The Expat: Liza Puglia

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From: New Orleans, Louisiana
Lives: Palermo
Education: International business degree at UNO, French Culinary Institute in New York
Profession: Cook at NOLA Buenos Aires
Last read: Just Kids by Patti Smith
Last seen: The Hunger Games 2
Gadget: My MacBook

After spending a month at the end of her travels in Buenos Aires, New Orleans native Liza Puglia decided to return to give it a shot, without any expectations. Liza says: “The very first time I came to Argentina was when I was backpacking in October 2010. I came into the country through Bolivia and I stayed in Buenos Aires for a month.

“I’d been working as a line cook in a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. I’d finished culinary school, had a bad breakup, went backpacking and wound up meeting an Argentine in a hostel in El Salvador on my first day. We ended up travelling together for five months and that trip ended in Buenos Aires. After my trip was over I went back to the US.

But I came back to Buenos Aires six weeks later. “I was getting some air from New York and my best friend was living in Belize working for the Peace Corps at the time so we scheduled in a six-week girls’ trip. That got cancelled within the first week as her mom was diagnosed with cancer. But we had met Ticol and Nacho at the hostel and the four of us travelled for a few days before she went back.

“I had nothing in New York as all my stuff was in storage – no lease, no job contract – and it was the first time I had been so free with no strings attached. I was supposed to move to Denver to work as a line cook in a south-east Asian restaurant but that seemed a bit dull after my trip. I’d always wanted to live abroad and learn another language so I thought ‘fuck it,’ let’s go. I didn’t expect anything, I had no idea about the language or the visa situation – and that’s why I think it has worked out: because I expected nothing.”

A warm welcome
That was almost four years ago and surely a small reason for her almost immediate return was the warm welcome she’d had from her boyfriend’s family.

She says: “We’d been together, travelling, every day for those five months, and in the month that I was here, I met Ticol’s family and friends – and that was a big introduction to Buenos Aires. Luckily they were very cool and took me in, and we had dinner on the first night at Las Cabras. It was funny as the electricity went out on the whole block and I remember thinking ‘how does the ticket system work when there’s no electricity?’ We also went to Chascomús and Pilar, escaping from the city a bit; it was a glimpse of his life here.

“To be honest, I didn’t know I’d be coming back as we’d left it with ‘we’re not sure when we’ll see each other again but we probably will,’ she adds.

Liza’s family was less thrilled, however, with her decision to return. “I was taking time to work out what my next move was, and moved my stuff from New York to my parents’ house in New Orleans. But my father wasn’t happy about me coming back here at all – he didn’t understand: ‘Why wouldn’t you want to live in the USA?’ So that was difficult. Although my mother said ‘go, you’re young, experience, please do it!’, he was very closed minded about it.”

No plans
Without any real plan – and no thought that she would spice up the local food scene, first, with her Mexican pop-up events; second with her closed-door fusion restaurant NOLA; and third, with her forthcoming gastropub of the same that is set to open in June – Liza bought a one-way ticket.

“Luckily I arrived in January so it was summertime versus New York winter which was very appealing! I immediately started taking Spanish lessons as it was very frustrating not being able to communicate. I moved in with Ticol and his brother Marce with the intention of getting my own place but my student loans were such a burden I couldn’t afford both – I still live there!

“I’d meet a lot of people from Ticol’s world as his friends would come over when he got back from the office so that was a really nice way into the locals. I tapped into a few expat websites and saw a lot of people complaining that they didn’t really have any friends so I suggested we get together. That became a weekly gathering but I wasn’t crazy about it as it was so expat-focused.”

Liza’s next small project was more in line with her professional training, and she started to cater to a bar close to home.

“We’d go there a lot because it was always empty and the owner was complaining that he loses a lot of business from clients who wanted something other than pizza and empanadas.

I suggested he serve something else, and he said he didn’t know how to make anything else… and so he suggested I make him some tapas. So I started to organize these expat meetings at this bar where my food was being sold, and I even got private chef gigs from those events. And that’s how work started.”

Gastro riches
From those small beginnings she then moved on to more elaborate pop-up events at the now-closed The Office bar in Las Cañitas. “We sold po-boys one Tuesday and it was a huge success – over 200 people came. And that’s how the ball really started rolling.”

Given that she is from New Orleans meant Liza was used to a very rich food scene, and she says it has been a little disappointing in Buenos Aires. “It’s really hard to have a bad meal in New Orleans, plus it’s really inexpensive. I also lived in New York for five years so I was used to so much diversity, from different cuisines to a two-dollar falafel to a 200-dollar dinner. So here was quite narrow, in terms of choice and it was a shame not to see so many fruits and vegetables and grains, and also different flavours.

“There are some things I just can’t make it – no matter how badly I want to throw a crawfish boil, it’s not going to happen. Same with crabs and oysters, seafood that I’m used to, but luckily it’s a good climate for chilies so we grow a lot of those ourselves. You have to work with what you have, which means a lot of compromise and sacrifice but it really pushes you to be creative.”

All the effort and creativity with her various enterprises have paid off and the couple are on the verge of opening up a gastropub – Liza will of course be cooking while Ticol will be crafting the beer he makes for Bröeders, the line he owns with his brother. “Our signature dishes will be fried chicken and gumbo, as well as biscuits and gravy – NOLA style with simplicity! The look will be industrial and rustic with lots of wood and iron with an open kitchen and a few communal tables.”

And although it sounds simple, opening up a restaurant is not all plain sailing. She says: “We’ve just started week four of construction and we are ahead of schedule which is amazing but we’ve had to build two bathrooms, a bar, an industrial kitchen, the electrics, the plumbing – it’s been non-stop.

There’s a lot of requirements to meet as well as a lot of unexpected costs and big decisions need to be made and there’s no time to think about them. We are overhauling everything as the previous occupants were an import company. But the thought of finding the right staff is scary! And we’re currently on the list for gas approval and that takes a really long time, and I’m trying to convince the contractor to expose the brick ceiling! He offered to do half…”

The upside of the new restaurant is its location, which is just a few blocks away from Liza’s home.

“I’ve always lived in Palermo, on the border of Soho and Villa Crespo, in a great apartment with lots of light and we have a great cat who has the run of two terraces. But it’s on the big ugly avenue of Córdoba, which I wasn’t a fan of at first. But I like it now – it makes me feel safe and it’s comforting with all the buses going by constantly, as is the fact that it’s lit up. There’s even a whore house two doors down so there’s always security outside – we’re like a little family, the security guys and us!”

Buenos Aires Herald, April 5, 2014
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

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