He was 16 years old and enjoyed carefree adolescence in Villa María, a city of 70,000 inhabitants 140 kilometers from Córdoba Capital. With their friend Nicolás they took turns making the roasts at the club and they were already playing to incorporate the gourmet secrets they had learned in their homes. Diego Guillén liked to stand next to the grill of the family home where his father, Jorge, a biochemist by profession like his mother, taught him how to “not make meat dizzy”, how to make a good fire with charcoal and wood to make it taste better, the tips for chimichurri, and the roquefort matambre that he still prepares. But all that, his carefree adolescence and the pleasure of roasting shared with the intimate ones, were literally smoked on a night in July 1997.
Twenty-four years later, Diego recalls it this way: “We were firing a cousin who was going to travel abroad. My dad was making a roast and my mother was making fries in one of those fryers that were all the rage at the time, which didn’t cut the thermostat, and set the oil on fire. We all get scared. There was a lot of smoke in the house. My father and I, who was a volunteer firefighter, got everyone out and put out the fire pretty quickly. But, when we were dating, he had a heart attack. I turned to help him, and I couldn’t do anything. This started at 9 o’clock in the evening and at 11:30 I was in the wake room with my dead dad.”
That night his adolescence ended and his love for roast and fires could also have ended, but what happened to what happened to what is now one of the most popular Argentinian chefs both in Argentina and in the world, who came to cook in the restaurant of the Englishman Jamie Oliver and for celebrities such as Jeff Goldblum, Bono, Elton John and Ozzie Osbourn, is proof of how sometimes fate manages to align with our original desires if we know how to fight the right battles.
With his life and that of his family left in the middle, Guillén – who is not related to the brothers who also dedicate themselves to gastronomy, although they know each other from the events of the field – clung to the certainties of traditional education. When it came time to choose a university degree, he settled in Cordoba like most of the boys in his city, and decided that he would be an accountant. The idea was to receive each other and return to the village. Instead, the world expected it. “In the middle of the race I realized that, although it was good, I wasn’t happy with what I was doing,” Infobae tells. And there, my godfather, who lives in New York, says to me: ‘Why don’t you dare to study cooking, if you know what you always liked? ‘. And I signed up for the Celia cooking school, which depends on the University of Córdoba, where I decided that I was going to be a cook or a chef.”
Mexico was the first stop of his international adventure with fusion cuisine, where the original love for flame-roasted meats that over time he perfected with techniques from the best restaurants in the world always prevailed and still prevailed. “In Mérida I studied Mayan cuisine, focused on discovering the origins of local cuisine and worked in many places with this profile of Argentinian grill meat, which is what comes in our DNI. And in the last restaurant I worked, it was Mayan and grilled food, because it was a steakhouse, where I was able to merge the two things a little: the techniques I had been learning, and what was new for me, which was what the Mayan peoples did at the time.”
The next step in his career was more of a leap. From Mexico to the Grand Hyatt of New York Central Station, in the kitchen of the roomservice, restaurants and events of a 1300-room hotel. “It was like starting to enter the big leagues. Because it really was all giant… If maybe, I don’t know, in a restaurant pelás 10 kilos of potatoes, there were 100! And that’s how it was, very big. Until the executive chef told me that it would be much better for my career to return to Buenos Aires and participate in the Park Hyatt kitchen start-up.”
Guillén returned to Argentina in 2006 for the opening of what was then the Hyatt-Duhau. “Opening a hotel is a great experience for a cook,” he says. Especially in a Park Hyatt, which is the top of the range of the brand, where the details are very careful of the quality of the product. And looking back a little, it really was an incredible school: today most of those who were on that team are in management positions in hotels, restaurants or hospitality companies.”
Guillén then took care of the French restaurant but, as always, he imposed his touch of fusion with local cuisine” because it was still a hotel in Buenos Aires; we even had a grill that I was very involved with, working with the eye of a steak, the chorizo steak, or the loins… but all this with French technique, linked to haute cuisine because the restaurant had that profile.” At Park Hyatt he was also a chef of cheeses and bakery: “Incredible from the point of view of schedules, because I came in at one in the morning, but it was a great learning.”
He was in charge of the kitchen of San Juan, an exclusive men’s tennis club in San Telmo, when he met Barbara Lehrer, his wife, who was returning from working in hotels for eight years in Madrid, and he got the bug to travel again, but with her: “I say: ‘Why don’t we go to England? ‘ That’s when he almost killed me! He says ‘but I just got here… ‘. I insisted, it seemed to me that it could be a great experience for both of us. In the end, I convinced her and we left.”
