December 9, 2013
Christophe Krywonis, cookSaturday, November 2, 2013
Half a lifetime here
Now a renowned TV chef who has also run his own restaurant, French cook Christophe Krywonis knew that his future lay in Argentina as soon as he arrived in Mendoza almost a quarter-of-a-century ago.
He says: “The year was 1989 when I first came to Argentina and I had been invited to cook in Las Leñas by one Francis Mallmann. And when I travelled from Paris to Las Leñas, which was a 20-hour long journey without any stop-offs — not even in Buenos Aires — I discovered a place that I really liked and could imagine myself living in, even from that first day. Yes, the Andes had a big impact on me — the magic, the magnetism, the people and so I felt I’d like to live there. And that was 24 years ago. I’m now 48 and I’ve been here for about 24 years and four months so that officially means I am more Argentine than French!”
PEOPLE AND PRODUCTS
Even as a young man, Christophe was decisive about his future, and knew that it would involve being in Argentina — although perhaps he never thought it would be for this long. What captured him, he says, was a combination of two things.
“The people, and the ease with which I could get products without too much effort,” he says. “Back in 1989, it wasn’t possible to get a decent leek or carrot — it was difficult — but one day I met an old guy who was growing vegetables in his back garden and I managed to get some good products. That’s when I realized that there were lots of really good things here — not the same variety as in Europe for obvious reasons — but I liked the people, I liked the goods and those people liked my cooking, and that’s why I continued trying my luck here.
“And I still cook what I did 24 years ago — with a few twists. It’s traditional but instead of just cream, I’ll lighten it a bit or not use any. The flavours are the same, although techniques have changed a little, and the idea is to have a simple cuisine. There are lots of modern techniques that are really excellent, but people always return to the base.”
Although Christophe didn’t know Mallmann personally, once the two met they became firm friends. “In fact, we had a Uruguayan friend in common called Martín Pitaluga, who is the owner of La Huella restaurant, and we had met in Paris in 1985. He was a waiter in the dining room, and I was an apprentice chef — the pigeon chicks. And that was when a friendship was born and that still exists today — we’ve been great friends ever since. And Martín ended up working as gastronomy director with Francis, which is how I came to Argentina.”
Initially Christophe was living in Argentina for a year, and also worked in Uruguay at Bleu Blanc Rouge, a traditional French restaurant, that summer but then the time came for his return to France in March 1990, much to his dismay.
“I was really down about having to go back as so many things had happened to me here, and I felt I should be somewhere else — if it wasn’t Argentina, it would be a different place. But a month later they called me to come back and so that August I did so, happy, and I stayed. I met my daughters’ mother — today we are separated but my children were born here — and life kept itself busy by helping me to like Argentina — and I still like it today.
“Despite this, moving back here wasn’t an easy decision to make. I had to learn so much of the local idiosyncrasy, adapt and learn to work with cooks who had a different mentality to French ones. They also had to learn to work with me as I put a lot of pressure on myself, and that comes across in my work and reflects on others.
“Moving here was a great life lesson. Besides seeing my country with outsider’s eyes — Paris, for me, was the centre of the universe — and suddenly I realized it is an important country but not the most important thing in the world. And it’s interesting as that helps you to better value your land, your own values and to be more humble. It’s what we all feel, isn’t it, being an expat or an immigrant — you adapt, with your own roots on board.”
Learning the Spanish language didn’t come instantly to Christophe, as he explains. “The first couple of years were quite tough, but living and spending 90 percent of my time with Argentines, one learns fast. I try to write better than I speak as it’s very important to me to do that, to show respect if I’m writing a letter for example, to write well. And as for my French accent when I speak, well, I’ve never tried to cultivate it. It’s just there. It isn’t such a bad thing, sincerely.”
Although both Christophe’s daughters were born in Argentina, only his eldest, Zoe, has visited France. “My youngest, Lola, is 17 and although she has never been, she aspires to live and study in France. So I’ve said to her, graduate in whatever subject you want — and it won’t be anything to do with gastronomy, she’s more artistic — and when you graduate here I’ll send you to do a Master’s in France. Zoe, who’s 21, is already a mum, which makes me a grandfather, so she is dealing with other more important issues at the moment.”
Meanwhile, talking about his career, he cites the same ups and downs that any Argentine has experienced to affect him. “I’ve lived through all the same crises as I live just like Argentines, and so I bear the same economic consequences as anyone else. It’s difficult to adapt yourself, put yourself forward, start over again and you always need to be attentive that you’re not falling behind. That’s been the most difficult thing for me: to not fall asleep during key gastronomic moments, but I think it would apply here or in France. I’ve lost lots of money here as the crises have affected me too. It costs a lot to maintain a bricks-and-mortar structure and when you get to the end of the month, it can be complicated.”
Although he doesn’t have a physical restaurant at the moment — his first was the eponymous Christophe in Palermo Hollywood — he is happy to pop up at different spaces as and when.
He says: “I basically go wherever I’m asked to go. Today, for example, I’m at BASA preparing some dishes for an event; I’m preparing a new menu for Cabernet restaurant in Palermo; plus I work in Uruguay and Paraguay. I go to the food markets to represent Los Gordos cooking team — Pobre Luis who died recently used to be part of our group so now it’s just me — and I also teach cookery classes at IGI international gastronomy institute, and that is something I love. Obviously you don’t make any money from it but it gives you a sense of pride. But what I would prefer is to do all of these different things and have my own restaurant again, so that is what I want right now. I’m looking for a new space, so I can open up Christophe again but as a brasserie.”
With all this work, the Frenchman admits he doesn’t have much time for hobbies. “I’ve only had three days off since August, but all these activities keep me alive,” he says. “I like to go out and eat, at Tegui, or Sucre — we’re a large group of cook friends so it’s pleasant to go to a place where it feels like home. I also like La olla de Félix, and Siamo nel forno, while classics I go to are Tomo 1 and Oviedo. And I love the Munich in Recoleta and pizza at El Valmonte in Chacarita. And although it’s a bit far for those of us who live in this side of town, Pan y Teatro in Boedo is also great. In short, there are lots of places where I like to go!”
After many years living in Belgrano, he now lives in Recoleta. “I might move back to Belgrano as a lot of my life has taken place there and my friends are there. But I love Recoleta as it’s so close to everything, Palermo, Retiro. I’m just another neighbour that people know from my TV work (which incidentally came to me and seems like the most ridiculous thing in the world to me!) But just last night I was in the supermarket and someone smiled at me. I asked her: ‘Do I know you?’ And she replied: ‘No, but what delicious cuisine!’”