Allie remembers the moment like it was yesterday. She was filming Pick Up The Fork, a web series derived from her very successful eponymous food blog. That day she was visiting Astor, one of the restaurants she had chosen for the “New Argentine Cuisine” episode. She had grown accustomed to having people jump out and seek attention in front of the camera, but this time there was one guy in particular that caught her eye, the only one that, in her own words, “didn’t give a shit that we were there.”
His name was Gustavo, he was the lead chef at the restaurant, but yet he preferred to hide. “We kind of locked eyes and I said to myself: ‘Who’s that?”, she recalls with a smile. She found out his name and started to check out his social media feed the following days, discovering he had also worked at Aramburu Bis, one of her favorite spots. She checked her blog and saw his face in a piece she had written about the place a while back, realizing she had now tasted his food in two different places, and had loved both. Her crush deepened.
By the following week she received an invitation to Astor’s anniversary party and accepted for the sole purpose of “casually” running into the guy who hated the limelight. They, of course, saw each other at the event and clicked immediately; the food blogger and the up-and-coming chef had some grade-A chemistry that was pretty clear to both from the get-go.
But it’s hard to imagine that any of them could have predicted just how much they would go on to influence each other’s lives and careers, all while giving birth to a certain little donut shop in Palermo that seems to be in everybody’s mouth in 2018.
Gustavo Castillo is from Caracas, Venezuela. As many Latin American children, his first real culinary influence was his mom, whom he credits for his style of cooking to this day. “She was the biggest influence by far,” he explains. “I still cook things like she does, even when I know she used to do some things wrong. She would use basil stems for her Bolognese sauce, for example, and that’s exactly how I cook it nowadays. I can’t do it any other way.”
His first real experience in the kitchen was in a small food-by-the-pound place in a shopping mall in Caracas, but he quickly started to climb the ladder, garnering experience in several of the top places in the city and finding a few mentors who would continue to shape his particular style, heavily influenced by traditional Venezuelan ingredients.
He also began to understand the cooking world from within, the sacrifices people had to made, the uneven relationship between wagers and effort, the overwhelming stress of having to dish out 800 plates at lunch. But cooking, nonetheless, became therapeutic for him, an escape valve in a country that was slowly but steadily becoming difficult for him and many others to live in.
“In Venezuela I was kidnapped four times. I even got kidnapped twice in a span of 24 hours, on one occasion. The last time they held me captive for 17 hours with some of my friends. It was horrible, so I decided to get the hell out of there because I thought I was gonna get killed.” He decided to leave the country with US $900 in savings and a plane ticket his sister helped him buy. The destination? Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Allie Lazar is from Chicago. Ever since she can recall, she’s had an interest in food and the culture around it. “My family would make a joke that my seat at the dinner table had to be close to the refrigerator,” she recalls. “I was always into the food scene and learning about different cultures through food. I always wanted to cook and at one point I thought I’d go to culinary school.” By the time she had reached college she decided to pursue a different passion, studying political science at the University of Wisconsin.
Thanks to an exchange program, she arrived in Buenos Aires in 2006 on a six month program. In little time, she seemed to find her place in the world in the Argentine capital: “There’s something about the chaos I really loved. Especially coming from the US, where everything is so structured. All my friends were going to college, then grad school, and then usually get married and moving to the suburbs and I really didn’t want that.”
Once the program finished, she went back to the States to graduate. She was then faced with the possibility of going to law school, but decided to pack her bags yet again and move back to Buenos Aires for a second time. She got a desk job and began to sketch out a plan to do something more on the creative side, one that would proof to be her calling: “I would have a knack for walking down the street and finding these little holes in the wall and thinking they might be good and then finding out they were actually good. I didn’t know anybody that had a food blog at the time here and everything I read was kind of structured and old school so I kind of wanted to write for people my age, as if I were talking to a friend and telling them that we should go out and eat.
“That’s when I started a blog called ‘Are You Gonna Eat That?’ that would then evolve into Pick Up the Fork. Back then I thought maybe my mom would read it and no one else.”
She started to amass a following, people drawn to her laid back writing style. Allie seemed to dig into an avid base of readers who were drawn to her take on Argentine culture through the eyes of a foreigner that was looking to understand their ways. “Argentines were constantly looking abroad, thinking in other countries people are better at certain things, and so I wanted to explain that in Argentina there’s amazing things as well.”
Her blog began to get picked up by outlets such as La Nación, Clarín and Rolling Stone and she began to discover ways to make writing her profession. She began to collaborate with Vice, Eater, Time Out and many other sites. She found a way to predate the huge foodie boom that would take over the city and became a sought after influencer by incorporating social media to her already established Pick Up the Fork brand. It was only a matter of time before she spread out into other media and that came to her via a web series with UN3 and her first gig as a presenter.
A Match Made in Food Heaven
When Allie and her crew arrived at Astor to film, Gustavo’s life was at a crossroads. Since his arrival in Buenos Aires several years back, he had never been short on work, but his love for cooking could only be equalled by his growing discontent toward the business side of the culinary world. “By the time Allie and I started to date, I didn’t want to cook anymore,” he explains.”I was tired of doing what others wanted and not being paid fairly, I was fed up.”