Arriving in London was, although it may not seem like it, a reunion with the barbecue, as if the knowledge of a lifetime added up: “I started working at Sofitel, the French hotel chain. Hyatt’s American, but she’s very French, too. And obviously my cover letter was the meat, the grill. There I was able to start watching all the cuts that had not yet reached Argentina at that time, such as Kobe. England also has a bit of a taste for roasted meats, especially in the north, with a technique in mature meat that achieves a softer texture and flavor in adult animals. We don’t need it here because our animals are very tender because of the food they have and because they are raised walking, although there are some restaurants in Buenos Aires that use this technique of maturation with temperatures. But for me it was a great experience to rediscover French cuisine mixed with what I brought from the Argentine grill, and that was also where I began to have more contact with famous customers.”
Jeff Goldblum, for example, was delighted with the steak eye he ate in a private room with friends. One night he received an order from Ozzy Osbourne. He prepared for the singer of Black Sabbath to demand at least one rib pulling raw. But their surprise and that of the rest of the kitchen team couldn’t be bigger when they heard the command: “A soup of vegetables”. Right there the myth of the brave and satanic rockstar evaporated, in a julienne of vegetables with a broth.
And then, the other great leap in his career, the definitive one, the call that ended up twisting his story, or aligning it with the destiny that was already written by fire from the beginning. It was 2013 when he was accepted for a position he applied to at Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa restaurant, the Englishman who made a name for himself everywhere with his casual contribution to the world of food. “It was like touching the sky with your hands, it was like the Disney of meat! -says Guillén-. It had a clay oven, a grill with charcoal, a grill for flamed meat, an oven that is used a lot in Turkey, which is like a well where the raw dough of pita bread sticks and the same heat from the wall cooks it… There was 100% meat and its techniques, for 800 cutlery per day; we entered at nine in the morning and, at noon, we already had 350 for boot. I was in charge of my meat section, which was like being part of a Formula 1 team, because with so many cutlery, I had very little room for error. If you were wrong with a meat point or a cut, that would slow you down for the whole day, with everything that was still on the list, crazy!”
The next step was at Ernst & Young’s exclusive molecular restaurant for executives on the rooftop of their London offices. “It was fine dining, fewer people and much more sophisticated dishes, where it was more about applying haute cuisine techniques. It was a different experience, where everything was slower, but much more careful and precise.” What was missing to complete the versatility of his profile.
It only remained then to make a decision, which was joint. With Barbara they built up all that baggage and at the end of 2014 they returned to Argentina to create their own brand. When they founded their liquid nitrogen ice cream laboratory, GuiLab, they had been researching for a long time; there was nothing like it in the region. They wanted to sell an experience associated with molecular gastronomy: to be able to serve those ice creams – creamy, fresh, rich, but as particular as a dessert arising from a white smoke – at the moment at fairs and at events, and do so with a business plan, like gastronomic entrepreneurs. And they also wanted their children Lara (5) and Teo (2) to be born in the country and learn here the customs and traditions that marked the way for them, especially that of family and friends.
Guillén is clear about it: “Each previous experience helped me for the next one. Today I allow myself to take advantage of all those techniques that I was learning. I got the desire to start up with a very innovative project of mine that brought me back to Argentina. Life was leading the way for me, my creative part as a chef adds to what I have of bakery, cheeses and molecular cuisine. And, of course, when they saw that I made ice cream, they started asking me if I didn’t do salty things as well. In the kitchen it’s all about experimenting. Now I do gastronomic advice for everyone, and I was also able to return to my first passion, which is roasting.”
The chef, who won third place in the Sony Chanel reality show Food Truck Challenge and first place as Best Dessert with GuiLab ice cream in 2018, says that the taste of each of his dishes is a summary of the effort and work of all these years. But also the pleasure with which he makes them. I ask him then, precisely, what was the last roast he did “for pleasure”, with the secrets he learned from his father and perfected with Jamie Oliver – buying good meat; making a good fire; a perfect cooking, without making the pieces dizzy; sometimes brushing with a wooden spoon with butter and a bouquet with rosemary, thyme, laurel and sage (tip of the English chef); accompany with toast, chimichurri and good salads-; he tells me that last night.
“It was for a group of foreigners, for business, but I was happy to do it,” he says. One asked me about the tactics and I explained: ‘Look, the roast is very simple. The important thing is that you choose good meat, that you have good wood to make the grill, because smoke is what gives it the aroma. And then, it’s a matter of having fun every time, of trying something different, but simple. I sometimes look back and obviously find a lot of flaws in my dad’s barbecue, because over time I was learning the techniques. But the taste of its roquefort matambre was so engraved with me that, with all its imperfections, it would not change anything. It’s like cooking with my children and getting dirty with flour, that’s roast: the pleasure of family food.”