She comes from Brazil, but she brought Argentina to Milan. She had the recipe for joy in her DNA: it is called Don Juan.
Marlene Gomes came to Milan to take a photography course at the IED. She was born in Brazil, between names like Paulo Roberto Falcao, Toquiño, she is a nomad in the soul and a Gemini. These two elements together detonate and spread dust of joy on the ordinary routine of a city like Milan. If we then add the Argentinian spirit, what comes out is an iconoclastic project. From that crossroads of vital charge, gauchos traditions, and cool metropolitan nomadism, one of the mythical places of Milan was born. A place to be visited at least once a month: the Don Juan restaurant.
Brazil, your land. Argentina, your culinary passion. Milan, your destination. And the endemic joy: how did the adventure begin?
It all started with my stay in Milan to study photography. However, I abandoned it sooner than expected because I organized a Carnival-inspired party for a club in the province of Milan, and the event was so successful that I immediately changed my mind.
The ingredient of joy, that core of vitality that Brazil has, led me to become the lively event organizer I am today. I went to Costa Smeralda to organize dinners; I conceived the Latin-American festival in Piazza Castello… Then, I met my husband, who comes from a small town in the province of Como; I come from a small village too but in the southeast of Brazil. And Argentina has become the third element of passion.
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The land of gauchos, the red walls, 300 wines, and the Italian and international world: how did you do it?
For me, Brazil represents samba and life, but I have always loved Argentina for its exquisite cuisine: they don’t have afro-contamination, and they don’t hide the bases with spices. So I jumped right in, I did bold things: and the public felt it immediately. Don Juan was the first restaurant to bet on the open kitchen: like a big sun to which everything revolves, visible from the street and from every corner of the room, with a huge cooking grill.
Even the red walls were a risky bet: they were inspired by the ox blood that Argentines used to paint houses mixed together with lime. The secrets of the traditional cuisine, the family recipes of the Pampas such as chimichurri sauce, criolla, pudin de pan. The stall-free animals fed on grass and corn. When the meat meets the heat of the embers, unique flavors are released.
Milan has loved this world since the very beginning: politicians, businessmen, public figures, and sportspeople have come to eat here (and continue to come). This place is out of the box, and the surrounding joy is a founding element of my character, of my land. But with great confidentiality.
Brazil, Argentina, and Milan, united by joy. How has the digital world changed your work?
We are very popular, always present in guides all over Europe, in TV shows, in the press. People spread the word, and that is the best social. It may sound absurd, but… before digital, it was easier to organize events; there were fewer distractions. This constant online search often takes you a bit off-axis. Now everything is very fast; there is no more patience. Don Juan has important clients and always protects their privacy. I will always remember when I personally kicked out the paparazzi because there was a big shot sitting at our table, which can be seen from the street window.
Whole families of famous people have always come here over the years: first the parents, then the children, I watched them grow up. Digital is simply a social extension, perhaps a bit more convulsive. But the spirit of Brazil, the marvelous Argentinean traditions, the Milanese know-how, and joy always remain the same.
How do you select a chef? Is it true that we are going back to natural things?
The classics are the best yardstick. I usually ask aspiring chefs to cook omelets, and Italians to cook spaghetti with tomato sauce. I prefer simple things, the power of flavors. Here we make small, hand-cut, crispy potatoes. We make desserts with milk, eggs, and seasonal vegetables. And of course, extraordinary meat that releases a fragrant aroma and comes directly from Australia, USA, Argentina, vast lands where animals graze freely and eat healthily. We have a list of over 300 Argentine wines. Everything here breathes tradition and conveys it in a metropolitan environment. In fact, 30% of our customers come from abroad.
A woman, who comes from Brazil, brings Argentina to Milan and manages to spread joy and promote good food… what’s your secret?
Here at Don Juan, you feel good. Social changes pass you by. You have to know how to welcome people and make them feel at home, maintaining discretion.
Sometimes you have to pretend not to see. Then, there is the secret of all time: to bring a zest for simple things to a metropolis, with a splash of savoir-faire. From Brazil, I took the spirit, from Argentina the tradition, from Milan the coolness; and united everything with joy. Here we do Asado with tango on Sundays, Malbec tastings on Saturdays. Or rather, we did them, although even in lockdown, we did a lot of food delivery. The customers are still loyal!