Born: Crosshaven, Co. Cork
Profession: Chef and co-owner of Butterfly restaurant
Education: One year of law in Galway before following dreams of being a chef
Currently reading: Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
Last film: Rango
Gadget: Any razor-sharp knife
When did you move to Argentina?
Four-and-a-half years ago. My wife is from Buenos Aires. I met her six years ago while I was backpacking, in the Kilkenny pub. I was travelling through South America and actually met her on my last night. I ended up here two years later and we pretty much moved to Bariloche immediately. We then opened up a small, fine-dining restaurant there.
Was that trip your first time here?
It was, and I’d just spent a season snowboarding in Chile then quite a lot of time in Bolivia before heading back to Europe. My first impression of Buenos Aires was “wow, there’s proper coffee,” and also the fact that there was ice-cream and food you want to eat.
After travelling in Bolivia, Buenos Aires couldn’t have been more different. I couldn’t believe how European it was and it was like I was bridging the two worlds.
What made you choose South America?
I came for the snowboarding. I’d been working in Switzerland for two years and had finished the winter season there and wanted some more snow. That’s why I went to Chile although I wish I’d come to Argentina now!
What did you do when you reached “civilization?”
I got a nice big bout of food poisoning the day before I left Bolivia so I pretty much did nothing for the first couple of days. Although I did get a suit cut!
What did you do in Switzerland?
I was a chef. I’ve been working in kitchens since I was 15, and worked in two-star Michelin restaurants for three years, then I worked in Spain for a year. The move was a little bit too different! I was second chef by the time I left the restaurant and went to a small hotel as a head chef in Spain. I was used to the Swiss way of doing things, and tried to implement that, but it didn’t go too well. But I arrived in Argentina with a bit of Spanish.
Did you pull out a witty chat-up line in Spanish for your future wife?
Not really! It was pretty pathetic — I was making fun of the photo on her ID card as she was waiting in front of me to get into the pub. Her eyes are half shut in the photo. But she brushed me off, but then came looking for me later, so I must have done something right!
We kept in touch for eight months. I came here on holiday then she lived in Spain with me for three months. We decided to come to Argentina as she didn’t want to be too far away from her family in Europe, while I didn’t want to live in Buenos Aires as I’m a village boy and get stressed out in the big city!
Where did you move to?
The idea before moving was to have chosen either Mendoza or Bariloche. We’d been to Bariloche for a week on holiday but no one replied to any emails in either city. So when I arrived I didn’t have anything organized, which I thought I would have.
But we decided from one day to the next to go to Bariloche and see what happened. And again, from one day to the next, we decided to open up a restaurant. We got there on September 11, and on December 15 we opened up.
Would you have been able to open a restaurant so fast in Cork?
No, but we got lucky as we found a place which already had a kitchen. We didn’t have any problems with contracts. All we had to was buy everything and repaint it.
I did get some trials at some other restaurants, but I felt after everything I’d done in Switzerland that it might be time to my own stuff. I had enough experience to start my own place, which was always the plan. Coming from a Swiss wage to an Argentine one didn’t give me much of an incentive to find a job either…
What was the hardest thing about opening?
I underestimated what a difference having contacts means. All the work I had in Michelin-starred restaurants didn’t mean anything down there. I used to know lots of chefs who could always tell you who the best fish or provider is, but I had to put a lot of effort into meeting people and making a name for the restaurant.
If I’d worked in Buenos Aires then opened, I’d already have a name. But being a chef from Europe didn’t help me whatsoever.
Is there a lot of competition?
There’s a great vibe between the restaurant owners. Most of us are very like-minded. There are lots of tourist traps and most of us realize that there are more than enough people to fill the good places so we prefer to make sure they get to one of the good ones, rather than a tourist trap.
Tell me about sourcing products.
Sometimes I miss imported products but I’d love to get my hands on fresh truffles or some reasonably priced. But in summer we get fruits from El Bolsón, the lamb is a fantastic plus, we have the game season and morel mushrooms, which are the most expensive ones after truffles and cost around 600 pesos a kilo dried. One of the biggest problems I have is sourcing meat. I have to drive around between butchers.
Do you put up prices regularly?
