Restaurant Q&A: Midwest Grill chef shares secrets of Brazilian barbecue

If you ask Nei Pinto of Midwest Grill how he went from working in the mines of Governador Valadares, Brazil, to cooking top-notch barbecue in Inman Square, he’d say it was a natural progression.

Pinto, 51, of Wilmington, grew up in a large household in a small town in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. When his family moved to Valadares in 1976 — a city known for its precious stones, such as emeralds, diamonds and amethysts — Pinto, who was one of 11 children, started working in the mines with his father, grandfather and uncles.

After working in the mines for two years, Pinto decided to open a bar, and that’s where he learned the culinary arts.

“In the bars in Brazil, appetizers are very popular. There’s the chicken croquette, chicken kebab, all of those things,” Pinto said. “We call them espetinhos, and then you make all kinds of flavors. And that’s how we start cooking stuff. Before you know it, you cook a whole meal. You learn how to make the rice, the beans.”

After immigrating to the United States in 1984, he met Joao Pinto, an immigrant from Portugal, who owned a building on Cambridge Street in Cambridge and had a vision of opening a restaurant.

“I thought of opening a restaurant and I bought everything. I was only missing the bar area,” Pinto said in Portuguese, adding that he jumped right in when Nei Pinto and two of his brothers proposed a partnership.

The four partners opened the doors of Midwest Grill in 1993, and expanded to a second location in Saugus seven years ago.

In between preparing meats and lobsters on Tuesday, Nei Pinto, who is the restaurant’s head chef, talked to us about churrasco—Brazilian barbecue—and why it is so popular.

Q: Brazil is a melting pot of different ethnic groups. Do you think there is a specific ethnicity that has influenced Brazilian cuisine, particularly churrasco? Where does churrasco come from?

A: The churrasco is originally from South Brazil. It’s very popular. Now, in the past 40 or 50 years, it’s all over Brazil.

Q: How would you describe churrasco, and what makes it so popular? What makes churrasco different from a typical American barbecue?

A: In Brazil, they eat a lot of barbecue. Barbecue is the No. 1 dish in Brazil. And I think for the past 15 or 20 years, Brazil is the No. 1 exporter of beef for the whole entire world, so there’s always beef everywhere in Brazil.

What makes this different and unique, and the people in Brazil like it like that, is because it’s all-you-can-eat buffet and grill. The main difference is you don’t make a mixed grill on the plate and bring it to the table so the meat gets cold. The difference about this that the people enjoy is as the chef comes around the table and slices the meat, the meat never gets cold. It’s always hot, and it’s very popular in Brazil.