music."
The churrasco barbecue, a tradition that has spread throughout Brazil and all over the globe at popular churrascaria restaurants, provides an easy vehicle for a festive street party.
"Each family on the street will bring a side dish — a salad or rice or beans," Da Fonseca said. "And they listen to samba and drink cachaca (a liquor made from fermented sugar cane) and caipirinhas (cocktails)."
If you're invited to a barbecue on the beach, be prepared for nonstop eating.
"They light up the grill at 10 a.m. and then they grill something all day long — sausages, beef and fish," he said. "They are masters of grilling."
When grilling beef, the Brazilians like to infuse flavors by adding salts and marinades. And they keep the meat moist by cooking it slowly over burning embers.