Francisco Carvalho and his partner, Caesar Brelaz, own and operate two very popular and successful restaurants here at the Farmers Market. Like several Market merchants, they emigrated from another country, Brazil, and their entrepreneurial ambitions led them to the Market where they took over Phil’s Deli from a previous owner and where they created and opened the critically acclaimed Pampas Grill.
Francisco and his wife Shirley, who is also the bookkeeper for their company and works almost daily with Francisco at the restaurants, are the parents of four children and live close to the Market. Recently we talked with Francisco about his journey to success.
“We purchased Phil’s Deli in 2000. Caesar and I had, at that time, a very successful company called LA Tours. We had that company for 10 years. That’s how I discovered the Farmers Market. We brought our busses here every day and I fell in love with it, just like everyone does.
At one point, we even had an office on the Market property. They rented us a trailer, this was long before The Grove opened, so we were sort of in the parking lot where The Grove is now. It’s where the old drive-in theater had been back in the 50s. I knew I wanted to be a merchant at the Market and I wanted a store, but when I went to talk with the management, they said they’d like us to open a restaurant. We had a lot of experience in the food business, I had worked in restaurants in Brazil and I had worked in restaurants here in LA when I first got here. Still, we were nervous about it, but we talked with Sherif Barsoum, who was the Market Manager back then, and he believed in us and encouraged us.
The owner of Phil’s Deli was thinking about retiring, so we made him an offer for the deli. When he was ready, we bought it from him. So there we were, with a restaurant that featured Jewish food. Some might think it strange that a Brazilian would take over a Jewish restaurant, but Brazil is very ethnically mixed. There are delis there that are very popular, so we were familiar with the menu.
We didn’t change much on the menu and kept all the wonderful, traditional Jewish deli foods (Phil’s Deli was recently recognized by KCBS TV for having one of the best Reuben sandwiches in LA: http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/top-lists/best-reubens-in-los-angeles/). But we did change the look of the restaurant, we opened it up much more and we added the counter.
About a year later, the Japanese restaurant across the aisle from us closed. I had been thinking it would be wonderful to bring Brazilian food to the Market. At that time, there were not many restaurants that featured that food and there certainly weren’t many churrascarias in LA, only one I think. These are sit-down restaurants but I thought maybe we could create an “express” way to serve the food from our country.
I come from the southeast region of Brazil and lived just close enough to where the churrasco came from. The churrasco is in the tradition of the gaucho, which are South American cowboys. That whole region of Brazil is filled with huge cattle ranches and good, level, grassy fields. And the restaurants in that region became known as churrascarias, that’s where they started. That’s the Pampa region, it borders Argentina. The churrascarias soon spread all over Brazil. So it seemed that would be a perfect name for our churrascaria, Pampas.
My mother was a housewife. Pampas Grill food is based very much on the way she cooked for us; we always had lunch, dinner, and snacks at the house, we didn’t go out to eat. I know how her rice tastes--the spices, the seasonings. I can gauge my recipes from the regional standards I know so well. We have very pronounced culinary differences, region by region in Brazil.
To create an “express” churrascaria, we created a food line. When you enter Pampas Grill, you work your way around the selections and start with salads and vegetables and move to the hot dishes. And because Brazil is so ethnically diverse, our food includes Beef Stroganoff and African foods like collard greens, okra and black bean stews. And then there are other side dishes, including some desserts like flan and passion fruit mousse, all of which we make here.
The cheese bread is from my grandmother’s recipe, we also bake that fresh every day. Sunday in Brazil is pasta day from the Italian influence, and so we offer pasta dishes as well. Then we get to the beef and chicken. We keep it simple, not too fancy, we stay with the regional simplicity of the basic recipes, keep it healthy with no excess spices and other flavorings that aren’t necessary. My favorite Pampas Grill dishes are the black beans, rice, abobora which is squash, collard greens and Picanha (Sirloin Cap) and our Spicy Chicken.
It takes about three months to train a chef for Pampas Grill. The best of those chefs not only cook but they carve as well. Not everyone can do both well. The carvers work hard to get meat the way our customers want it, they know the cuts, they know which piece of meat is in the cooking process. It’s hard to time it, you can have 50 people in line who want their meat medium rare and the 51st person wants it as rare as possible. The guys are often close to perfect in getting this right.
Our recipes follow the Gaucho way, which is using only rock salt on most of the meats; the garlic beef is very lightly salted. The chicken is seasoned with citrus juices, fresh herbs and garlic. Garlic is the main ingredient, it’s all about the garlic, especially for the chicken. We slowly cook the meat and chicken over a charcoal pit. Lamb became too expensive on the wholesale market, so we have switched to a pork loin for now until the lamb prices go down. We season the pork loin with a little parmesan cheese; it’s very good.
The staff who work the grill at Phil’s Deli are also working under intense pressure and are amazing. They are able to keep quality and speed and beat a fast food restaurant most of the time. They break their eggs right there, you go to most restaurants and the eggs have been beaten and standing in a dish for a while. We’re slowly adding some new dishes to the Phil’s menu, but it’s such a popular and durable menu, we don’t see the need to change much. People really like sitting at the counter, it’s old-fashioned, there aren’t a lot of counters left in LA.
We love being at the Farmers Market. It’s a very unique place and as years go by, it’s more special because there’s nothing else quite like it. I respect the choices the owners have made to keep the Market almost the same as it’s always been.
I’m proud of what Cesar and I have accomplished. We’ve never lost sight of where we started and the roads we traveled together. I’m proud that we never got carried away and we’re still here and working hard. It’s been a wonderful experience and we’re very lucky we were ready to take advantage of what came our way.”