Spreading Latin American culture through gastronomy, restaurateur Juan Cruz

Over the past few years, Prague has become home to a diverse food scene – showcasing cuisines from different cultures. This is why Juan Cruz, a restaurateur who owns five different dining spaces, thinks Prague is becoming more and more of a food destination. Originally from Argentina, Cruz’s restaurants specialize in bringing not just Argentinian culture, but Latin American culture to Prague’s dining scene. I sat down with him to learn more about how he got started in the gastronomy business.

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

“It all started with a small bistro near Náměstí Míru called Fierro, where I sold empanadas and choripán and steak sandwiches. And then from there, I took a jump and opened the first location of Gran Fierro, which had 110 seats. During Covid, I moved Gran Fierro to Myslíkova street, and now we have over 200 seats at this location.

"Gran Fierro was the only restaurant I had until this year, when I went a little bit crazy and opened four new restaurants. This year, we opened the first Argentinian bakery in Prague, the first Rotisería from Argentina and South America in Prague, the first ceviche bar in the city, and soon we will open the first Vermoutheria in Prague.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

How has the reception from the public been since you opened your first place on Náměstí Míru, to the four new places now?

“With my first place, I had absolutely no experience in gastronomy at all, it was a bit of a kamikaze move. People always tell you ‘don’t do it’ if you don’t have experience in the industry, but I thought you have to gain experience at some point.

“At the time it was really nice, I was actually doing quite a lot there, even cooking and I was there all the time. The reaction was really good from the people, they were surprised because there was nothing like what we were doing in the city; a little bistro in the city selling empanadas, or steak sandwiches or choripán. Because of the reception, I decided to make the jump and start the steakhouse. But obviously, a steakhouse is a concept that is very well known all over the world, and there were already Argentinian steakhouses in Prague when I opened.

“So in order to differentiate my place, I really focussed on the design, which is what I love to do actually. You can see in all of my restaurants, in every detail of the design, I’m there. I think the main drive for me to open new places is that I get to design them.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

Is that your background originally, design?

“Not at all. My background is film, I was working in that before. But maybe from film I get this feeling and love for working with images and aesthetics. I think it also comes from my mother – she was studying architecture and interior design when I was in her belly, so maybe I got it from her.”

And is film what initially brought you to Prague?

“Yes, I came here to teach at the Prague Film School. Before I was in Norway doing my master’s in philosophy and screenwriting, and then I was hired as a teacher here in Prague. I worked as a creative director at Prague TV for some years, and then I decided to retire and open a restaurant. But you really don’t retire when you open a restaurant, it’s on the contrary, I’ve never been so busy in my life.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

So how did it happen that you went from teaching film to opening restaurants? Did you cook for your students one day and did they encourage you to do that?

“Really no, I have no experience in cooking, I mean I do cook, but what I cook at home is not even close to what we cook here. It wasn’t really about the cooking, it all started because I missed the food from Argentina, and I wanted to bring it closer. I figured opening a restaurant was the easiest way, but it’s actually not, it’s the most complicated way. But then I got people around me who are good cooks, I was really lucky to get them. At the beginning it was really hard, but now I would say that 80 percent of the Latin community is working for me here in my restaurants.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

What is the Argentinian community like here in Prague? And also more broadly, the Latin community, is it strong?

“The Argentinian community is quite small compared to other countries. The Latin community is getting quite big, and I am more focussed on this community now, South America specifically, because there are lots of Mexican restaurants around but not as many South American places, so we want to put the focus on this area.

“I think it’s only been a few years now that Czechs have started to differentiate what is Mexico and the rest of Latin America. But now people are better educated and there are more places. So we focus more on South America, and then do individual things from each country. That’s the mission now, to spread Latin American culture through gastronomy.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

It seems like Prague is going through a food renaissance, where there are now so many different options for food from different cultures, and Czechs are really into it. Do you find that?

“Yes, I love that concept of a food renaissance, I think that’s exactly what it is. Prague is becoming more of a food destination for many. I also think it’s because Czech food is delicious, but it’s very heavy, so it’s not for everybody. After your first or second day here, people might want something else, and that’s where all the other restaurants come along. There are so many places like Italian restaurants, but the Latin American presence needs to be stronger.”

What do you think Latin American culture brings to Prague?

“Well for sure the party, because everyone associates Latin American places with a happy atmosphere, and that’s what it is. When you come to any of my places, especially Gran Fierro, beyond the food you get an atmosphere that you won’t get in any other place. It’s not something that I impose, it’s just that I have people from Latin America working there, and they make the atmosphere by themselves.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

It’s nice that you have been able to foster this community through your restaurants, because when you’re a foreigner living away from home it’s important to have your community.

“For sure, and that’s why we try to be as authentic as we can. There are many people who want to do a Latin American concept with good intentions, but if you don’t know the essence of Latin American gastronomy or even the atmosphere, you will just be doing a fake copy. So it’s very important that any Latin American that comes to any of my places recognizes it as familiar, and that it’s not made up.

“Even when we are doing things that are not Argentinian, I make sure that we have chefs from all these other countries. So I make sure that the person making something from a specific country is in fact from that country.”

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

You said you were missing the food from home, are there any key figures in your life that made important dishes for you back home in Argentina?

“Argentinian food culture is very much based on steaks and wine, but we have many other things. When I started, I wanted to show what we have there. Like empanadas for example – everyone has their own recipe from their grandmother or from their province. I was really missing things that you can only find back home. We try to bring these things here, but it’s not that easy.

“The thing is, that in the process, what I learned most is that when you are bringing things from home, you recognize you have to adapt the recipes, because the ingredients here are different. We started with the recipes exactly as they were, but the result was completely different, so we had to adapt to the local ingredients. That’s what made me think of opening other places, because I wanted to offer many things.

Photo: Juan Cruz Pacin,  Gran Fierro

"Of course, keeping the familiarity is most important. For example at the bakery, we have medialunas, which is the Argentinian croissant. It took us three or four months to test the recipe because the flour is different, the water is different, and the milk is different. To get to the point where we could say ‘that’s it’, took us a long time.

“But that’s what I enjoy, I love working with the cooks and trying their experimentations with the recipes. For us it’s a challenge, and when we finally get it right, like with the medialunas, it pays off. When you have the Argentinian community coming and saying ‘this is a real medialuna’, or someone’s mother from Argentina, the Argentinian Ambassador comes almost every week to get some, then we know we really made it.”

Do you ever feel pressure from being the first for many Argentinian places in the city?

“No actually, with that I don’t feel the pressure. But I do feel the pressure to go beyond that. I think to be the first is just an anecdote, but to be the best it what really counts. Not even the best, because that has to do with comparing yourself to others, and I try not to do that, but to really keep up with the level of quality, that’s the real challenge.”