The Expat: Frank Almeida

Frank Almeida
Born: Chicago
Age: 44
Profession: Founder of Sugar & Spice
Education: Business administration degree
Currently reading: The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo, Illustrated Man by Ray Bradburry and El Eternauta by Héctor Germán Oesterheld
Last film: Stupid Crazy Love
Gadget: My iTouch

Tell me about arriving in Argentina.
I got here during the summer holidays. We flew in on New Year’s Day 1999 and that same day we were flying to Punta del Este as my girlfriend’s (at the time) family was going there. February came around and I found it was very easy to get to work and taking the subway was problem-free. And then March came and I was shocked as I couldn’t even get onto the subway cars anymore! That’s when the realities of Argentina started coming into play.

Did you move here directly?
At the time, my Argentine girlfriend and I were living in Chicago. She was missing home and she proposed the idea of my following her down here. I said sure, as I was curious to know what it would be like to live outside the United States, so I followed her.

How did you meet?
I worked for a cellular phone company and one of my clients owned a nightclub. He would always invite me to the bar, and the time I did go there, I was amazed. All the women were tall, thin, beautiful, which isn’t normal. It turned out he had agreements with modelling agencies.
Anyway, we met there, without talking. We were dancing together, and she was alone as her friends were busy ogling a famous Argentine model who was there. I didn‘t know who that was…

Where did you live back in 1999?
Our first place was close to Scalabrini Ortiz and Sante Fe. Everything seemed so expensive as the peso was equal to the dollar, which I found funny. All of a sudden, the US was automatically cheap while living here was very expensive.
Everything was so new. I’d walk across 9 de Julio Avenue and see the Obelisk and couldn’t quite believe I was here. I was so far from home.

Was it an easy decision to up sticks?
All my family live in the US, but it was an adventure, and I was also having fun. It didn’t mean I didn’t have to adjust.

Given that you had decided to settle, did you have any plans?
I had gotten a job right away so I was always working. We didn’t have to wait long for the big crisis to hit in 2001, and in between, we got married. Right when the crisis hit, we saw this “expat flight” as companies pulled out. I’d watch the images on TV of cars burning on 9 de Julio, then I’d walk outside and everything was normal. But there was nervousness in the air. We’d watch TV, and think there was a possibility the country might implode, then we’d have to leave. As a consequence, we decided to take control of our lives.

What did you do?
We decided to start our own business and also our family, all in the middle of that chaos.

How did you deal with speaking Spanish at work?
My mom is Mexican and my dad is Colombian so I spoke it at home. And I thought I knew it well, but when I came here I realized I didn’t! For one, I had a limited vocabulary. But I had an ear for it, so it didn’t take long to become completely fluent. That said, Argentines know I’m not from here… but they can never figure out where I am from!

Given your Latino heritage, were there any cultural similarities or differences?
Maybe a lot of people don’t know this but within Latin America, Argentines are known as the stuck-up ones. That was one of the few things I knew about the country before I came here — I really didn’t know there were that many Italians here. Obviously Buenos Aires doesn’t look like your typical Latin American city.
One thing that struck me was seeing kids asking for food or going through the garbage. I’d leave some food prepared in a bag at night to give to them. That’s something I wouldn’t see much in Chicago and I was never comfortable with it.

How is being a parent here?
I like the fact it is more kid-friendly. There are few restaurants where I would think not to take my children. And everywhere else, no one is going to look weirdly at your kid.
It’s also nice Argentina is so family-centred and kids can grow up with such strong ties to their grandparents. In the US, that’s harder to come by as everybody spreads out.

Do you regret your own parents being less involved with your kids?
Yes, but I also know that had I stayed, I’d had to have lived closer to them, which doesn’t happen as easily in the US as it does here, so their bond might not have been as close.

What do you do at the weekend?
We leave the city and head to a “country” and light the grill. The whole family is together, and the kids go off and play field hockey, and run around on the green grass.

