Pablo Rivero studied cooking and is also a sommelier, but above all for the last 20 years he has been the face of a family-run business, Don Julio, the famed Palermo barbecue joint which has just been awarded 14th place among the world’s Best 50 restaurants.
What does the 14th position among the world’s Best 50 restaurants mean to you?
It’s a great joy after the last few difficult years, especially for the restaurants in the region. When the world restarted after the pandemic, South America lagged behind the countries in the North Hemisphere. So this recognition is worth twice its value and in particular for Don Julio. What was acknowledged here was that la parrilla [barbecue] is no longer a minor cuisine. And this is great news for this country and one of its main culinary expressions.
Does reaching this position add adrenalin to keep it up?
We don’t work thinking about awards or rankings, being one of the best 50 is already a huge achievement. Our place every year depends on many factors, such as the flow of travellers and other variables we cannot control.
Does having this award enable you to show it off when someone points out the prices on your menu?
No, there’s no relationship between prices and status. Of course people see it and it makes a restaurant better-known. But these awards are for us, we don’t display them. Building value in a restaurant has to do with other factors: the product, service, a certain setting. These are essential to set a price in terms of the value we offer.
Is there another “signature dish” that will ever identify Argentina other than “meat” or “asado” (barbecue)?
Cuisines are identified with what we chefs can do in our natural environments. That’s genuine cuisine. What, for instance, is added by immigrant cultures or regional cooking. We cannot and must not reject meat, and cuisine cannot be separated from its culture. That defines its identity. We must further this rather than seeking a change. It’s clear that Argentina is not just meat, but it cannot be without meat.
How do you feel about veganism?
I can only respect that way of living and looking at life which is different from mine but just as valid.
Why does Don Julio, being a steakhouse, have a “green seal?
Because the green seal has no relationship with our product. The green seal certifies our handling of waste at our restaurant to reduce its environmental impact. We have to dispel the myth that cattle-raising is hostile to the environment. We only work with animals raised on pasture. They are the only animals in the world which capture more carbon than they emit and regenerate soil. Unfortunately, not much is known about that but this type of regenerative ranching is an extraordinary environmental solution.
How does Argentina compare with trend-setting countries in the food industry?
Argentina is going through an incredible period. And there are two major things which explain it. Firstly, the whole world recognises the talent of Argentine chefs, that’s why we have compatriots at the most important restaurants in the world. Secondly, the world acknowledges barbecue, chargrilling, as another cuisine. It’s not some minor thing anymore and that’s great news for us. The whole world is recognising our culture.
Does your place have fusion dishes or is it for those seeking “tradition”?
Our cuisine is culture, the tradition of barbecue. But a cuisine is living culture, it changes all the time and a new thing is always added to tradition. It’s not old or ancient, it’s a local thing connected with the roots of what we do but it’s not unchanging.
What defines a family restaurant in Buenos Aires?
Immigration cuisine, with its traditional dishes with Spanish and Italian influence. Then there’s abundance, another distinctive feature. Let’s not forget they are peoples who lived through war and a full plate means a lot to them.
I read an article where you said that “family-run businesses are not about profit.” What are they about then?
They’re mostly about their own development, persistence, generating jobs for coming generations. Of course profit matters but the most important thing is the idea of a better future for the members of that family.
You also said the idea that ‘I’d like to have a restaurant and thus become a businessman’ generally ends badly.”
Yes, cooking is a profession and restaurants are the businesses run by professionals. It’s a calling. If you think of it as an investment, it’s very likely to fail. Restaurants are always rewarding experiences for anyone with that calling. And some are good business, while others aren’t. If you put your calling first, your chances of succeeding are higher.
We’re facing a global economic crisis. Do you still think doing business in Argentina is a lot easier than anywhere else?
Argentina has so many recurrent crises, access to business is the outcome of the opportunities generated by the successive breakdowns. New opportunities open up because access to business sometimes means filling gaps. Opening a restaurant in Manhattan is extremely difficult, as it is in Madrid or Sao Paulo. Doing it in Buenos Aires is relatively simpler but it’s also a lot more difficult to keep it up over time.
What are crises good for?
To grow, learn about downsizing, sharpen your creativity, assessing your level of resistance. For those who have been in the business long, a crisis helps you measure your resistance. Then you know whether you can still put up a fight, which you always have to do in Argentina, or whether you’re nearer retirement. For the young, they help calm them down and accelerate growth. It’d still be better to have no crises. They’re actually like life’s disappointments you wish you could avoid, but which are a part of it. The problem is that in Argentina we experience them all the time (laughter).
What were the lessons of the pandemic?
It made it clear that a restaurant is a human group inside a building. That’s all. What we do is pure humanity, that was the greatest lesson.