24 Feb A craving for home
Entrepreneurs start restaurants for a variety of motives. A passion for the food. A more calculating assessment of potential financial return. In the case of Lilian Funes de Murga the reason was simple. Nobody was cooking the cuisine from her native El Salvador.
“I couldn’t find the food here and I had a craving for our home food,” says Lilian. “I was making it myself and I thought ‘How
many people would want to have Central American food?’” Lilian is no overnight success. She started her first restaurant
venture, Latin American Café, 25 years ago in Springvale. It went well, but she sold it to a Chilean lady because her kids
were “too little”. She then went back to office work in the banking industry.
Later, bored with office work, she started looking again at the Melbourne food scene. She realised that there was still nothing in the market; it was still hard to find good places to eat Latin food. So in 2009, she opened her second restaurant, Los Latinos, in Maidstone. She has since opened a second Los Latinos in Ascot Vale.
“They need to know our flavours,” says Lilian. “At the beginning it started with our own community and friends. Then, one day, a journalist from Epicure (magazine in The Age) was in the area, saw us and had the food with the family. She loved it and wrote it up in the newspaper. After that, we started to get busy. We had similar responses from the Herald Sun. We had to stock up. We had people queuing to get in. That was how we expanded.
“We also had many food blogs commenting. Radio station 3AW came in as well. I didn’t know this was happening at the time because I was in the kitchen cooking. I would only find out when people gave me the paper. And last month SBS covered us as well.”
Lilian says she started the kitchen herself and developed her own recipes. The culinary style combines Spanish and South American ingredients and cooking styles, and there is also a Mexican element.
More specifically, Los Latinos features dishes from many different Latin countries and to achieve that, chefs have been hired from Venezuela, Peru and El Salvador. The waiting staff is mainly from Colombia. “We have a gringo (foreigner) as well,” adds Lilian. “He’s a friend of ours; he discovered us before we had opened up the shop. He’s from Las Vegas and he helped us promote the business.”
The key to quality food from Central and South America is the style of preparation. Tortillas are never bought ready made, they are prepared in the kitchen. Fried beans are never taken from a can. “We know how to make it,” says Lilian, with more than a touch of pride.
The clientele is about half Latin and half non-Latin. Some adjustments have had to be made for local palates, most notably less chilli and less spices. Diners are given the option, however. “The Latinos in Australia are more Australian than Latinos,” says Lilian regretfully. “They can’t handle the spices any more.” So can Lilian herself still handle the spices? “Yes,” she says, dismissively.
The growing popularity of Latin food is partly the result of Australians’ travelling overseas more often. Lilian says that when she put posters of Latin countries on her wall, customers would decide to go to places like Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and Chile — countries that they would probably not have thought of before as destinations. “Before they would probably go to America, but now they go south. They are becoming more adventurous.”
A further reason for Latin food’s rising popularity is a need for something new. “Melbourne needed a different flavour. It had Italian food and Asian food, but it wanted something different. We have a different way of making food and we have different flavours. They like them. They say: ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ And some people who go to those countries come back and say it is very good compared with the home countries. Obviously, the ingredients here are of a very high quality.”
Lilian has plans to expand nationally, hoping eventually to have restaurants in all the capital cities. First stop will be a restaurant in Sydney. She intends to open her own restaurants rather than to develop a franchise.
Her biggest challenge is finding the right staff, especially the chefs. There is a persistent shortage of people who understand these food styles. While it is possible to train people, they must at least know the basics.
Success has nevertheless come from the effort. Lilian says at first she was surprised at the popularity because the food was new and there was nothing like it in Melbourne. “But the Australian dollar went up and people started travelling more. So I knew that as they travelled more it would become a thing of the future.”