Meet the Vegan Chef Challenging Argentina's Meat-Centric Food Scene

By Kevin Vaughn on June 14, 2019

A weathered sign above the door still reads, Los Tres Hermanos. It is leftover from the last tenant—an old boys club that was popular amongst taxi drivers and bored retirees. It stands as a fossil of a rapidly changing barrio and an even quicker evolving restaurant scene in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. Neighborhood folks still pop in with hopes of a ham and cheese on white to find Manuela Donnet and her crew, a gang of tatted up and bejeweled twenty-somethings, whipping up a handful of mushroom-based dishes.

“Lots of people don’t even know what a mushroom is,” she later reveals. “They only know the canned champignons.”

Manuela bursts through the front door and tosses a little box at me. Inside is a squishy chocolate covered marshmallow. “I love this garbage,” she remarks. It is the first of many contradictions.

Whether she likes it or not, in a few short years her restaurant has become an authority on vegan dining in a culture that leads the world in red meat consumption. She isn’t a vegan herself—her first job was at a McDonald's. And even though she runs a kitchen absent of meat, agro toxins and big brands, she has no interest in being a part of an organized movement. She is a restaurant owner who doesn’t want to be anyone’s boss and a woman who plays with masculinity to keep her kitchen running smoothly. Despite the incongruities, it is hard to resist following her in whichever direction she leads you.

Your first job was at a McDonald's. Who would have thought?

I always hated school. I always hated institutions. I didn’t ever understand the point. Why do I have to sit at a desk while the teacher is in the front deciding what we learn? I was always looking for ways to get out of school.

And so how did you end up in McDonald's?

You could leave class if you had an internship somewhere. It was the 1990s, and McDonald's had just arrived to Argentina and were offering internships to high schoolers. I went and did the psychological exam and failed, obviously. But the manager of this McDonald's loved the name Manuela. She wanted to give her baby that name. So she let me in.

Did they put you in the back making burgers?

No. I was 15. I was cuter and a lot friendlier then so they threw me on the register.

Was that a situation that repeated itself in your early career? Not being allowed into the kitchen?

Yeah. There was a place I waitressed at in my early days. I kept asking to be put in the back, and the boss kept saying, no, I’m too pretty to be in the kitchen.

How did you deal with that?

I stopped acting like a girl. I changed my dress and my mannerisms. I stopped wearing skirts and heels and leggings. I stopped putting on makeup. I tried to be as ugly as I could. "What about now? Now can I go into the kitchen?" Eventually he let me in.

Were you the only woman in the kitchen?

You are usually the woman in a kitchen full of dudes. Being a woman in a kitchen is a crash course in bullying as it is ordained by the laws of nature. All the guys pick on you. You learn what you need to learn and you get out of there.

Is that why we don’t see more women in the kitchens in Buenos Aires?

If you work in restaurants as a woman, there is way more money as a waitress. And you don’t have to work with the men in the back. Both of those things are very tempting.

But you always went to back of house, anyways.

Yes, but that meant that I had to lose a part of myself as a woman. You lose some of your identity because you have to become one of the boys to survive. I had to dress in baggy clothes because otherwise you’re being ogled all night. I had to become tougher because otherwise everyone is going to gang up on you. I can’t even bend over to pick something up because some dude might come up from behind. Maybe other women approached it differently. That was always my experience, though. To survive I felt like I had to be another man in the kitchen.

Do you see that changing?

I haven’t worked in someone else’s kitchen for a long time. I’m sure it’s a lot different now. Younger women are braver than we were. There is a lot more militancy now. I don’t imagine them putting up with the bullshit like we did.

I never really thought about women I have worked with switching from feminine to masculine in a kitchen. Maybe that is a strength in a way. Women are more comfortable in that fluidity than we are. You all might be better cut out for the kitchen than we are.

To run a kitchen, the most important thing is your team. You end up having to be the mother, the best friend, the seductress, the authoritative dad in order to keep things running. Beyond your sexual orientation or gender, we all have a male and a female side, but I think women are more capable of tapping into them both.

What were those restaurants you were initially working in?

The thing about being a cook is you don’t stay anywhere for very long. You get there, you realize you can’t do what they told you in the interview, your pay is shit, the hours suck, your thongs all smell like French fries, you get in a fight with the rat in the basement and you fuck off real fast.

What were the experiences that informed your current food philosophy?

I was hired to be the head chef at a university, and it was like, "Here’s two pesos, go make food for 300 kids." That was when I realized the shit we eat. One day I had to make nine kilos of pizza dough. I was hungover and feeling particularly sensitive. While I was mixing the flour and water it was like making a paste to put up wallpaper, and I thought, "I’m going to give this to someone to eat?" It was just this split second where my head turned upside down. I started looking for chefs and kitchens that were more interested in food and health.

How did you end up opening Donnet?

It wasn’t with a lot of intention. I was sick of being told what to cook. I had a little cash. I found an old chicken shop and opened.

