The Expat: Santiago Macías Acuña

Chef Santiago Macías Acuña.
Chef Santiago Macías Acuña.
From: Bogotá, Colombia
Age: 28
Profession: Chef proprietor at iLatina
Education: Mausi Sebess Culinary Institute, Buenos Aires
Just read: The Restaurant Man by Joe Bastianich
Last film seen: Wakolda
Gadget: Ice-cream machine

Even as a teenager, Santiago Macías Acuña knew that his future lay outside of his native Colombia. Weighing up the options, he chose to study at a Buenos Aires culinary institute and moved to the city at the tender age of 18. With every intention of returning to Bogotá, a decade later he cooks at and runs a closed-door restaurant with his brother Camilo in Villa Crespo.

He says: “Exactly 10 years ago, when I just turned 18 and finished high school, I knew I wanted to be a cook. I’d done some work experience in Colombia, and the options I had were to study there or to leave the country. And I wanted to study somewhere else. So I looked into all the options but everything pointed toward Argentina and Buenos Aires. I devised a budget plan for my dad and came here with the intention of completing my studies here, then going back to work — but I never returned.

“By the end of my first year at Mausi Sebess, I was already working at the InterContinental Hotel, which is one of the reasons I didn’t return to Colombia. I just kept on working, gaining more practical experience at different places, and I was organizing myself professionally so that’s why I stayed.”

Moving abroad at such a young age, even if the language is the same, meant that differences were marked, but Santiago found it a positive experience. “Buenos Aires is easy in some ways, such as walking about and public transport, but it is very different from how I lived in Bogotá. But lots of things were positive.
“When I arrived, I’d booked into a hostel in San Telmo. It looked lovely in the photos but it was horrible when I got there — it looked nothing like the pictures, and on top of that it wasn’t even in San Telmo! It was in a very dark area. I left that same day and went to another hostel, where I lived for two months. I started going to school soon after and made lots of friends, and used to go out quite a lot. Then I rented an apartment with some Colombian friends, which was quite tricky because it’s hard for foreigners to get a guarantee, but with luck it worked out.

“And I never really had time to miss my family too much as I was so busy. I like going back for a few weeks to Colombia but the way of life is very different. Everything in Bogotá is quite far apart, as it’s a city that was built lengthways next to a mountain range, so if you want to walk about it’s usually in a shopping centre — I think it has the highest number in the world! — or in a specific neighbourhood. But here, I cycle around everywhere.”

After working and studying for some years in Buenos Aires, as a bartender at weddings and parties among other things, as well as the summer season in Uruguay, the spirit for adventure and travel reared its head once again and the young Santiago moved across country to work a seasons in Bariloche.

He recalls: “I’d never seen snow before, and certainly had never lived through a real winter before! It was a very big change to go from a large city like Buenos Aires for Bariloche, and it’s a fascinating place in terms of its nature and lifestyle on offer. Of course, you can never use the snow as an excuse to not go to work, as everyone is accustomed to it!

“I worked in two hotels while I was there, and the time had finally come for me to try and do my own thing, while also returning to the restaurant world. And that’s where the first iLatina began, when I was 23, drawing on my experiences of travelling around other countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Brazil and setting up a restaurant that draws on Latin American cuisines.”

It was at this point that this became a family show, when Santiago’s brother Camilo decided to join him on this venture, and he too moved to Bariloche. “It was a great experience — there are things we learned that I would never have learned at catering school or at a hotel and we could put so many things into practice. And it’s always been an easy working relationship with my brother as we both have our different strengths and complement each other.”

Of course, working during popular holiday seasons meant Santiago didn’t have much time to get involved with winter sports, but it was in the last year he could finally put on some skis. Although the Puyehue volcano’s eruption was devastating for tourism in Bariloche, it did have one upside. “Our restaurant was closed for six months, but I was able to buy a ski pass for the whole winter, which was a positive thing to come out of such a disaster,” he recalls.

After four years of living and working in Bariloche, that, too, reached its natural conclusion, and the decision to move back to Argentina’s capital was also pushed along by Puyehue. “That eruption led to the airport being shut for a year — it was catastrophic. I’d say to Camilo, “should we wait, should we go?” and the analysis was to shut it, move everything and open up a new restaurant in Buenos Aires,” he says. And so iLatina mark two threw open its doors in Villa Crespo in 2012, with the Macías Acuña siblings starting over once again.

Having started with two dinners a week, demand has dictated that they open five nights a week — and Santiago might soon lose one of his few precious days off when they open six days.

Considering the local restaurant environment, he says: “Gastronomically speaking, Buenos Aires has three faces. Areas such as Palermo, Las Cañitas and Puerto Madero keep on changing. Then there’s the established side, while another is a reference point for the region. There are a lot of important chefs here, and everything is continually evolving. It’s very interesting to be here right now — take the Masticar fair last week. That has really grown in two editions, and I love it.

“It’s such a nice fair, the aesthetic, the design, the space, the fact that so many chefs have stands is great. And I saw a hugely important growth between the first and second years. When I went last weekend, I ate so well! I had Narda Lepes’ sweet-corn, all three dishes at Tegui, a meatball sandwich, the slow-cooked egg by Paraje Arévalo, the ice-cream and sandwich at Elena, two cakes at Maru Botana and four cocktails at 878 — I think I ate a lot! And now I know why I spent about 600 or 800 pesos!”

Although there isn’t much free time for Santiago between running his business, he does make time for some sporting activities.

He says: “I live between Barrio Norte and Recoleta, and close to a swimming-pool. I go every day as it’s important for me to go swimming before work. It’s one of those small pleasures. And Sunday nights, along with the guys from the restaurant we play soccer against a group of friends who are actors. And of course, I love going out to dinner, but as I only have Sunday and Monday off, sometimes I can’t dine where I’d like because other restaurants are also shut! But the truth is, I spend 14 hours a day working in the kitchen so my life happens at the restaurant.”

Buenos Aires Herald, October 12, 2013
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

If you enjoyed this article on Santiago, check out this piece on Sardinian chef and restauranteur Daniele.

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