Buen Ayre has a devoted following of locals, hipsters and celebrities, all of whom make the trek to East London’s hipster heartland that is Broadway Market, to sample the city’s finest steak. I caught up with head chef, founder, and restaurant legend, John Rattagan, to hear how things are going.
How did an Irish-Argentinean Fine Arts student ending up running a steak restaurant?
Ouch, long story! I am the eldest of a farming Irish-Argentine family. As such, I was the designated one to cook the sacred Sunday barbeque or asado. As I grew up and got more experienced, I got the hang of it and started enjoying it a lot (which also meant I didn't have to work the fields as my brothers did!).
I graduated from Saint Martin's in 1997, where I did Fine Arts/Film & Video, but reality soon knocked my door. As a part-time single parent, I always knew that working for free was not an option. So I continued working on International Research as I had done while in uni, but I became bored with this after a few years, and was desperate to try something different. There was a problem, though, I hardly had any experience in the restaurant business whatsoever!
How difficult was it in the early days? Or were you always successful?
We started with very little money, so I had to do 90-hour weeks for quite a while. I lost three stone in four months. It was very hard, cycling to Smithfield's market at dawn with a back pack to buy my beef, in the rain, and then work until midnight without a break. But it paid off immediately. Time Out gave us a glowing review, and nominated us for awards two years in succession. We didn't win any, but it gave us a lot of exposure. After featuring in TO, nearly every food writer in London came to visit (which meant a lot of free press coverage). And they loved us. Admittedly, the fact that we were the first and only restaurant in London to do a traditional, charcoal grill in the country at that time also generated a lot of interest.
Am I right that it's the restaurant’s 10th birthday this year? How have you managed to keep Buen Ayre relevant?
It was our 9th birthday on the 19th of December 2013. We have spent very little in terms of advertising, so it is a word-of-mouth thing, Quite soon, we became a bit of a cult little place, we couldn't believe how many famous people would walk in. Also, my staff are well paid (all of the service charge is divided equally between all employees, regardless of their position), which means I get people working for the long term. A happy employee will give you a better service than an employee who feels exploited. And people believes us, they sense it is a genuine Argentine parrilla. Our motto is: "Visit Argentina without leaving London".
How come we have to come to East London to taste Buen Ayre? Why don’t you do what some of the other steak restaurants have done, and open more Buen Ayre’s across the city?
East London is where everything is happening! It is the most vibrant area in London; I feel blessed to be here. Also, I believe you risk losing a bit of your soul when converting into a chain. However, I am not totally against the idea of one day opening another Buen Ayre elsewhere, it's just that it has to be the right location, it's got to feel right.
And finally, John: Say I have to choose one final meal before I return to New Zealand, and I’ve picked your restaurant to have it in? What do I eat, and what do I drink?
Please stay in London Walton! Meat restaurants need you! If I were you, I would get started with a spicy beef empanada and a starter-sized crispy sweetbread or molleja. Sweetbreads are a religion in Argentina and are the most expensive part of the cow (dearer than fillet).
For main I would go for the Parrillada deluxe, which comes with a massive half a kilo sirloin and a gigantic rib eye. The mini grill comes to your table with a slice of melting Provolone cheese, two pork sausages and some Spanish black pudding. A rocket and garlic salad and some Provenzal chips would also de desirable, if you can manage. This would be all washed down with one of our very special Malbecs.
And for dessert, I have two favourites and both, of course, involve the ever-present dulce de leche: either a caramelised pancake with vanilla icecream or the creme caramel.
Thank you John. I’m salivating in anticipation of my next visit!