You hadn’t dreamed of opening a vegan restaurant?

Not really. I just thought if I die tomorrow, what am I going to leave behind? What did I do for the universe? Here, I taught a few people that instead of eating a steak they tried a mushroom, it was tasty, it was good for them and it was good for this earth. That is my impact.

But you aren’t a vegan.

No. I am practically vegan, but meat is part of my culture. It is part of our folklore. I can’t just ignore that. I eat meat when I visit my mom because that is what she cooks. I’m not going to be a dick and not eat the stew she spent six hours making for us. We have learned a lot together, though.

How do you think vegan customers take that?

None of us here are vegan. I don’t want to generalize, but I think that really pisses some people off. "How can this non-vegan cook for me?" But I am a cook. It’s part of my profession to try all kinds of foods. Vegan diets are boring [in Buenos Aires]. They have forgotten how to taste. Their palates are out of whack because they have eaten garbanzo every day for the last two decades. They can’t remember what diversity of flavor is. You have to be an extremely knowledgeable, creative, rich vegan to be a vegan and make good vegan food.

So this isn’t a vegan restaurant for vegans?

No. They already eat vegan food.

Do you identify with vegan movements developing in the city?

I don’t want to stand behind any flag. Buenos Aires is a city. We live in a capitalist system. Unless you move to the mountains and go off the grid, it is impossible to be vegan in every aspect of your life.

What do you think is the best way to change the culture?

I’m not an orthodox. It’s too violent for me. I’m not going to tell someone they are killing themselves with their diet. Maybe I’m thinking that in my head. I go into the grocery store and see what people are putting in their carts, and I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack. I break out in sweats. What is going to happen to our society if we keep killing ourselves with garbage food?

But how do you suppress that emotional reaction?

If you want people to take on your politics, your ideology, your morals, I think you have to be stealthy. People need to connect to you. I’m not going to bring anyone over to my side by screaming at them. Everyone here is welcome, and I’m just here to teach but only if that person wants to let me in. If someone comes in here asking for a hot dog, I’m not going to be able to convince them to sit down and eat an oyster mushroom and cashew sauce. When there is space to teach, we teach, but you have to know when it’s the right moment.

But you are pretty orthodox when it comes to the food you prepare.

This is an open kitchen. Everything is completely transparent. We can’t fake it. A business person would probably come in here and be like, "What the fuck? You steep the sunflower seeds before throwing them into a dehydrator and pay 20 times more in electricity. Why? Because it’s cleaner? Because it has less enzymatic properties? Go fuck yourself." You have to be a little crazy. If you are fighting for ideals and ethics and a food revolution, you have to set a lot of stuff aside. Most vegan restaurants don’t work that way because there are competing interests.

Speaking of revolution, I really admire the way the restaurant is run. You can feel how much each member of the team is valued. Did you set out to do that?

I was in a very emotionally unstable place when I opened Donnet. I wanted to get away from all the horrible experiences I had in the kitchen, but I had internalized it all. It was like it had all rotted inside of me. That bald asshole that treated me like shit was who I had become. So I had to make a decision: be a piece of shit or make that change in myself.

What were the changes you made?

I started to work on myself, stopped bullying, listened to people and put myself in other people’s shoes. Bosses don’t do that. It’s work, work, work. Everyone is better than you… there are 500 other cooks that could do your job better. Bosses put fear into you. How are you supposed to make good food when you are cooking with fear?

What does that new relationship look like?

I feel like I’m in a relationship with 10 different people. A lot of it is just putting myself in their shoes. Fewer hours. More flexibility. They want to take a night off or switch a shift to go to the movies or take a nap? Sure. Take your time for you. We all do yoga once a week together. It’s important to me that we take care of our bodies. Service is physically exhausting, and if we don’t, we won’t be able to stand in 10 years.

Do you see it as a boss–employee kind of relationship then?

Sure, I’m the boss. I pay the salaries. I have money invested here. Technically, I have more to gain. But I try to set that all aside. Today we bought a second oven. That wasn’t my decision. When there is extra cash, we sit down and talk about what we should buy. We have kitchen meetings and staff meetings each week and individual meetings once a month, and we talk. You’re frustrated? You’re inspired? Tell me. What do you want here? What role do you want to play in this kitchen? What are your strengths? Let’s do it together. It’s not like, "You over there, chop 10 pounds of potatoes and shut up."

How does that influence the restaurant?

We share this sense of ownership. I get messages at 2 a.m. that are like, "Fuck, I forgot to put the cilantro in the fridge." They really care. We are all in it together. We all have a common mission. It’s a healthy team, and when we are all happy, we cook better, and we can take care of our guests better.

How did you get from one point to the other?

This is a dish with no recipe. No one taught us how to do this. I have no clue what I’m doing. I am in control of nothing, and it’s actually kind of nice. When you realize that you do not and cannot control everything, you move a lot more freely.

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