Juan Santa Cruz was working in private equity for the Exxel Group in Buenos Aires in 2001 when economic crisis in Argentina forced him to reassess his career path.
"I had been living in this whirlwind of deals and adrenalin, and I was quite good at it, but I realized it wasn’t really my true passion," he says in an interview at Casa Cruz, the bar and restaurant he opened this month in London's Notting Hill.
Born in Chile, raised in Uruguay, and schooled in Switzerland, he'd gone directly into banking from university in Boston. He joined Bankers Trust, working on Latin American leveraged buyouts, before making the move to Exxel in Argentina.
His first restaurant, Casa Cruz in Buenos Aures, was a glamorous spot for beautiful people. It opened in 2004, to be followed by a bar called Isabel and by Aldo's. It was at this stage he decided he might be able to replicate his success internationally.
"I couldn’t really grow much more at the level that I wanted to," he says. "The market is very small. So I knew I needed to make a move to a bigger pond. But I didn’t want to make a mistake. I wanted to choose the best possible pond.
"I started going to New York, exploring the possibility of moving there. But everyone was talking about London as the next frontier for restaurants and hotels and design. And I thought, I'm just going to shortcut this entire situation and go direct to London, and I came here and immediately saw what they meant.
"It's the energy, the possibilities, the geographical location, the optimism, the desire to do things, very high-quality level, and the internationalism. And so many interesting people going through the city. And if you want to expand from here, it's really easy, whether to America, the Middle East, the Far East."
London's Casa Cruz is housed over two floors in a beautiful building that is more than a century old. Over the years, it has been home to the Britannia pub and a restaurant called the Clarendon. It was the site of chef Antony Worrall Thompson's Notting Grill.
Santa Cruz is a designer, and the interior is now a striking mix of colors and textures, with mahogany and copper wall panels, a glass wine cellar, and a mirrored staircase that takes you up to an open terrace. That is the place to sit on a summer's day.
The menu is a regular mix of steaks and fish along with several vegetarian options. Santa Cruz says vegetable dishes are the only ones he's had trouble finding when he dines out in London.
Is he planning to open more restaurants now that Casa Cruz is ready?
"Absolutely," he says, and laughs. "I didn’t come all the way here from Argentina to do just one."
Casa Cruz London is at 123 Clarendon Road, London, W11 4JG; +44-20-3321; +44-20-3321-5400 or http://www.casacruz.london/.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.
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