In Buenos Aires, the global capital of steak, there is one parrilla that stands out above the rest: Don Julio rose to No.6 on the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018 and was voted winner of the Art of Hospitality Award. We go behind the front-of-house scenes to chat with manager Valeria Mesones and maitre d’ Daniel Zarate about exactly what hospitality means to them.
It’s a Monday night in Buenos Aires and a crowd begins to form on the corner of Gurruchaga and Guatemala streets in the Palermo Soho neighborhood. As guests wait for a table, they approach the hostess stand and walk away with a glass of sparkling wine and mini empanadas. “Ever since we opened, we always welcomed guests with something special to begin the Don Julio experience,” explains Valeria Mesones, the manager of the 20-year old parrilla, or traditional Argentine steakhouse.
Over the years, Don Julio has transformed into steakhouse royalty, synonymous with an excellent cut of Argentina’s finest. The Aberdeen Angus and Hereford beef are aged in a specialised meat locker for 10-28 days, depending on the cut, and then masterfully cooked by veteran grillmaster Pepe Sotelo.
Don Julio uses its own seeds at small local farms to grow much of its produce. The charcuterie is developed by chef Guido Tassi and made in-house, while the cheese comes from some of the best mongers in the country. The wine cellar, consisting entirely of Argentine wines, includes 1,000 labels and over 13,000 bottles.
Sure, Don Julio’s success can be attributed to its highest quality grass-fed beef, impressive charcuterie and exceptional wine list, but perhaps its greatest feat is how it has mastered the art of hospitality.
“Despite our awards and recognitions, we will always be a neighborhood steakhouse,” owner Pablo Rivero says. “Gastronomy is passion, it’s love. It’s the vocation of feeding people, receiving them into your home, to make sure they feel comfortable and happy.”
Rivero with the team behind Don Julio; grilled sweet potato
Has Don Julio’s hospitality philosophy changed over the past 20 years?
Daniel Zarate: We have the same values as always. Great service, great wine, and great meat. Beyond that, we work on the details.
Valeria Mesones: Those details are what we strive to perfect – those details are what make us different. People don’t just come looking for a delicious cut of steak. They are looking for the entire experience. We know we offer excellent meat, that’s a given, but we need to find a way to exceed the client’s expectations. It’s all about hospitality – how to make our guests feel like they are at home from the minute they walk in the door. That’s the key. That’s when people end up falling in love with Don Julio.
What type of training is involved for those who work in the dining room?
DZ: We are looking for people who have knowledge of meat, who have worked in a parrilla and have service experience. At Don Julio, service and understanding the grill are two very important things. We also need our staff to be well versed on how to open a bottle of wine, prepare salads at the table, and how to recommend steak cuts. I started working at Don Julio 12 years ago as a dishwasher, and worked my way up.
VM: The Don Julio training manual explains the entire service process. Our staff goes through extensive training from the importance of greeting guests with a smile, to pulling out their chairs to replacing napkins. They take English class, wine class, and participate in various types of exercises to learn how to read a table to analyse guests’ needs.
VM: We have an incredible team – in the kitchen, front of the house, administration, and we have an owner who is always present and hands-on. We are who we are thanks to the team that we have. Recently, when Michel Bras cooked at Don Julio, he said it was a difficult service – we thought it was smooth. But that’s what we needed to hear. We can’t ever ease up or get too comfortable.
Beef entrecote and chorizo rib-eye steak
Do the servers follow a certain protocol when recommending steak cuts?
DZ: Many tables already know what to order. They are ready to try the skirt steak, ribeye, entrecote or sweetbreads and ask for a side dish recommendation since these change seasonally. If a table is unsure, we invite them to the grill and show them each cut.
VM: It’s part of our job to communicate as best as we can what the guest will be eating. That’s why we bring them to meet the grillmaster and tell them about where the cows come from. Here, the guests can see live our steak menu and choose their cut.
DZ: We have a tray of every cut so clients can see the size, fat content, if it comes on or off the bone – they can see what they will be eating.
VM: If a vegetarian comes, we have options as well: vegetables on the grill, salads, pasta and provoleta [grilled provolone cheese].
What importance does wine hold at Don Julio?
DZ: We are a wine restaurant. Our staff is very knowledgeable about wine, they all take wine courses and many have studied to become sommeliers. We also hold annual blind wine tastings to determine which wines will make it onto our menu the following year. This tasting has grown over time and this year we will be trying 1,600 different labels. Our staff, friends, colleagues and clients sit at the table, taste and talk about the wine without knowing the winery, price point or region.
VM: The entire wine list at Don Julio was chosen purely because we like the wine. Not for commercial reasons.
Don Julio has one of the most impressive wine cellars in Argentina. How do you recommend wines to your guests?
DZ: We like to talk about the landscape of different winemaking regions in Argentina. We don’t need to tell the client that the wines tastes like chocolate or smells like tobacco, instead we want to transport them to the place where the wine is made. And of course, our recommendations always depend on the food they will be eating.
VM: We hope to tell guests about the wines instead of selling a wine. And of course, it’s crucial for us to be able to read the table and understand what type of wine will complete their experience. That’s the secret of being a great sommelier.
Don Julio and its impressive collection of wine bottles
Why are there empty wine bottles signed by guests all across the restaurant?
VM: It all started because a couple, who were regular customers, came to Don Julio on their anniversary. Usually they ordered an entry level wine, but on this day they chose the most expensive bottle on the menu. Pablo came to the table to say happy anniversary, and also make sure the server didn’t push selling the wine. They told Pablo that they wanted to celebrate with this wine, and signed the bottle to capture that moment. From then on, guests began to sign their wine bottles and we place it on the wall. We rotate the bottles for cleaning purposes, but there are some that are untouchable, like the bottles signed by the Roca brothers and from when Mauro Colagreco cooked at Don Julio.
DZ: Signing wine bottles encapsulates a special moment. People love it. We have bottles signed in every language. There are a lot of bottles with football references, like Boca Juniors vs. River Plate and Brasil vs. Argentina.
With great success comes criticism. How do you handle complaints on online review sites and social media?
DZ: We read the reviews every day; we have alerts on our phones. We learn so much from criticism. If a client tells us that something happened, and we can see it, work on it, and incorporate a change – that’s important for growth. Sometimes there are details that we don’t see, so who better to tell us than the client. To me, every client plays the role of a critic. In our daily meetings we go over various situations that happened. If there has been a complaint, a happy customer, a special table, we go over all of that.
What words would you use to define Don Julio’s hospitality values?
VM: Excellence. We always are one step ahead of our clients. We want to exceed their expectations and to surprise them.
DZ: “God eats at Don Julio.” That’s our motto. All of our clients are like God, so we need to treat them that way.
Don Julio’s owner, Pablo Rivero, spoke on the panel at #50BestTalks ‘Meat: the future’ in Bogotá as part of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants last month. Watch the highlights video and stay tuned for more videos from the talks.
Header images: Rivero receives the Art of Hospitality and Best Restaurant in Argentina awards at Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants 2018; inside Don Julio
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