December 22, 2014
Olivier Falchi, executive chef at SofitelSaturday, July 12, 2014
For The Herald
Born: Auch, France
Education: Auch Hospitality School
Profession: Executive chef at Sofitel Buenos Aires
Book: Le guide culinaire by Auguste Escoffier
Film: Runner, Runner
Gadget: Ratatouille stress-reliever mouse
Coming to Argentina as a 25-year-old chef was meant to be a bit of an adventure for a year, according to Olivier Falchi but 16 years on, Buenos Aires is where the Frenchman has made his home with his wife and daughter.
Olivier says: “I’d returned to France after a working trip to Polynesia and I was on holiday for two or three months when I saw an advert in a hotelery newspaper for a restaurant here that was in need of a chef. And I thought ‘why not?’ I was only 25 so I sent off my CV, I had some phone interviews and then at the start of July 1998 Jean Paul (Bondoux), owner of Le Bourgogne, called me on a Monday to say that my flight had been booked for the Saturday and that I should go to the Air France office in Paris to pick up my tickets. And I thought, well, okay then, why not!”
In at the deep end
Olivier didn’t know what to expect when he came to Buenos Aires but regardless, and with some basic language skills, he was up for the challenge of throwing himself in at the deep end.
“I had no idea where I was going or what I’d find, so I looked online and found out a bit of information about the restaurant for starters. I basically knew what 99 percent of tourists know – tango, football, the famous steak – and I had some basic Spanish from school, that was all.
“When I arrived I started working immediately with about 10 or 12 other French cooks and we also all lived together, sharing two apartments in Palermo. There was a lot of work, as well a lot of partying but it was also the discovery of Argentina for me.
“I thought I was only going to be here for a year but just as it was reaching its conclusion in the June, I met my now wife at a bachelor’s party – a French chef friend of mine was marrying an Argentine friend of hers. I said to her ‘Look, I’ll be returning to France soon’. Then a second and third month went by so I suggested to her that she came back with me. We went on holiday, returned to Buenos Aires and I left my suitcase at her place and that was that, 15 years ago! My big blue rucksack turned into a family and an apartment and my being more in love with Argentina than ever.”
In the early days, there wasn’t a huge need to learn Spanish quickly, as Olivier explains. “There were about a dozen of us in the kitchen, all French, and one other, a Brazilian intern, so we spoke a boorish Spanish. I remember the first time I met the missus’ family and they couldn’t understand anything I said! I’d speak and my brother-in-law would look at me, then look at my wife and she‘d repeat exactly what I had just said. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t understand me! It was very funny. The only person who could make any sense of me at that table was my wife as she had trained her ear well!”
Dealing with crisis
After the 2001 economic crisis, a lot of French chefs returned home, at which point Olivier found himself working alone. “One after the other went back and I had no other choice but to learn a whole lot more, so now I have a very fluid Spanish. But as a European, I’d never heard of anyone talking about a crisis before – I didn’t understand what it meant. While the crisis was happening in the December, I was living near Congreso on the San Telmo side and to get to Le Bourgogne meant going straight down Callao Avenue. I remember I was walking and my nose and my mouth were itching the closer I got to Congreso. And I saw all these people and all the chaos, so I took off my T-shirt and carried on walking topless in order to blend in and not attract too much attention! People were setting fire to cash machines and bins on Corrientes. But I went to work anyway. Later, I’d go to the supermarket and there’d be nothing on the shelves. For me it was like an image of France during World War II.
“Getting supplies at work was a problem as well. A provider would turn up with 100 kilos of salmon that we’d ordered and he’d pull out a calculator and say ‘this is how much it costs.’ But we didn’t have any cash to pay him so he’d leave. Then the next day the hotel would have sorted out its cash flow situation so we could pay.
“Of course, our foreign diners didn’t get what was going on at all – they wanted to eat at our restaurant regardless. ‘We’re sorry but there isn’t any more French cheese.’ A North American dining in a French restaurant didn’t understand that.”
And in 2014 he has similar issues obtaining ingredients. Olivier says: “The most expensive produce is exported. Just this week I spoke to my morel mushroom supplier who said he didn’t have any because a French exporter had bought everything and paid in euros. And of course he isn’t interested in my pesos! If you don’t pay what the provider wants in cash, then and there, you don’t get any mushrooms.
“Plus, I don’t know how a sushi man gets fresh fish in Buenos Aires. I’m training for a cookery competition and need to practise filleting fish. I order it in but it isn’t fresh, plus it turns up all knocked about. If you want basic produce then there’s no issue getting, it but if you want something a bit different, it’s a complicated problem.”
Over the years, Olivier has worked in various neighbourhoods, from Recoleta where Le Bourgogne is located as well as in Puerto Madero and the current position in Retiro where he has been since his gap year in the motherland. “I went back to France to reinsert myself in Paris for 12 months at Sofitel, but neither of us was really into being there and when an opportunity to return to Buenos Aires appeared, we came back. Now I live in Monserrat. It’s pretty close to the restaurant and we have a nice house that we’ve done up. It’s got a good parrilla as well! Everything is close by – for example, my daughter’s teacher called on Monday to say there was a power cut and that we needed to pick her up as soon as possible. Luckily, it takes 25 minutes to get there by subway…”
Olivier and his wife adopted their daughter, a tireless and lengthy experience that had the couple waiting for “the” phonecall for three and a half years, and are raising the five-year-old to be bilingual. “From a psychological point of view I don’t get how she can understand so much French given that she only speaks a few words! It fascinates me, giving her a command in French and she replies ‘sí, pa.’
“The other day we had a small fight as she came back from school after one of the World Cup games saying ‘I’m Argentine, dad.’ I asked her what I was, to which she replied French. Then I said ‘so that makes you Franco-Argentine’ but she wouldn’t accept it, and kept repeating ‘vamos Argentina!’ It was a terrible blow!”@sorrelmw