Where do you live?
In Palermo. In 1999, it was an up-and-coming place, still kind of seedy, with a few secret restaurants, and lots of houses, and the street lights didn’t work very well. Those were the days when the transvestites used to hang out in Palermo. But now, in our part of the neighbourhood, only two houses remain, and the rest are boutiques and restaurants.
You know those metal poles sticking out of the curb from the street? I always thought they were ugly,and dangerous, but living in Palermo Viejo I realized it’s the only way you can keep people from parking in front of your garage so we put some up. One day, the City government came by and were cutting poles down and some neighbours started arguing with them, saying “we don’t want them cut”. I couldn’t stick around as I had a meeting, so I left. When I got home, everyone had their poles still in place, except for me…

What do you miss about the US?
Driving is always a treat as I hate everything about having a car here. The way people park… it’s so common to see people bumping cars out of the way with their own vehicle. Even now, I still don’t like to get my car “bumped” and I’ve had a few exchanges with people about it…

And what do you miss from here?
When I visit the US, I miss being home, as this is home. But if I left for good, I’d miss dulce de leche, medialunas, empanadas — a lot of food.

How did your business begin?
When the peso and dollar were equal and before Palermo became so trendy, there weren’t that many food options. You could go to a grill house, or an Italian or Spanish restaurant. I was surprised you couldn‘t find a cookie or a biscotti, nothing that screamed quality. Even specialty bakery shops didn’t have anything like this. I did some market research and the places that were producing something were doing it wrong. I used to make the brownie batches at home, back in the beginning.
Although you can’t find chocolate chips, it doesn’t matter as I prefer my cookies with big chunks.

If you were standing for president, what would your policies be?
Wow, there are so many possibilities! A knee-jerk reaction would be to devalue, but you have to bear in mind Argentina is paying back debt. You hear about all these protective measures being implemented and you think it’s good the government is protecting local manufacturers. But on the other hand, I don’t think it helps that much as they jack up prices anyway. There’s no competition to keep that from happening. It feels like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in Argentina.

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
I’m really good at arriving late. I used to wonder how people could be so late, but once I started using public transport, which is great, you still have bottlenecks and pickets which mess things up.

Do you see yourself as an expat?
An expat is here for a short- to medium-term visit and that was never my purpose here. And it never was from the beginning. It’s an easy word to go to, but I don’t see myself as one.

A food pioneer laying the table for others
Frank Almeida is one of the organizers of the first annual chili cook-off which took place in July. An expat-led event, 10 cooks, professional or otherwise, foreign and Argentine, participated to produce their finest chili con carne, which was then judged by a stringent panel, including the Sugar & Spice owner.
Aiming to bring chili to a wider audience as well as tying the event in with the US’s Independence Day as well as raising some money for charity, a good few hundred hungry punters turned up for cheap ‘n cheerful, warming bowls of chili and a piece of cornbread. While some cooks claimed their secrets were in the length of time it stewed, others topped their bowls with fresh herbs, although the winner that cold Sunday lunchtime, won due to his sour cream topping.
In 1999, it was probably unthinkable to consider that 10 people would endeavour cooking up such a storm for the general public in this one-off, pop-up event, never mind attracting 200 people eager to taste their chili and gathering in the middle of winter.
But it’s another sign of “Palermification”, that phrase that gets bandied about and shows just how the neighbourhood has snowballed and developed, and that includes options for dining out.
One affect of the 2001 crisis was that many Argentines headed back to their grandparents’ country of origin, or indeed somewhere else, desperate to make some cash. A gradual return with new experiences and dollars or euros behind them may well have contributed to the mushrooming by the boutiques and restaurants which have gobbled up the houses surrounding Almeida’s home.
Although he says he would miss empanadas if he had to move away permanently from Argentina, there are other foreigners who are crying out for gastronomic variety — there’s plenty of sugar but not enough spice. And a lack of variety is the very reason Almeida and his wife set up a gourmet bakery.
But little by little, as tastebuds develop, entrepeneurs have been filling gaps in the market. Although some more “exotic” cuisines — think south-east Asian, for example — can often only be found in a closed door puerta cerrada setting, that’s not to say that next year they won’t be open seven days a week.
Although Vietnamese pho can’t be compared with Almeida’s chunky cookies, it’s thanks to this foodie pioneer, who is busily putting together an eating-out tour guide for an app, that they can have a stab at bringing fresh gastronomic ideas to the table.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on August 28, 2011.

Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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