The Expat: Christina Sunae

Christina Sunae.
Christina Sunae.
From: Born South Carolina, first words in Japan, grew up in Philippines, high school in South Carolina, worked in New York
Lives in: Chacarita
Age: 39
Profession: Restaurant owner and chef at Cocina Sunae
Education: Baruk Business School at CUNY, New York
Reading: Memories of Philippine Kitchens
Last film seen: The Great Gatsby
Gadget: My knives

After working in New York City for many years, taking on two jobs in order to rent her own apartment, Christina Sunae decided it was time for a break, and headed to Buenos Aires for a three-month sabbatical. Nine years on, she is married with two children, runs and owns Cocina Sunae, a South-East Asian closed-door restaurant, and has published her first recipe book.

Sunae says: “It was eight years and 11 months ago and I didn’t know anything about Argentina. A friend had recommended I come here as I wanted a three-month sabbatical. So I said, ‘sure, let’s go,’ though I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. My friend had a friend here, who had said I could stay at his place for a few weeks, and also offered to pick me up from the airport – and today that person is my husband and I have two kids with him! Two weeks after we met, we were going out! So now it’s been a nine-year sabbatical.

“I was open to anything happening, as I had no idea what I was going to do. I’d been living in New York City and was tired of being tired all the time. Life is a lot harder there than it is in Buenos Aires, as the culture is more relaxed here. Of course, it helped that Franco and I fell in love – two months in, we went to Brazil, which was like our honeymoon. And I realized I had to go back but he suggested I stay another three months. I stayed three more, then he asked me to marry him.”

This seamless changeover of lifestyle is due to the fact that Sunae says she can easily adapt to any situation as she’s an “army brat who lived around the world growing up. When I moved to New York, I had a whole new group of friends within a week. But I also grew up around foreign languages, moving from military base to military base because of my dad, and I spent a lot of my childhood in Asia. It can be confusing but at home, with my parents, two or three languages might be spoken. When I was at high school in South Carolina, my friends would pick me up and say ‘dude, you smell like fish!’ And I’d say ‘well, we had fish and rice for breakfast!’ There was a very strong food culture as well as Asian culture at home.”

In the early days in Buenos Aires, before she opened a closed-door restaurant, Sunae worked in various fields as many foreigners do, although it wasn’t long before her first business took off. She says: “My first job was teaching business English to CEOs in Vicente López, and I did that for a while until the tour guide business fell into my lap. A big New York publishing house asked me to take their staff on a five-day shopping tour. I showed them around the city and after that I started to get calls from other magazines, all via word of mouth. That business is still functioning, although not through me. But I don’t give tours any more as I went back to my roots.

“I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was 14 years old in the US. Five years ago, I bought a house with Franco, which had a large living room and that became the restaurant. I wanted to make my food that we eat at home – authentic South-East Asian food.

“We started off with two tables, for 16 people, inviting friends, and then friends of friends started to come. And we’ve been doing that for four and a half years now, cooking Thai and Filipino dishes as the base, with Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian dishes too. Working in restaurants is all I’ve ever done. I’ve tried other jobs, such as an office job for a cosmetics company but I always had my night job in a restaurant.

“I love cooking, seeing people happy when they eat – it’s a good feeling. I grew up with Filipino dishes, so they are the core of my home food as I spend a lot of my childhood in the Philippines. I try to travel to South-East Asia once a year and that’s where I learn other dishes. I went in 2012 while I was pregnant so didn’t go in 2013 but I’ll be going this February.”

Working from home obviously has its upside and its downside but in a restaurant set-up, it’s always offered an intimate environment for diners. In addition, it’s given Sunae the possibility to have her own establishment without the need for large investment.

“The pros of having a restaurant in my own home is that when I say ‘goodnight everybody,’ I just roll into bed! The kitchen is the office to me and I don’t have to go grocery shopping as there’s always leftover food. Plus we own the place so there’s no need to pay rent. And customers really get to experience eating in someone’s home. But the cons are that I can never disconnect as I’m always working. Now I have a mobile child who wants to touch every piece of glassware and open all the drawers, so that’s dangerous. Plus we get deliveries at 7am as they know we live there, even though we just went to bed at 4am! The door buzzes: ‘Carne’.

“I never thought that this would be the way I’d have restaurant but the fact is, I always wanted to have one: when you’ve worked cleaning tables, waiting, cooking, then that’s the next step. It was a dream for me. I was never sure I’d do it, or where I’d get the capital from. But the trend of closed-door restaurants was happening in Buenos Aires: we bought the house, we had the space.”

Following the success of Cocina Sunae, the mother-of-two has been in the media spotlight, on TV and in print. “The culinary TV station El Gourmet asked me to participate in El Gourmet Responde so I filmed 24 episodes, all in Spanish, which was a big deal to me as I didn’t speak a lick when I got here.

“I also launched a cookbook in 2013, Sabores del Sudeste Asiático, which is also in Spanish and I’m really proud of that. It has lots of family recipes, which are the dishes we make in the restaurant. Although my face isn’t on the cover, I’ve still been recognized. I went to my gynecologist – a new one – walked into the consulting room, and she asks, ‘did you write a book – because I think I bought it yesterday! And I was thinking ‘my God, she is about to give me a check-up and she just bought my book!’ So we’re talking about it for a bit then she says ‘so what’s going on? Can you take off your underwear, put on the smock and lie back?’ Normally you go to the gyno and no one knows who you are!”

The trouble of recognition in unexpected places comes with the job, and Sunae says that her business is also her life. “My husband works full time with me, dealing with the public and press, while I manage the kitchen so it’s a life partnership at home and at work. There’s a lot of juggling and it can be difficult, and I have days where I think ‘how did I just do that?’ But we love our job – I love cooking and we love our children!

“We almost never forget about work plus our employees are our family so we don’t escape it. It’s our world. Even when I go on vacation, I’m still looking for inspiration. One time we went to Brazil and I was so bored out of my mind I ended up cooking for the whole posada. But to relax, we go to the pool and whenever we get a chance, we go out to eat and check out hip new places. We like going to Florería Atlántico and El baqueano and try to get our friends to come too. Sometimes we go to Korea Town, to barbecue places where the Koreans barely speak Spanish. And if we have two days off, we go to Cariló – I love the coast there, and it’s the most quaint little town. It’s so peaceful and I love to escape.”

Given that her restaurant is so central to her life, Sunae’s 2014 resolutions are naturally work-oriented. “My new year’s resolutions are to come up with more innovative dishes from the Philippines, dishes you wouldn’t expect. If I go to the gym, I go to the gym and I won’t beat myself up about it if I don’t. But I’ll always push myself to get more creative – I really want to put Filipino food on the amp in Argentina. And I want to find another person to work in the kitchen so I can spend more time with friends and family. That combines work and pleasure.”

Buenos Aires Herald, January 4, 2014
Ph: Franco Ferrantelli

Enjoy reading about Sunae? Meet teacher Melanie.

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