‘Dining at Its Most Human’: DJ-Turned-Chef on the Art of Asado Cooking

"Cooking and socializing are inseparable," says chef Andrew Mercado.

Andrew Mercado

“Asado dinners feel like celebrations,” says chef Andrew Mercado. Photo: Courtesy of F.E.D By Chef Andrew Mercado

When Covid swept in, Andrew Mercado came to a crossroads. He’d already worked extensively in the restaurant business and been a popular DJ/party producer. He even ran his own dining club.

He and his fiancée, Shannon, moved from the Bronx to her hometown of Flemington. “I didn’t know what to do next,” he recalls.

But soon the couple brainstormed what would become F.E.D. By Chef Andrew Mercado. Through F.E.D. (which stands for Food, Entertainment, Design), the couple plans and hosts group dinner parties, both private and ticketed. Mercado cooks; Shannon bakes.

Mercado’s unique-to-New-Jersey culinary project centers on Argentine asado—outdoor wood-fired meals. “Cooking over leaping flames is my soul as a chef,” he says. “My roots are Puerto Rican, and when I was a kid, I was in awe of the island’s Taino tribe and South America’s gaucho cowboys and ranchers. Cowboys and Indians. Now I cook as they do.”

Mercado’s cowboy hat and boots aren’t a costume, but simply the asado way.

Mastering this gaucho-inspired cooking revived beloved childhood memories for Mercado. One of his favorites? The Christmas lechón pork roast his family made each year. “A whole pig cooked on a spit outdoors for relatives and neighbors,” he recalls. “I grew up knowing that cooking and socializing are inseparable.”

Mercado initially started out in restaurant management. “Then the people-loving Latin drummer in me took over and I began DJing as DJ A-Game,” he recounts. “I’m bilingual and landed gigs all over the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean. That was my life for 15 years.”

Jet-setting-fueled-DJing sounds like a dream job—but something was lacking. While his gig was very social, Mercado wanted to be a full-service hospitality pro, which required kitchen skills. So he returned to restaurant work. “I was cooking, I was hosting, I was managing the bar,” he says. “But what I loved most was producing pop-ups and private events.”

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Then came a revelation: While Mercado had done everything in the dining and event space, his mission was “connectivity”—making things happen for people, including events, he says. To get back into the scene, he started a speakeasy-style “secret” dining club, with a menu he designed and cooked. “I had followers and fans from my [work as] DJ A-Game, and the club became a cool thing,” he recalls.

When Covid shuttered that club, F.E.D. by Chef Andrew Mercado began taking shape. Mercado experimented and tested, learning how to build and control an asado fire. He studied metal and wood asado grills, called parrillas. His father-in-law built his barrel grill. He tried varied asado woods. (These days, he prefers hickory for a touch of smoky flavor.)

Asado dinner in the snow

Mercado hosts asado meals in the snow. The fires, he says, keep diners warm. Photo: Courtesy of F.E.D By Chef Andrew Mercado

And Mercado had to perfect asado cooking, which differs for everything he cooks—beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish and seafood, sausages, venison, duck and vegetables. F.E.D.’s ingredients are farm-to-fire: local and micro-seasonal. Even winter is asado time: “I do ‘snow asado’ meals outdoors,” Mercado says. “The fires keep diners warm, and it’s incredibly festive.” (He can also adapt open-fire cooking to indoor kitchens.)

“Sharing fire-cooked food amidst nature is dining at its most human,” he declares. “It reminds us what’s most important: being with other people. Asado dinners feel like celebrations.”

Like the time 24 random strangers gathered at an F.E.D. feast at Readington River Buffalo Farm in Hunterdon County. “They shared the drama of the flames, the flavor of the food, the good vibe,” Mercado says. “They left hugging and exchanging contacts. Actually, this happens a lot.”

Mercado and Shannon now live in Stockton and plan to open a 20-seat BYO bistro, D’Serve, on Main Street in Flemington. “But asado,” Mercado says, “will always have a place in our future.”

F.E.D. By Chef Andrew Mercado, 914-467-9327; @the_andrew_mercado.

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