by Jocelyn Wells
Photos by Jocelyn Mandryk
When I first walked into Liza Puglia’s kitchen, I immediately knew she was doing something right. The smell of a rich seafood broth wafted through the house, the countertops were filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, and Liza bounced from one steaming pot to another with a clear passion for the meal to come. Though the dinner was still four hours away, Liza and her intern, Austin, were well on their way preparing four courses for tonight’s dinner at NOLA.
However, unlike most restaurant chefs, Liza runs her own closed-door restaurant, or puerta cerrada, from a house in Palermo Viejo. Guests reserve a spot at each dinner weeks ahead of time, and share an intimate fine-dining experience in Liza’s beautifully renovated, rustic yet modern, three story space. Puerta cerradas have always caught the attention of Buenos Aires’ most adventurous foodies, of diners seeking a novel, memorable dining experience, those that are simply looking for a different idea. At NOLA, where Liza ingeniously fuses her Southern, Mexican, and French culinary backgrounds to create a cuisine that is irresistibly creative and unique, they’ve certainly come to the right place.
Today we had the opportunity to talk with Liza about her influences and the slightly hidden world of NOLA and puerta cerradas.
Where are you from originally?
New Orleans, Lousiana.
How did you end up in Buenos Aires?
I went backpacking in 2010 and I met a guy from Argentina. We started traveling together, and five months later I ended up in Buenos Aires. I needed a big change after 5 years in NY. I always wanted to live abroad, and have always been attracted to Latin America.
What were you doing before you moved to Buenos Aires?
I was cooking in a Mexican restaurant in New York City.
Before you came, did you have any expectations about the city?
Not really. I knew that it would be easy to live here as a tourist, as opposed to European countries, which really regulate VISAs. But I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d never lived abroad before. So I kind of just went into it, said, “I’ll stay for three months, if I like it I’ll continue, and if I don’t like it I’ll come back.”
How did you get started cooking?
I was living in California and got really into taking care of my body. I quit smoking and I went 30 days without eating meat to see how it would affect my body. I also started cooking for the first time. I didn’t have a kitchen in New York, so I was really starting with the basics. I got into it especially to see how clear the affects of what we eat are on our bodies and our lives. I decided I wanted to cook for a living to improve people’s lives through food.
What is your culinary background?
It’s been relatively short. I studied at a really good school, the French Culinary Institute, in 2009. It was an intense program. We learned classic French technique, which is more or less the foundation of all cuisines. From there I started working in a Mexican restaurant to practice the skills they were teaching me and I started working on the line in the kitchen. Then I started a small catering company where I would cater production sets. And then I came here, and started working as a private chef. Now I’m doing pop up events, and cooking every weekend at my puerta cerrada.
Great. Your puerta cerrada, that’s what I want to ask you about. What motivated you to start a puerta cerrada in Buenos Aires?
Many things. Having my own business is a big goal of mine. I also noticed that this city lacks a lot of diversity in the cuisine, and I think that with my background from New Orleans I really have something to offer that doesn’t exist here. I knew that I had no interest in running a full-time restaurant. It’s a serious commitment— both project, and money wise. So we figured we’d start small and just see what happens. Maybe the people won’t respond well to the food, so why put in all this investment if it’s uncertain that it’s going to be successful.
How would you describe the atmosphere at your puerta cerrada events?
It’s very intimate. They’re in a residential home, so they have the home vibe. You definitely don’t feel like you’re in a restaurant. What we’ve gotten back from a lot of our clients is that they just feel like they’re at a dinner party. Its really interesting, because at first the guests arrive and they don’t know the others. There’s kind of this nervous excitement going on, because everyone’s so in love with the space and then once the champagne and wine start flowing it’s just this really friendly vibe that you want to be a part of. While it’s quite intimate, it’s also mysterious at times. Even though the guests receive the menu in advance, because they’re so unfamiliar with the dishes, they’re not always sure of what they’re eating.
What are some of the challenges you face as a chef with a puerta cerrada here?
Probably the biggest is working out of a residential kitchen instead of an industrial kitchen. As well as the fact that the kitchen supplies in Buenos Aires aren’t the best, so I’m constantly having to compromise, which is okay. It part of the learning process.
As a puerta cerrada, you must rely on word-of-mouth and internet media to spread awareness and attract customers. How has this influenced your experience as a chef cooking here?
Tremendously. It’s really forced me to be a networking maniac. I’m constantly going to social events, whether its amongst locals, or the expat community. Expats are a bit more adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. I started a blog last year, which has really helped get people in the door. And then from there it’s been a lot of word of mouth. But I wouldn’t be able to have this business without the internet.
What has surprised you most about the culinary scene of Buenos Aires?
I guess how flat it is. I was coming here expecting the greatest beef. Argentina is famous for its cattle. Everywhere I ate at it just seemed overcooked and dried out. What’s the point of having this beautiful grass-fed beef if you’re going to overcook it? I definitely noticed the massive amounts of carbohydrates people eat here: medialunas, pasta, bread. And it’s really funny how North Americans have such a bad rep about their diet, but if you compare it to ours, its just mindboggling why our is so looked down upon. I do love the ice cream, the empanadas, and I love how cheap the vegetables are. I just wish there was a bit more variety.
It is, however, all local which I must say is great.
Yeah, I was just talking to my friend about this, and she complains about how when she goes back to the states she always gets sick because she says that what she’s eating isn’t real food. There’s no ingredients, and here its very pure, which I think is fabulous. Its nice that the majority of my shopping is not done from a supermarket, it’s from a carniceria, a verduleria, pescaleria. I found that at first it was a bit annoying. I had to go to five different shops to get my food, but it’s absolutely worth it.
Where do you think the culinary scene in Buenos Aires is headed?
I think its definitely heading in a good direction. The organic movement is starting to come through. As well as from what I’ve heard, if you came here two years ago you couldn’t find a piece of sushi. Now there’s sushi restaurants on every block. So at least the locals are open to the idea of trying new foods. I think the expat community has a good hand in regards to helping expose the local dining scene to new cuisines.
What are some examples of dishes that demonstrate the many cooking styles represented in your cuisine? What stands out in your mind as quintessential NOLA dishes?
Definitely red beans and rice are what I’m known for here. I’m about simplicity. If I can throw everything in one pot and continue with my day while it cooks away, fabulous. Gumbo is a dish that to me, just represents New Orleans. And surprisingly it’s quite simple to make here, which is really comforting. I’m really into Mexican flavors. I love loud flavors, which is very much new Orleans and Mexican cuisine. So I do a lot of braised meats and then throw on cilantro, lime, and chilies, and eat it with tortillas.
When you’re putting together your menus for each night, what goes through your mind?
It varies, sometimes I’m very OCD and organized and I’m thinking, “Okay, if I start with a hot dish the next course I want to be a cold dish so I can cleanse the palate.” Others, I’m looking at the kitchen if I’m at a pop up event for a space that’s not my own. Maybe the oven doesn’t work that well so I can’t rely on it, so I base my menu of off how the kitchen performs. And that’s really interesting because you feel like you’re not always in control. I definitely look through a lot of cookbooks for inspiration. I live with two Argentines, so cooking for them six nights a week I can test my recipes on the local palate.
Are most of your diners Argentines or expats?
80% have been Argentine so far. We’ve only had one tourist.
To wrap up, what’s your go-to comfort food?
Cheeseburgers and soup.