Sure, it’s the cost of products as well as the cost of living so you have to follow inflation. We put prices up twice a year, at the start of each season, and they follow inflation.
What’s happening with the restaurant at the moment?
It’s been closed since June when the Puyehue volcano in Chile erupted. We had come to Buenos Aires on holiday and had planned to return to Bariloche on the Sunday, and Puyehue erupted on the Saturday. And we’ve been here ever since.
There is some tourism but as long as the airport doesn’t open, tourism is pretty much done. Some tourists are arriving but by car or by bus, and it’s not at the level we are accustomed to. We work with five-star hotels or people staying at the Llao Llao, but those places are suffering a lot.
When did the repercussions begin?
They were pretty much instantaneous but we are seeing more repercussions now. There had been some hope that there would be a season, especially for higher-end tourism, which arrived at the end of July for two weeks, when figures reached 20 percent, and now it’s died off again in August.
Restaurants are closing and people are beginning to lose their jobs. We’re in a difficult moment right now and we’ll have to see how the sand (volcanic ash) affects us in summer.
Have you returned?
Not yet. I’ve been seeing the same as everyone else in photos. We’d just bought our first house three weeks before, and also got a puppy who came here with us. Everything has been put on hold. But it’s the risk you run in any tourist area.
But no one expects a volcano to close down their business.
Well, in the first season four years ago, Chaiten erupted and closed down the airport for the first month of the winter season. Then the international crisis followed by the farming crisis here took place. We’ve only had one normal winter out of four. It’s all been unfortunate.
Could the government have been more active with its assistance?
Some really stupid comments were made by Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner). To call “the problems psychological…” I have friends in Villa la Angostura and it really has been destroyed.
The biggest thing to upset me has been over the airport. I knew they were lying as they kept saying it would open. I know they wanted to lose as few reservations as possible, but it would have been better to know what’s going on, so people could plan.
But we’re extremely lucky, and we three owners do everything as it’s such a small restaurant. It’s bigger places with 10 or 12 employees that are suffering the most, and it’s the employee at the bottom of the scale who is most affected.
What’s the plan for the future?
We hope to return in November and open for the end of spring and summer. I think Bariloche will bounce back although it will be more difficult for Villa la Angostura.
Will Bariloche rise like a phoenix from the ashes?
Unable to return to the Patagonian city he’s called home for four years due to the sporadic and lethal spewing of the Puyehue volcano in Chile, which was still reported to be spitting out ash on Thursday, Irishman Edward Holloway says two months after its eruption that the area “has mostly been forgotten about.”
But, he adds, he is especially angry about the misinformation which has filtered through. “The biggest thing that has upset me has been over the airport. I knew they were lying about it as they kept saying it would open.”
Dates have been very jittery, with flights starting and stopping since June 4. For the time being, flights are reaching nearby Esquel, with tourists then being transferred to the Bariloche and the Lake District.
On Thursday, Aerolíneas Argentinas offered up yet another new date as to when it will start flying to Bariloche once again. Supposedly it will open tomorrow, but given the obviously unpredictable nature of the volcano’s activity and the wind direction, which has even led to international flights being cancelled to and from Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport, it doesn’t seem likely.
Viedma, Santa Rosa and San Martín de los Andes airports have also suffered from sporadic flight scheduling, given that volcanic dust in the air can lethally affect aircraft engines.
Holloway is also upset with the assistance, or lack of it, which has been offered by authorities.
“The tax breaks the government gave us were a joke, as they said we didn’t have to pay them for two months but then we still had to pay. The larger hotels have their own association and so have a bit more power, but smaller restaurants like us didn’t receive anything.”
On Tuesday, one local council was finally able to put into action its campaign to remove volcanic ash and sand, which has covered the small town of Villa la Angostura, from nine of its neighbourhoods — more than two months after Puyehue first erupted.
Holloway’s friends have told him the town has been covered by 45cm of debris, which continues to fall given that the volcano continues to spew. But besides the ash which keeps raining down, when it should be snow which is falling, one of the main issues has been where to put all of this suffocating grey dust.
It seems local councils are finally able to start providing some solutions, albeit 78 days after Puyehue’s first devastating eruption. Let’s hope it doesn’t affect the coming summer season, om which the region will so desperately be depending.
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on August 21, 2011.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila.