Chef Juan Carlos Lopez on Cooking in Buenos Aires
Article and Interview conducted by Rick Powell, San Telmo connoisseur of all things artistic.
The first time Juan Carlos Lopez got a standing ovation for his cooking was when he made simple tacos for 25 hungry backpackers at an art hostel in San Telmo. I have a photo of it. He looked pleased but surprised. It was just tacos, after all. Good tacos, yes, but since this is Buenos Aires, and Mexican food is exotic still…
I was lucky enough to be his prep cook along with a wonderful young woman from France. Like most things in hostels, our kitchen was international. But Juan was our chef and he taught us how to cut things his way.
Those rounds of applause probably won’t be the last accolades he receives as a cook either, judging by how far he’s come since he taught me how to use my knife. I hadn’t seen him for a while so when he called me up recently, we agreed to meet in one of our old haunts, Gibraltar. Here we are in the pool room, when you could still smoke and the hot wings were awesome and didn’t taste like calamari.
Juan Carlos had lost a bunch of weight, cut his hair and he looked younger than he did when we met 5 years ago. And best of all he’s working as a cook in one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants. I think I must have said: Holy shit!
I was so happy for him. He agreed to answer a few questions for me for old time’s sake.
Rick: I know where you’re from and how old you are but why don’t you tell everybody else?
Juan Carlos Lopez: Jaja. Tijuana, Baja California. Mexico, dumbass. And I’m 28.
Rick: Why did you come to Buenos Aires?
JCL: I wanted to go to culinary school but in Mexico back in 2007 it was very expensive and was only available in Mexico City, Monterrey and Puebla. That meant going to the south of Mexico and I wasn’t very comfortable doing that. I had already spent 2 years in Guadalajara from 2004-2006 and had really missed the north of Mexico. I could have studied in Monterrey but that didn’t sound great either. So I started looking for some other city or country and finally decided to come to Argentina. It was cheap and Argentine cooks and restaurants were getting noticed in the culinary scene of Latin America and it sounded like an adventure. Now the culinary scene in California and Baja California is amazing — they have great restaurants and schools — but I don’t regret coming to Buenos Aires.
Rick: Why do you cook?
JC: I’ve always liked it and even when I was a kid I was always trying to learn new things. When I got my first jobs I discovered that the kitchen was a place where I felt very comfortable and could have a great time.
Rick: Tell me about your current job. (I confess I don’t know anyone else who works at a Top 50 restaurant. Rockstar.)
JC: Shut up. jaja. I work at El Baqueano located in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. It’s ranked 39 among Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants. We work with Argentine products such as Ñandu, Chinchilla, Yacare, Pacu, Llama, Cordero and we use new or “modern” techniques which allows us to use the entire product (vegetable, fruit, protein, etc.) and have almost zero waste. In that way we show respect for the product and it allows us to be more creative.
Rick: What are your future plans?
JCL: I’m very happy working at El Baqueano and I’m learning a lot but I have plans to move to Germany next year. Also I want to have the “Michelin Experience,” so now I’m looking for a Michelin-star restaurant where I feel I’ll like their philosophy or style of restaurant.
Rick: Anything else you want people to know?
JCL: Like advice or something? Jajaja. I don’t know… If you’re thinking about being a cook, work first in a restaurant before getting into culinary school, that way you’ll know how life is as a cook, which is great and amazing but very different from regular jobs and it’s not for everyone.
Later, I thought of one last question and e-mailed it to Juan: Would you like to own your own restaurant someday? He hasn’t answered yet but I think I already know the answer.
Here’s a photo of the kitchen staff of El Baqueano. That’s Juan Carlos on the right.