Gustavo’s perspective opened Allie’s mind to a very different aspect of the cooking world than she had been exposed to. “It changed the way I started writing about food and putting certain chefs in pedestals,” she recalls. “Watching how they treated their staff and their employees and the working conditions… I had a whole new appreciation for a cook’s life and what they do. And then it became very useful for my own writing.”
At the same time, Allie’s experience in the Buenos Aires cooking scene and her know-how about global trends helped Gustavo discover new ways of channeling his talents, ways that eventually resulted in Casa Otilia, a closed-door restaurant they opened once they moved in together, named after Gustavo’s grandmother. “I thought it might be a good thing since he had this unique personality and style” Allie explains. “He had his Venezuelan flavors that he did but he had his more fine dining refinement that he used and the combination worked great.”
Casa Otilia proved to be everything Gustavo needed to get his groove back, as well as a resounding success. With the help of a sommelier friend, they would serve eight course meals in which he would let his own style run wild. “My focus was on my roots, with a lot from Caracas and Venezuela mixed in there,” he recalls.
And with Venezuelan migration quickly becoming the massive phenomenon it has become of late, he found in his recipes a way to express his cultural heritage and it resulted in something quite cathartic for him. “There are so many Venezuelan cooks abroad now. Buenos Aires is packed with Venezuelan sous chefs in many of the top restaurants. If we don’t maintain our culinary culture, then who will?”
The Donut-Shaped Revolution
Because of difficulties in the building where they lived, Gustavo and Allie were forced to move and the Casa Otilia era came to an end. But they had developed a good partnership that went far beyond their own romantic relationship. They had learned how to complement each other: Gustavo’s freeflowing self-proclaimed “craziness” and creativity were the perfect counterpart for Allie’s more methodic, organized sense of trendhunting. He’s more of a shy person; she’s public relations savvy. He tends to get down in the dumps with any letdown, whereas she can’t stop trying to figure out what they can do next. The Yin and the Yang perfectly personified.
After Casa Otilia closed, Gustavo began to make food from home, mostly traditional bakery from Venezuela. Every so often, Allie would entice him into cooking one of her cravings, convinced that Gustavo would accept any challenge that would come his way. “She has this way of manipulating me,” he explains while laughing. “She’ll send me an Instagram pic of Pad Thai and then she comes home with coconut milk, noodles, and other stuff and then I end up making it.” On one of those occasions, Allie came to him with a very specific munchie, one that would turn out to be the key to their next venture: “I was never a huge donut eater but I always get cravings from things I miss,” she explains. “You couldn’t get donuts here. So I planted the seed in his head and encouraged him to make some.”
The first batch went out to the guys at Gustavo’s go-to tattoo parlor called Well Done, who flipped out as soon as they tried them. From then on, Gustavo began to post the tasty, colorful pastries in his I Touched Your Food Instagram page and customers quickly started to catch on. The donut revolution was about to get into high gear.
With places like Sheikob’s Bagels and Cannoli de Palermo as inspiration, they began to sell donuts at a pop-up stand every weekend outside of well known coffee places like Lattente and Full City Coffee House. “We started on a Thursday and we sold 80 donuts in 15 minutes,” Gustavo recalls. “The next weekend we did 110 and I told Allie we wouldn’t sell them… We sold them in 20 minutes. Something was definitely going on.”
The name Donut Therapy came from two reasons: one is the therapeutic power that making them had for Gustavo’s anxiety and the other because, as Allie puts it, “you can eat one when celebrating, but also when you’re feeling shitty. It’s comfort food. I’ve never seen somebody sad or mean in a donut shop!”
110 donuts became 180 and then 200 a day. The donut fever spread like wildfire. Their new apartment became a massive production site, with trays filling every corner of the kitchen and the living room. Gustavo began to combine traditional flavors with some of his own creative ideas, like donuts glazed with chocolate and chipotle or his most recent idea: a s’mores donut with a homemade roasted marshmallow tacked on top.
Their efforts did not go unnoticed by those in the culinary circuits, either. After several months as a pop up, they were approached by German Sitz and Pedro Peña, the minds behind such successful ventures as La Carnicería, Chori and Niño Gordo. They wished to take the donut revolution to its next logical stage, by helping Allie and Gustavo open up a shop in Palermo.
That was the seed for the current Donut Therapy that sits at Thames 1999, a place that in just a month has risen to heights of popularity that nobody could have ever imagined, selling up to 900 donuts on a busy day and aiming to reach the one thousand donut a day milestone at any moment. With several employees at his disposal, Gustavo is now able to be the boss he always wished he had, establishing a laid back environment with his kitchen assistants, while guaranteeing each of them will be paid in a fair and timely fashion.
One of the funniest things about this story is how much Gustavo credits Allie for the success they have now achieved with Donut Therapy and how little of that credit Allie really wants.
“If it weren’t for Allie, this place just wouldn’t exist” Gustavo likes to say with unwavering conviction to which she simply replies: “Maybe I give him the confidence to do it, but I haven’t even posted on it on my social media. I give him a lot of ideas because I know he can execute them. If it weren’t for that impeccable execution this wouldn’t be able to exist. Maybe I plant the seed. But I know he’s going to make the best product he possibly can.” Who knew that booming donut place in Palermo had such a “boy meets girl” story at its core?
Donut Therapy | Thames 1999, Palermo | Tuesday – Friday, 11AM – 6PM; Saturday – Sunday, 11AM – 5PM | Instagram