More than 14.5 million people live in Buenos Aires, the world capital of tango and birthplace of internationally renowned artists such as the actress Norma Aleandro, and the writer Jorge Luis Borges. Probably slightly less famous are the 31-year-old chef Esteban Aguirre and the 33-year-old artist/designer Carolina Ansaldo, both also from Buenos Aires. They are, however, well-known by many revellers in Palma, having run the trendy tapas restaurant Neo Cultural – with incorporated cocktail bar – in the entertainment district of La Lonja, since 2007.
But what makes this a story worth telling here is that Ansaldo and Aguirre began their love story here in Mallorca, rather than in their home town. A mere coincidence? Not at all. “Fate,” Aguirre says without batting an eyelid. Eleven years ago, he would never have imagined ending up in Palma. “I had finished my training as a cook and wanted only to get some experience.” This desire was mixed with a dash of wanderlust – a typical characteristic of Aguirre for as long as he can remember. About ten years ago, he packed his bags and took the plane to Europe.
At this time, Carolina had already arrived in Palma, where she was destined to meet her future husband Aguirre. Like him, she had also moved away from Buenos Aires to explore the world beyond her home. After training as an art designer in the fields of advertising, photography and design, the young Argentine travelled across America and later Europe. “I stopped off in New York, then Miami, Germany and Austria, before I landed in Palma,” she says. Mallorca’s varied landscape, coasts, mountains and plains eventually made her stay. In Palma, she opened a small tattoo shop and worked part-time as a freelance interior designer for several bars and restaurants. At that time, Esteban Aguirre had no thoughts about Mallorca. He had landed in 2001 in San Sebastian, where renowned Basque gourmet chef Luis Ibiza introduced him to the fine art of gourmet cuisine. “After a year I returned to Argentina, but only a few months later I went back to the Basque country,” Aguirre recalls. In the three-star restaurant Arzac he refined his knowledge of ‘haute cuisine’. Then again wanderlust seized him. “Friends told me about Palma de Mallorca and how it was possible to work successfully there as a chef throughout the year.” But instead of star restaurants in Puerto Portals, Aguirre found himself among the holiday bars and entertainment venues in Arenal. Not by chance, as we know already. Through a mutual friend he finally got to know Carolina at a bar. And they fell in love immediately.
“It was very clear that we had many common interests: art, culture, creativity, the desire to discover new things constantly – and of course travelling,” says Carolina Ansaldo. And the latter might be the reason why the two initially went separate ways for a while. “I didn’t want to commit to a certain place – and wanted to gain further professional experience,” says Aguirre. For a few months, he went first to northern Italy and then to Madrid, where he worked as a cook. His girlfriend accompanied him for periods of time, but always went back to Palma. One day they realised they couldn´t stand these constant temporary separations any more. And so, Aguirre returned to the island after one year.
“Eventually we came up with the idea of opening a restaurant. Upbeat design, good but cheap food, live music and a bit of theatre. That´s what we had in mind,” says Carolina.
At first, they had to find the perfect venue. That´s quite difficult in Palma. “We searched for over a year. When we were about to give up, they offered us a somewhat run-down restaurant in Calle Botería in March 2007. This place fit with our ideals.” But a lot of work was waiting for them. “We had to renovate and decorate from scratch. On the one hand it was fun but, on the other, it gave us many sleepless nights,” Aguirre tells us. And the first years of running Neo Cultural were not at all easy: “Initially we did all the work on our own. There was no money to employ staff. It was a pretty hard time,” says Carolina. In the meantime, Neo Cultural has become established in Palma. Many people come to eat there. The couple no longer work alone; about ten employees look after the welfare of their clients.
As a reward for the effort of building up a private company – especially in times of crisis – the two married in Buenos Aires, in the company of friends and family members, earlier this year. Of course, the celebration was unconventional. Instead of a traditional venue, Aguirre and Ansaldo rented a cabaret. Instead of an acolyte, a transvestite – dressed as an angel – sang the Ave Maria. And if you believe that we’ve now reached the happy end of this story, you’re completely wrong. A few months ago, the globetrotting couple discovered a new challenge on a trip to Argentina: “Friends told us that there was a possibility to take over a restaurant in the southeast of Uruguay, in a small remote village in the vicinity of Punta Este.” Aguirre and Ansaldo were fascinated, after visiting the venue and place. The plan: In summer they might keep on managing Neo Cultural in Palma, switching to Uruguay in winter – to offer exquisite cuisine, original arts and cultural events there. It´s not a surprise that they want to have children as soon as possible. This is part of a great love story.